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How to create a strong community in your organization

Companies are often laser-focused on building their culture to attract and retain talent — a fun work environment with happy hours, foosball tables and kegerators. 

But these activities and amenities don’t by themselves build community in the workplace, nor are they what people really want in a workplace.

In truth, culture is usually more about the company itself, something employees inherit and are expected to follow. Community, on the other hand, is the result of a more inclusive effort to help everyone feel connected, both to each other and to the company. 

Now that COVID-19 has changed our work culture in ways we never anticipated, perhaps permanently, creating community in the workplace has become that much more of a challenge — and that much more of a conversation.

Below you’ll find information on:

The benefits of a building community at the office

From fostering connections between colleagues to building team trust and an organizational mission, the benefits of building a strong community in your workplace touch every facet of the employee experience.

Claudia Fry, VP of People at FiveStars, tells that a strong community is one “that allows employees to feel a sense of belonging, that they're part of something larger than themselves, which gives meaning to their work and their lives as a whole.”

HBR reports that “when people feel like they belong at work, they are more productive, motivated, engaged and 3.5 times more likely to contribute to their fullest potential.”

Here are three key benefits to building a strong community in your business:

1. It minimizes feelings of loneliness and isolation.

In its 2020 Loneliness and the Workplace Report, Cigna found a staggering 61% of Americans report feeling lonely (up from 54% in 2018). Feelings of loneliness and isolation can lead to all sorts of troubling mental health outcomes, including anxiety and depression.

And while loneliness was already a pervasive issue in the workplace, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has showcased how events outside the office can wreak havoc on our collective mental health.

But thoughtful community-building can help. In fact, the same study from Cigna shows that people who report having good relationships with their coworkers are significantly less lonely than those who don’t, highlighting the importance of community at work.

2. It creates better work output. 

When people share in common goals at an organization, and when they have a voice in what those values are, they tend to be much more motivated. This sense of connection drives higher engagement, increased productivity and greater success.

Further, when employees feel connected to each other and focused on shared values and goals, collaboration comes much more naturally.

What’s more, the Cigna study reports that 12% of workers who identify as “lonely” believe their work is lower quality than it should be. The antidote? Building meaningful connections with colleagues and highlighting how individual work plays into the larger organizational mission.

3. It makes for happier employees.

According to a 2019 study we conducted of 1,000+ U.S. office workers, 55% of employees say they enjoy going to the office for social activity. Younger professionals, in particular, crave the chance to network and create relationships: 67% of Generation Z and 59% of Millennial workers say they enjoy in-office events and utilizing communal spaces.

According to the Harvard Business Review, employees that foster connections with their colleagues report higher levels of productivity, retention and job satisfaction than those who don’t. In the same study, researchers found that happier employees are more likely to stay at an organization, increasing retention and reducing attrition.

Cigna’s data backs this up: Employees who say they have colleagues they like eating lunch with are less lonely, and people who feel that they have a “best friend” or good friend at work are almost six points less lonely than those who don’t.


How to develop (and foster) community in your organization

To get a sense of some of the best ways to develop a strong community, we spoke with Leigh Ridge, the Chief of Staff at an Austin, TX-based nonprofit and a seasoned veteran of building community and culture.

She highlighted three key ways to build and foster community in any organization:

1. Get centered around the mission

One of the cornerstones of building any community starts with identifying an organizational mission — and centering everything around it. This mission can be developed collaboratively with multiple individuals and teams coming together to mark out an overarching vision for the organization.

But the most important part is to make sure every employee knows how their work supports the larger mission — and vision — of the company. If you also have the chance to develop community ground rules, organizational values and workday expectations, make sure this is also a collaborative process.

Bring this mindset to your hiring practices, too. Make no mistake: You should always hire the right person for the right job. But you should also weave your organizational mission and corporate values into interviews, seeking to understand who a candidate is and what they value.

2. Invest in communication

Communicate, communicate, communicate — and communicate some more. According to Ridge, organizational communication is the most fundamental step to building community in the workplace. Your team needs to hear from their leaders, their colleagues and other departments frequently and with transparency, even if the update is, “there is no update.”

