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Cultivating Communities


Illustration of business colleagues working in community group
Image: bestpixels -
Most of my writing on the connected workspace here has focused on how space can support individual employees or others working for an organization. This includes the way functional groups use their workspace, since functional employees generally work on their own, concentrating on their individual objectives.
However, people increasingly work in a genuinely collaborative way too. In my last article, I described how Agile and other cross-functional teams, working horizontally across the organization, need each team member to focus mainly on the overall team objectives, subordinating their own roles to the needs of the whole. Therefore, these teams need a workspace that supports the needs of the team rather than just the needs of individuals.
People work together in other ways as well. One important opportunity lies in communities.
The Role of Communities
Communities form through people who have a passion for a particular area or domain coming together to work on that domain. Traditionally, organizations have supported communities of interest or practice, but communities are now developing into what I call “communities of performance” — groups of people who, by working together on something they wish to focus on, create significant and valuable benefits for their organization, too.
This differentiates communities from functions, as well as from cross-functional teams. In these other groups, an organization brings together people to undertake a relatively fixed amount of work that needs to be done. These groups are about the work to be undertaken by people, not the people who can undertake the work. Communities can undertake work too, but they prioritize the people in the communities as the basis for doing this. Agile teams are a little more like communities, as these groups identify their own work, but once they have done this, it is still the work that predominates.
An example of a community of performance is a community of excellence. This is a group replacing a center of excellence within IT, real estate/facilities, HR, or another enabling group (often, though not necessarily, a function). These communities are less exclusive than centers, incorporating not just specialists but other employees from within the broader discipline or from the rest of the organization, as well as potentially from outside the organization — for example, consultants and contractors.
Requirements For and Benefits of Communities
All these communities develop through the cultivation of relationships, as it is when most people know most other people in the community, and enjoy spending time with each other, that the ability to develop work together arises.
Relationships benefit from a personal touch, which has obviously been more difficult to establish during the pandemic. In addition, most people have understandably prioritized essential communication while working remotely — generally meaning that they have concentrated on spending time with other people in their function or cross-functional team.
Therefore, many communities have suffered over the last year. Even online communities, based solely on digital technologies without a history of face-to-face communication, have often lost focus. At the same time, many communities have grown and developed. This includes employee resource groups supporting minority populations. Some organizations have also established similar groups helping people experiencing common issues due to the pandemic — for example, parents providing home-schooling. Supporting this, The Community Roundtable, a community benchmarking firm, reported that approximately the same proportion of online communities accelerated their plans due to COVID-19 as have had their progress stall.
The pandemic has also highlighted the potential benefits of community. For example, in the U.K., where I live, about one million people volunteered to support our National Health Service or local centers during 2020. They did this because they cared about the cause — helping people through the pandemic — and wanted to work with other people to respond to this need. Communities allow organizations to capture some of this intrinsic motivation and use it to benefit their results.
Community Workspaces
As a result of the above needs and opportunities, communities have different workspace needs to individuals working in functions and to cross-functional teams. Community workspaces need to help people do work together, but more importantly than this, they need to help people get to know and maintain intimacy with each other. (The term workspaces may therefore actually be rather unhelpful for these more people-oriented sites.)
For example, the community-focused digital workspace will benefit from enabling people to share drawings, photos, videos, and playlists; to tell stories; and to communicate in a way that is personal to them and feels human. This might include tools like Toucan, discussed recently on WorkSpace Connect, virtual and augmented reality as well as immersive environments like Virbela, and other visual systems that help create a sense of social connectedness, like Knock. The use of AI can come into play, as well, to help people find and connect with people who might have similar personal interests (not just expertise, which might be the requirement for functional groups and teams).
In terms of social platforms, because of its heritage supporting social connection outside of organizations, Workplace from Facebook is more likely to enable relationship-based communities than Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Google Workspace.
The common difficulty with fostering a community-focused digital workspace is that few organizations operate solely by communities but will tend to place these sitting on top of functions and particularly cross-functional teams. Therefore, organizations will often have to make trade-offs between the different needs of the various groups. This might mean using a main platform that is most suitable for teams, but also providing apps or separate but integrated systems for providing a more human home for community usage.
The community-focused physical workspace also needs to concentrate on creating a sense of humanity rather than emphasising work. For many organizations, this might be about providing a friendly and comfortable coffee shop type of environment, of course with seating being adequately spaced.
However, the increasing opportunity is also to allow employees to find this type of environment outside of the organization’s facilities — for example, in a hotel reception or a real coffee shop. Some communities may also choose to meet in a cultural venue, at a sports facility, or in a park or the countryside, etc. These environments may enable people to connect and relate even better than a comfortable space in the office.
Community workspaces can also be extended to include others, particularly pets, partners, and families, who are important to community members. For example, while still living in the U.K., Richard Branson used to open up his house for an annual garden party for all Virgin staff; this was a wonderful way of creating connections across employees’ families, strengthening the relationships among employees themselves.
HR also has an important role in creating a connected workspace for communities. This includes helping create the required close, bonded relationships. An important part of doing this is creating an environment where people can find the time and space and see the top-level sponsorship for them to spend time connecting and working within communities, even if this does not have a direct link to the bottom line.
Also, while monetary reward tends not to work that well in communities, since this can crowd out the required intrinsic motivation, recognition programs can be very useful. However, discretionary cash awards can be helpful for funding projects, within or outside of an organization, that a community feels are important.
HR also can link benefits to community level. For example, wellbeing funding could be directed at groups of people wanting to participate in the same activity, and again, this could be extended to family members, too.
Communities are important and often provide a relatively untapped opportunity for organizations. Those organizations supporting communities should ensure that their digital and physical workspaces enable the effective cultivation of communities rather than just the collaboration of teams, and the relatively independent work completed by people operating within functions. As with these other groups, community cultivation will be supported by ensuring the connected workspace meets the needs of communities, too.