14th May 2020
3 Min Read

Remote communities: How to build new bonds online

Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart
IC & Engagement

When we were sitting together in our meeting rooms discussing the ‘loneliness epidemic’ at the tail end of 2019, little did we know that the language was about to feel uncomfortable – but the phenomenon was set to skyrocket.

TotalJobs’ ongoing survey of feelings around working from home during lockdown is currently reporting a slight decrease in feelings of loneliness (except among Baby Boomers, where it’s on the rise). But although the slope is heading downwards, it’s significant – and worrying – that around half of those surveyed said they’re feeling lonely.

‘Just checking in’

Clearly lots of us are concerned about it, even if we haven’t articulated that concern. As thousands of people have adjusted to working remotely, we’re feeling compelled to get in touch with our teams more often. The Totaljobs survey also showed that 81% of UK workers are making more of an effort to reach out to their colleagues. And when we asked our community, we saw the same story.

Maintaining our workplace friendships has never seemed so important. When ‘out of sight, out of mind’ could prove damaging to those relationships, building bonds takes on heightened importance.

So, what can we do about it? How can we recreate the richness of in-person interaction in a digital space? Can we even begin to replace colleague banter, lunchtime sandwich runs and watercooler chats? Is it possible to counter the potentially damaging effects of our days being dominated by unremitting productivity?

A living experiment

Week by week, since the beginning of lockdown, we’ve been living the solutions. We’ve begun to build our online communities. And we’ve seen different tools and platforms flourish in the biggest use-case experiment we’ve ever seen.

I’ve long believed that internal communications needs to move away from broadcast and towards the facilitation of communities, whether they’re project, social or purpose-based.

It’s clear many of us will be working from home for some time yet – and we may never again return to so many bums on seats in our offices. So giving people the platforms to build these online communities will not only help to counter feelings of loneliness, it will lay the foundation for more cohesive business cultures, productivity and wellbeing in the future.

Your organisation might already use a platform such as Yammer, or an intranet with social functionality. Exploring the full range of features you’ve already got access to may be all you need to start building these online communities more strategically.

Perhaps your business had been planning to invest in a platform like this, but simply battling through the day-to-day demands of lockdown has pushed it to the bottom of the agenda?

This crisis has shown just how important it is to feel connected to our colleagues. As we move into new phases of our working world, wellbeing is at the forefront of leaders’ minds. And now is the time to build your business case for investing in the community-driven online platforms that can support your organisation and its people.

Let’s take a whistle-stop tour of the leading candidates and highlight their strengths.

Video conference platforms: Zoom, Teams, Workplace messenger, WhatsApp, Skype

Now a staple image of our social media feeds, from pub quizzes to international conferences, multiple faces tile the screens of our virtual get-togethers.

Video conferencing has proven a popular tool for organisations to replicate the events, team huddles and socials that remote working could have thwarted. it’s not without issue, as we’ve seen with Zoom, but there are definite social benefits.

While video conferencing can’t replace in-person interaction, it’s a visual substitute for face-to-face that can help us spot important visual cues about our colleagues’ wellbeing.

Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs): Workplace, Yammer, Jive, Staffbase

A place where interest groups can flourish, ESNs have endless possibility to bring people together on shared topics, from running or gaming, to activities for the kids and movie recommendations.

Facilitating spaces for diverse groups in your organisation to connect can build a deeper sense of teamship that will last long after the COVID crisis.

Direct messengers: WhatsApp, Kaizala, Workplace Messenger

Messaging platforms are where many of us feel comfortable sharing quick updates, silly memes or how we’re feeling. Cultivate smaller groups based on specific topics too, as large ones can create a lot of noise. And be sure to communicate that it’s ok for people to join and leave these groups as they see fit. Permission to engage, or not, is important if you want colleagues to feel comfortable in these spaces.

News apps: Poppulo Mobile, Jive, Workplace

While these platforms are predominantly for IC to ‘get the message out’, the dialogue and community that forms around these stories can add just as much, if not more value, to the engagement. Questions in comments or helpful signposting of resources ‘underneath’ these articles can add huge insights, and support understanding of original message. Peer sharing means stories are more likely to be read and engaged with, too.

Where are the gaps in your communities? With every organisation demanding unique solutions, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to building bonds online. But whether you simply need to explore what your incumbent channels can do for you, or you need to introduce new platforms and approaches, you need to get clear first – and soon – about your desired outcomes. Don’t just throw money at the situation without first taking a long look at how your communication strategies need to flex and grow in a world that’s changed immeasurably.

Get in touch if you'd like to explore your options, or take a look at some of the digital transformation projects we've delivered to help our clients stay connected.

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