Digital & Technology
WHERE IC PROFESSIONALS COME TO TALK

BUILDING ONLINE COMMUNITIES ON COMMON GROUND

Digital communities are a great way for colleagues at work to connect, collaborate, discuss viewpoints and share information. Whether they’re  strictly professional, strictly social or somewhere in between, when given the opportunity to thrive, these online groups can mobilise employees and help interpersonal relationships grow.

WORDS: ISABEL OVERTON

5th July 2021

Throughout our working days, we create communities with the people we interact with, bringing together colleagues with a shared purpose. Taking place in the form of meetings, social group chats and grassroots networks, these groups are a vital part of everyday working life.

Creating a space online for these groups – whether a dedicated area on your intranet, an enterprise social network, such as Yammer or Workplace by Facebook, or a standalone discussion forum – can help them to grow and increase their impact and value, as long as that space is delivered in the right way.

According to Carrie Basham Marshall, digital workplace and employee engagement adviser at enterprise communications consultancy Talk Social to Me, internal communicators should consider the information and communication needs of their colleagues before launching a community platform.

“Understanding the communication habits that exist in your organisation will make the adoption of a new platform or tool much more meaningful and ensure you’re filling a gap, rather than crowding an already catered-for space,” says Carrie.

“Not every organisation is ready for an official communities platform, and even those that are may only require a handful of groups to be established.”


Different varieties of community

Next, you’ll want to consider what formats your communities should take.

At the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), communities can be found on multiple platforms. The ICRC has 306 intranet-based communities – accessible to all employees; hundreds of unofficial WhatsApp groups – commonly used by individual teams; and several groups on Facebook.

“There are pros and cons to them all,” says Ernesto Izquierdo, the ICRC’s global community manager.

“The intranet communities – what we refer to as our ‘internal’ communities – offer transparency and enable people to connect with colleagues they may not otherwise interact with. The challenge is making sure the space remains easy to navigate and that colleagues feel safe to create content.

“On WhatsApp, people can create communities instantly, most people know how to use it and they can access it from anywhere. It’s not an official communities channel, however, so we’re looking at how to shift these groups to a safer platform. People use it as it suits their needs well, so for now it’s our role to continue to make colleagues aware of internal guidelines, in particular on issues of data protection and security, as this is something we are very conscious about.

“Finally, Facebook is great for sharing knowledge as well as having more casual discussions, and, like WhatsApp, lots of people are familiar with the platform. We can’t control what goes into the groups and who gets invited, which comes with its own risks.

“Whether you stick to one platform or cover multiple, just make sure you’ve considered the benefits and drawbacks of each, and that you’re aware of their existence.”


An organic approach

All communities should have a dedicated community manager to run the group and stimulate discussions and conversations – and this doesn’t need to be someone from IC.

At Virgin Atlantic, the overwhelming majority of communities are purposefully built from the ground up. “We don’t have an approval process when it comes to setting up groups,” says Steve Clarke, head of editorial at Virgin Atlantic. “Colleagues have the autonomy to start groups, invite people and build.

“We provide guidance to steer people in the right direction. This clear one-page document lists good reasons for launching communities and how to do it successfully. We encourage community managers to have a clear purpose, consider who they invite or make the group available to, and engage with and contribute to discussions.

“Some organisations may choose a stricter approval process or want select teams to create communities – at VA, we have set up a few help groups and an all-company news group ourselves – but there’s a risk that if you take too hard of a top-down approach, people may adopt the mindset that you own all of the groups and the content in them, and this will alter how they engage with them.

“It can be more beneficial to simply monitor groups from afar.”

Carrie agrees: “Top-down communities can be very important and informative, but the biggest drawback is that they can quickly mirror other communications channels, like newsletters or blogs. Communities aren’t supposed to be replicas of other channels. IC needs to be ready to listen and ask questions in any community it creates so that it complements other forms of communication.”

Employees are likely to already be overwhelmed with communications, and a new community without a clear, purposeful objective can become a graveyard.
“It’s important for IC and community managers to ensure that the topics being discussed within communities are relevant to employees and that, as conversations flow, the ideas and concerns that arise are responded to and truly heard,” says Carrie.

