5 tips for building virtual communities

Apr 6, 2021 | Development

Development programmes can be rich spaces for building virtual communities, explains Dr Khairunnisa Mohamedali from The Smarty Train

Just over a year ago, many organisations were forced, with little notice or preparation, to switch to remote working. The focus at the time had to be ensuring people were able to do their jobs from home. One year on, we can begin to see the impact this shift is having.

Our workplace communities have taken a hit: 31% of people feel less connected to their leaders, while 37% feel less connected to their teammates. Yet we know community building at work matters: people who feel a sense of belonging at work are at least five times more likely to be engaged.

Our current social disconnection also has negative implications for learning: 91% of L&D leaders agree teams that learn new skills together are more successful. However, learning also offers a pathway into a solution: 92% of L&D leaders agree that shared learning helps foster a sense of belonging.

This means student development programmes can be rich spaces for building virtual communities, but we need to think like national builders instead of programme designers.


Think like nation builders

Nations are the perfect example of ‘feeling together when we’re apart’ because we will never in a lifetime meet everyone who shares the same nation as us. Yet, for example, if you’re British travelling in another country and you meet another person from the UK, you’ll feel connected to them. You might strike a conversation, have a drink and feel you share something. Even though you’re effectively strangers.

That’s because there are important things we share with people from the same nation as us that create a sense of community whether or not we ever meet these folks in person. And sharing these needn’t be done face-to-face.

We’ve drawn from the principles of nation building to offer five tips on how you can build those important things that make up a nation into virtual or hybrid development programmes.


1. Create collective experiences

Anthropologists use ‘communitas’ to refer to moments of intense social togetherness and belonging. For example, singing our favourite song at a concert with 5,000 people or being part of a chorus of cheers when our team scores a goal. It’s the power of shared experiences. Studies have found our brainwaves sync up when we’re in an audience listening to the same story, in a group learning the same thing or simply having a conversation about something we share. Create communitas in your development programme by:

  • Inspiring the collective: Don’t just make people feel like they have a network, make them feel like they’re part of movement
  • Designing for familiarity: Design every touchpoint in your programme to feel familiar somehow, so you’re constantly building moments, experiences and memories people can connect through
  • Making the first moment count: The induction into your programme will set the tone for everything to come, and anchor people’s expectations.


2. Develop shared language and symbols

From emojis to ‘omnishambles’, elbow bumps to dabbing and branded swag to newspaper headlines, shared language and symbols give us shortcuts for communicating, sharing and connecting. Shared symbols are at the root of our ability to form complex communities. Newspapers and magazines, for example, helped us form today’s modern nations – we all read the same headlines, see the same news, and share in the same language with people we’re unlikely to meet in person. Develop shared language in your development programme by:

  • Thinking visually: Develop a distinct look and feel for your programme, so people immediately recognise it and feel a part of it
  • Creating physical artefacts: Physical artefacts can feel like a luxury, especially today – but they can be powerful in helping people feel together even through they’re apart. Consider a swag bag.
  • Enabling: Consider what tools you can put in place to give people the autonomy to create a shared language of their own. For example using Yammer or Slack.


3. Create meaningful rituals

Anthropologists define rituals as repeated behaviours that are imbued with meaning. Think of preparing a holiday meal. You aren’t just roasting a joint and some starch. You’re preparing a shared meal steeped in symbolism and meaning—family, country, love, nourishment, etc. Create rituals in your development programme by:

  • Designing for consistency: Design consistent touchpoints that bring people together to do the same thing.
  • Uniting different groups: Create opportunities for people from different geographies or functions to connect during those consistent touchpoints; this will bring together people who might not otherwise work together to connect through shared rituals.
  • Creating anticipatory touchpoints: Use communications to create excitement and anticipation. For example, invest in the invites you send to skills sessions to create a sense of occasion and meaning around learning.


4. Embed constructive competition

Competition gives us a shortcut to creating strong in- and out-group behaviours. A strong sense of belonging with our ‘in-group’ allowed us to survive as small bands of humans who had to survive harsh conditions by uniting us around a shared goal. Apply the same principle by creating groups that compete in the pursuit of a shared goal (winning rather than surviving!). Competition should unify without being divisive. Embed constructive competition in your development programme by:

  • Gamification: This can be key for constructive competition as it taps into our natural ability to learn through play.
  • Creating psychological safety: For people to feel like it’s okay to compete with one another, create psychological safety so that people feel like they can fail without it having a negative impact on how others perceive them.
  • Rotating between large and small: Get people interchangeably interacting with large and small groups. Connecting with a few people intimately will give participants a greater feeling of connection within the larger cohort.


5. Create clarity of purpose

Shared purpose aligns people toward an aim. It gives them a set of values they can use to establish norms, both of which are important building blocks for community. Through this, it builds a sense of belonging. Anchor your development programme in purpose by:

  • Making it clear: A clear purpose inspires individuals to do their part in a shared goal, creating a sense of togetherness—even when individual paths to achieving that goal look different.
  • Referencing it consistently: Remind people why they are doing what they’re doing through communications, during skills sessions etc.
  • Making it inspirational: An exceptional purpose inspires and drives people to want to walk the path to achievement and success.

Want to see these tips in practice in Sky’s Development Programme? Watch the ISE’s Student Development Conference 2021


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