Building Communities in Times of Isolation

June 8, 2020
Miriam Wardak & Dr. Andrea Little Limbago

 COVID19 has turned “social distancing” and “working from home” into household phrases.

This pandemic has changed millions of lives, relationships, and individual engagements. It has also significantly changed workplace interactions. In 2018, only 3% of the workforce worked remotely over half the time. Compare that to today, where three quarters of organizations have 75% of their workforce working remotely the majority of their time, and that number is expected to rise.

As economies reopen, it is increasingly clear that a distributed workforce is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Companies are staggering days in the office and ensuring there are fewer people in the same area to help safeguard the safety of their employees. This raises several core challenges: how can companies retain engagement during times of social isolation and increasing unrest? How does one build rapport with other colleagues? Develop trust? Establish a common culture?

Resilient companies emerge during crises. Leaders that foster a distinct culture of caring and support for their team members create a sense of community that is especially important during challenging times.  At Interos, our culture and community building remain an imperative component of our pandemic planning and our response to growing unease. Although community engagement is now more difficult, it is still not only possible but is imperative to overcome the inevitable feelings of isolation during the pandemic.

The Importance of Community

As companies transformed into distributed workplaces, individuals simultaneously lost both workplace and personal interactions. The Great Lockdown has disrupted communities, both within the workplace, as well as professional and personal communities.  Many of us are part of professional societies, presented on in-person panels and attended conferences, and cultivated a persona in groups with common goals and mission. Now, we are meeting on-line, connecting via WhatsApp, Skype and other technologies that allow for moments of connectivity.

Unfortunately, technology alone can’t solve the problem. From “Zoom fatigue” to longer workdays and more time spent in meetings, the human element is too often missing from pandemic response plans. Daniel Coyle summarizes this best by noting, “One misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted places. This is mostly not the case. They are energized and engaged, but at their core their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together.”

Resilient communities that solve hard problems together also build collaborative environments and effectively battle isolation. Friendships and social interactions are fundamental to well-being, but it often requires leadership to purposefully build a workplace culture that encourages these interactions and community building. To help foster engagement and human connectivity, some civic-minded cities are having community-engagement events and giving out grants to those entities fostering community during a time of isolation. At Interos, building and maintaining a sense of community have been foundational to our culture. COVID-19 has only further entrenched this commitment, while sparking some creativity as well.

Social Distancing not Social Isolation

As an extremely fast-growing company, our team continues to expand quickly during the pandemic. Many of our newly hired colleagues have never met other team members in person and have never physically attended an all-hands meeting or joined a company lunch. Leaders who were hired to guide their teams to success did not meet their team members in person before they were forced to work remotely.

Community is more important than ever, and there was no choice but to successfully create a collaborative — yet virtual — community for our workforce to counteract the lack of in-person relationship building and growing national stress. We built our internal community slowly and with care knowing that it is a starting point, a work-in-progress that will go through multiple iterations. Just as our business is to analyze and surface business relationships and look for risk across a range of factors, we placed a similar degree of focus on building and protecting the connectivity between employees and their communities, while keeping an eye out to mitigate challenges and risks that inevitably arise.

Culture is not just about having fun and enjoying each other’s company but about working through the challenges together and going through these challenging times while remaining resilient. To combat isolation and try to alleviate the sense of frustration and helplessness many are feeling during these turbulent times, we have virtual happy hours that integrate families and pets, book club discussions and paint nights. These create valuable non-work shared experiences and pave the way for meaningful dialogues amongst our teams on important issues.

We also are sharing and attending together virtual events from our own disciplines – such as data science for supply chains and women in tech conferences.

Importantly, all of this additional screen time is ‘opt in’. But they are also accompanied with semi-weekly leadership updates, technology briefings, and manager check-ins for our well-being. Leadership roundtables share ideas on what to do to take care of each other, our teams, and how to move the company through this “new normal.” We also have allocated resources to ensure our employees have the technology to succeed. Stipends to help with internet connectivity or a second monitor are a few examples of how we can further support our team.

For each of us, our professional communities are also extremely important and we highly recommend connecting with industry groups external to your company. Whether it is happy hours with colleagues that we used to see at conferences, or joining virtual meetups and expert discussions, there are endless opportunities to remain engaged in your industry and continue to develop professionally while building a community.

Of course, we all look forward to in-person, human connections. We might even be a little bit excited to return to the office. But until then, community building and engagement are fundamental to offset the sense of isolation that inevitably emerges during such a challenging time. With some creativity and a human touch, we can get through this time together and stronger than ever.

To learn more about Interos and our commitment to our employees, visit our careers page.

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