“Real community engagement is about dialogue and, as such, communities must be managed with as much, if not more, care than a one-way platform.”


Cream of the crop

Communities are created to fulfil specific roles and, when these are realised, they can improve productivity, boost culture and create a better employee experience. For big companies, companies with a hybrid workforce or those spread across different regional locations, they can also be a lifeline for collaboration.

With around 50 different business units, ICRC’s workforce uses communities to work seamlessly across silos. “Mobilising multiple units is often essential in order to get work done,” explains Ernesto, “and having our communities platform makes this much easier.

“Our Detention Community, focusing on work for humane conditions in prisons, was set up to bring together colleagues who handle health, water, sanitation and economic assistance, etc, allowing teams to stay updated on each other’s work and ensuring they’re meeting the needs of those we provide aid to.

“For others, it’s a highly convenient way to share knowledge, best practices and information. We have 150 project managers, and a dedicated community allows them to post questions and answers and discuss ideas that lots of people benefit from and can replicate.

“Other benefits are that communities enable our colleagues to co-build the change we want in our organisation. Colleagues are encouraged to share personal stories, ask questions and get feedback.”
 Communities are also a great way to publicise important conversations.

Ernesto’s colleague, internal communication officer Rebeca Lucía Galindo, says: “Communities allow us to bring important conversations into the fore and open them up for people to see and contribute to.

“Diversity and inclusion are priorities for the ICRC. By bringing that into our communities and having the conversations in an open space, it reinforces our accountability and transparency.

“We also have communities that enable our staff to propose and vote on ideas to improve our processes, tools and how we work and, in addition, we ask relevant units to take employees’ voices into account for the design of their policies.”

Practical and professional groups will always make up the majority of your communities, but it’s also important to allow employees to suggest, set up and engage with social groups too.

Tony Stewart, head of digital at scarlettabbott, says: “Being able to connect with colleagues for purposes other than work – for example, to share Netflix recommendations, recipes or home-schooling tips – is so important for wellbeing and for strengthening interpersonal relationships.

“Not only does it allow colleagues relief from work stresses, but it also offers a natural opportunity to build connections with people you wouldn’t normally speak to. This is good for organisational culture and for networking, as colleagues may build connections in other departments that could prove useful for work.”

Carrie agrees that social communities are more than just “nice-to-haves”, adding: “Many organisations fear that strictly ‘social’ groups are a waste of time, but we’ve found this isn’t true.

“Social communities can actually act as a bridge towards more productive communities designed for work purposes. They’re more casual, so they may give hesitant employees a chance to explore being part of and engaging in a community before taking the leap into work-related groups.”


Setting up boundaries

No matter what the aim of the community, it needs to be a safe space for those participating.

“People will not engage in communities unless they feel safe to do so,” says Tony. “This means not being judged for making mistakes or worrying that your CEO will criticise the silly cat photo you post.

“Establish a baseline of safety across all digital communities by making clear important rules of engagement, using phrases like, ‘It’s OK to do this.’

“If there’s mystery around something, people will default to assuming it’s not allowed, so you should encourage community managers to demonstrate what healthy conversations and engagement look like, for example through using humour, or opening up a respectful dialogue about important topics, where and when relevant.”


Down to earth

The degree to which leaders are involved with communities and which ones they choose to endorse will be dependent on the culture and style of leadership. If people feel safe joking with their CEO, then having them or other senior leaders respond to funny and social posts, alongside posting themselves, can boost engagement.

“It’s important to recognise the importance and strength of power dynamics,” says Rebeca. “The personality of managers will have an impact – if they’re open to authentic engagement, it might help; if they’re more closed, it might hinder.

“Having blanket support for all communities is important, though, and active participation in those that concern major topics is essential in order to show employees the community is viewed as essential.”

Ernesto adds: “In communities in which leadership visibility is crucial, we’re trying to encourage leaders to regularly share one post at a time, comment on two posts and then like three more. This shows that they’re listening and giving support, which lets colleagues feel seen and heard.

“But before asking leaders to get involved more in communities, think about how you can support them in playing the role you want them to play.

“Some of our leaders aren’t very digitally minded, so we’ve created a digital mentoring programme connecting our most advanced social media users to leaders, to provide one-on-one mentoring. This has had a very positive impact and led to leaders engaging in communities more.”


