Finding Community

Posted by: on August 26th, 2020

…in a Covid World of Work

The structure of community is about belonging and connection. It includes the ways we do things, idiosyncratic practices, routines, and even rituals, that may annoy us but mostly assure us we are part of something larger than ourselves. We participate in order to contribute and receive value in return. For many of us, community is about shared time, place and experiences.

So, today, where do we begin to re-locate community in this remote world that makes shared connections so challenging?

As we re-design the way we convene in our organizations, we might think about the essential aspects of community that we can incorporate into our new ways of working.

Here is what rises to the top in my mind:

  1. Renew a sense of purpose. What makes the work we do as a community important? Who is it important for and why? What are the expressed intentions for this day, meeting, week, etc.
  2. Build networks that create unlikely connections between people. If you could choose to interact with anyone in the organization, who would it be, and why? For strong community, build that network and you will create commitment, trust and loyalty.
  3. Create a sense of belonging. Think of a time in your life when you felt like you truly belonged and embed practices in your organization that reflect that time. For example, we like to be recognized, welcomed and our presence or absence acknowledged.
  4. Convene at regular appointed times. Even if it is the time frame is short, create new routines for the community that provide regular opportunities to be in constructive relationship.
  5. Strive to allow participation by choice. Strong communities begin with a sense of personal agency (a.k.a. choice) that is balanced with strong communal value around showing up. Informal communities may not focus on this aspect of community, but formal communities (especially small groups or teams within those communities) need to create an expectation that members “show up” and if they are not able, to let the community know. Likewise, the community needs to reach out if members don’t show up. A sense of personal agency means we decide, but it does not relinquish our role within the community.

Every work organization is some version of community. But what version is it? We can build a community structure that sustains us through changes.

Challenges that community can address in a COVID world of work

The remote work world is not all it is cracked up to be. So say some executives who have decried the rush to go “all-in”. While executives saw promising results early on, they are less impressed as time goes on.

Projects take longer. Collaboration is harder. And training new workers is a struggle. Behind the scenes, executives say, “This is not going to be sustainable.”[1]

A deeper read into this article reveals the ways in which organization leaders need to re-think how to build connections among workers to foster peer-to-peer learning and relationships that transmit tacit knowledge that is not written down.

Another aspect of this new reality is that workers at home are challenged to find quiet places away from the disruptions of home.[2] And those who have no disruptions may find that the trouble is adjusting to a complete lack of routine and total silence. In both of these cases, community among co-workers may represent an important structure to counteract the potent forces of fatigue and stress of this time period.

Finally, a note about what we might learn from artists, monks and solo entrepreneurs who have learned the discipline of working either in complete isolation or in community among others different from ourselves.

Without our usual routines and structure, we can fall prey to overworking and then slip into a valley of acedia, also known by monks as the noonday demon. We know this demon by the disguise of distractions that prevent us from plugging into work and that pull us into a state of boredom and listlessness. Left unchecked, this state can lead us to place of simply not caring. We simply let go of connection. When working alone, daily routines and interactions with community are powerful antidotes to the malaise, melancholy and boredom that can accompany these valleys.[3]

We all have a desire and need for human interaction. Community does not require that we like one another, agree on things or even share common interests. Watch a close knit group of scientists, artists or monks, and you will see interactions of highly individual people bonded, above all, by the desire and need to interact, to think, problem-solve, create or otherwise just get things done.

What we can do is build a community that lasts whether we are online or off, whether we like the same politicians or have different work interests. We can learn from each other and yes, learn to get along, if we build a strong community foundation.


My friend,Luigi Pellegrino, from Bari, Italy, sent me images of his recent works and this one inspired me to think more deeply how we are re-shaping the way we work together. Abstract artists actively bring order to disorder. I am deeply indebted to him for helping me begin my journey into oil paint and abstract art. Years ago, he gave me brief and concise instructions which included some details about what to buy and then instructions to “Cover the canvas with paint but without any recognizable references to a thing or object. Do not stop until you have done that. Then make a cup of coffee, sit back and contemplate the canvas!” Since then he has been an ever-present source of inspiration to live a life that is true to one’s own compass and values. But he also taught me a valuable lesson about the simplicity of what we actually need from a mentor to get started on our way.

[1] Unfortunately this article has a firewall. Thank you Rick Surkamer for sending me this article via good old fashioned snail mail.

[2] This may have a firewall too, let me know if I can help you access.

[3] If you are curious to learn more about acedia, I recommend this 2018 episode of Encountering Silence with guest Kathleen Norris who wrote extensively about acedia and the wisdom of the desert monastics to cope with it. 

About Nancy J. Hess

I help leaders pioneer extraordinary change through high engagement and whole systems approaches that focus on HR and People.