You also need to be intentional about communicating regularly, especially in a virtual environment. One way to do this is to make space for informal conversations, ensure 1:1 meetings are happening regularly (and not viewed as something that can be easily canceled) make sure managers are available to their teams and open to mentoring individuals.

3. Don’t forget to celebrate

Whether it's a birthday or someone finishing a project or hitting a KPI, take time each week to celebrate your team members and create space where they can celebrate each other. According to Leigh, even the smallest victory can prove to be a positive bonding experience, helping bring people together outside of work — if only for a moment or two.

How to develop and maintain community when employees work remotely

Let’s face it: It’s traditionally easier to build community in person. In a survey of 1,600+ U.S. and U.K office workers, 38% of respondents told us what they miss most about the office during COVID-19 is random interactions with colleagues.

There’s no way around it: Chance encounters with colleagues are hard to replicate online. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to build community even when employees work remotely.

In fact, the need to do so has become even more pressing.

In a recent survey, the insurance company Prudential found that 55% of Americans currently working remotely feel less connected to their company as a result of COVID-19 teleworking policies.

Here are a few practical ways to develop and maintain community when employees work remotely:

1. Host lunch calls and programming sessions

First, a quick note: Eating lunch in a conference room meeting feels normal, but eating lunch in front of a web camera during a meeting can feel a little strange. No worries — keep your camera off, if you feel like it. Setting up a video call over lunch offers myriad opportunities to connect with colleagues around work topics — and more casual topics, too. “Lunch and Learn” programming sessions are one popular option, but you can also hold space for informal chats based on a loose topic.

2. Stay connected with a chat application

Slack, Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business… there are a number of chat applications out there that are great workday tools — and fantastic ways to build community with your colleagues. On Slack and Microsoft Teams, you can create distinct channels for community-focused conversations. At Hana, we have channels dedicated to parenting, recipe sharing and TV recommendations (plus, a soon-to-be jumping Instant Pot recipe channel).

3. Start a book club and share music

At Hana, we built an informal book club to get people across different teams together to discuss something unrelated to work, and we also started a Hana radio station where we can share the top tracks that are keeping us motivated. These have proven to be great ways to keep people engaged ­and connected.

4. Hold virtual happy hours

Even though your favorite watering hole is probably closed for the foreseeable future, the happy hour hasn’t necessarily disappeared.  Set up a recurring Zoom meeting that is dedicated to chatting about things work related — and non-work related. At Hana, our executive team leads several virtual happy hours a month to give people a chance to connect and talk outside of the 9-to-5 workday.

Best practices to build community in your company

We’ve shown you how improving community practices at your organization can boost morale, drive productivity and help you attract and retain top talent.

But building a community isn’t just a one-and-done exercise. It takes continual effort.

Leigh Ridge, the non-profit leader, offered up a few best practices for organization looking to improve and maintain their workplace culture and community: 

  1. Listen to your team: Ask them what they want and need and how they want to build community and connect.

  2. Build relationships: Make a real effort to get to know your team personally and facilitate opportunities for the whole team to get to know each other. Teams that know each other well work far better together, according to research (and common sense).

  3. Be consistent: Consistency is essential when building and maintaining corporate culture and community. Whether it’s holding weekly all hands with leadership or making sure everyone’s communicating with one another, try to build internal structures to ensure you’re always able to point back to your organizational mission and values.


The bottom line

In order to thrive, professionally and otherwise, human beings need to feel connected — connected to our colleagues and, even more importantly, to the vision and purpose of the organizations for whom we work.

Creating a strong culture and community in the workplace — whether in-person or virtually — are key ingredients to the long-term success of any organization. When employees feel engaged and like they belong, they are less lonely, happier, more productive and loyal.

Learn more about the importance people place on meaningful connection at the office in our latest report, COVID-19 is accelerating the demand for flexibility and meaningful connection. 

Jun 18 2020

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