Cultivating communities

As an internal communicator, your role in managing communities will be dependent on how much autonomy employees are granted when it comes to launching and running them, but, even with the most hands-off approach,

ICers should have oversight of the communities on their platform(s) and offer advice where needed – both to community managers and employees in general.

For Tony, IC’s presence is especially important in helping communities to thrive. “Consider yourself the gardener whose job it is to help communities grow. In order to do this, you need to pull out the weeds and water the dry patches – that is to say, make sure the communities are building a culture that aligns with your values, know when to remove communities that are no longer relevant or active, and offer ways in which community managers can breathe new life into important communities if they’ve become stagnant.

“It’s also important to measure those communities that have a bigger organisational purpose and assess how successful they are in achieving their strategic aims, following up with relevant groups and helping them to demonstrate the change they’re delivering.”

Rebeca believes IC’s role is also to step in and connect the dots when a community is able to support and include the wider organisation.

“In the past, we’ve created communities so that we have a near-instant way to enable organisation-wide discussions and engagement.

“You need to read the mood of the organisation and recognise when it’s appropriate for you to initiate conversations that are much needed, in order to help people’s voices be heard during important organisational decision-making.”


Getting to the root of the problem

The other role IC should always take on is that of community monitor. It’s rare that communities will need intervention, but when they do, IC needs to be on hand to advise on how to proceed.  

At Virgin Atlantic, the approach is to be largely hands off, but when it’s clear comments are going south, they’ve found working with the person who created the initial post is best in addressing rogue comments – as long as they feel comfortable doing so.

“At times, we have discussions that can become quite contentious, and the top priority when things start to divert into risky territory is to regain control and avoid escalation,” says Steve. “This is why bringing in the original poster to address inappropriate comments, rather than someone from IC, is more effective, and it looks less like a formal punishment and more natural.

“These cases don’t happen often, but when intervention is needed, we work with the original poster to write a message that lets offending commenters know why a comment they’ve made is being removed, and then another message to the rest of the community members that reminds everyone to refrain from getting personal and using language that may be deemed offensive.

“If the comments section is getting out of hand, then it’s turned off, and the original poster in a new post addresses why this is and when members can expect to receive another update regarding the information that was being discussed.

“We do all of this so that we can keep conversations as open as possible, while also showing that we won’t tolerate unprofessional behaviour.”


Transplanting content

Communities are their own distinct channel, but there’s no reason why you can’t use them to inform future relevant content across other comms.

“Through communities, you can see what people find interesting or ask questions about what people want to know,” says Tony. “Then, the comms you create from that will generate more understanding, questions and praise.

“It’s like a fulfilling circle, in a sense, and when done correctly, it should create a positive loop. Communities are where value is born, after all.”

 

Reaping the rewards

The discussions and ideas that come out of communities can be invaluable. Here, our interviewees share first-hand examples of times community groups have been a much-welcomed source of inspiration.  

“At the height of Covid-19, a colleague in Nairobi was interested in hearing how her colleagues were finding working from home. She published a poll in our staff wellbeing community, asking people whether they thought working from home should continue after the end of the pandemic. Her poll exploded and people from all over the world responded. We highlighted and pitched it to HR, sharing what people were saying and feeling. We did a short report to show the effects of that conversation and the importance of taking into consideration the different needs of our workforce, which helped to speed up ongoing relevant HR policies.”
Rebeca Lucía Galindo, internal communication officer, International Committee of the Red Cross  

“A media company I worked for had an internal community for film fans with an active following and detailed discussions. Seeing this, the company’s innovation team decided to create an offshoot community for film fans specifically interested in scripts, which they then used to submit script and film ideas for members to critique. It was a perfect example of using the passion of employees to make better products.”
Tony Stewart, head of digital, scarlettabbott

“In 2019, we held a flight made up of a totally LGBTQ+ crew that flew from London to New York for the New York Pride event, inviting prominent LGBTQ+ figures to join. This idea – one that was so loved and well received by our colleagues – came out of a community, and it was a testament to the creativity that can come from the ground-up approach we take with these groups.”
Steve Clarke, head of editorial, Virgin Atlantic

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