Is your workplace either fully or partially remote?

Working remotely has multiple advantages for companies, including being able to access a wider pool of talent and keeping office-related overhead low. Remote work also has some challenges, including how to develop a strong sense of community and camaraderie.

Developing a strong online community can bring several benefits for your company; here’s a rundown on why and how to focus on developing yours:

What is an online community?

When we talk about online workplace communities, particularly those that our administrative professionals and other colleagues inhabit, we’re usually thinking of the means by which to create them first. An online community is a collection of work colleagues who use the tools you have in place to form meaningful, beneficial relationships. It’s through your community setup that they can collaborate effectively.

What sorts of tools? We’re fans of Slack and our APs all communicate with one another via our Slack community. You could use any other messaging app - Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Chatwork, a video chat app - whatever your preference.

An online community is about more than tools. More importantly, they’re about the people you bring together. Communities work when the people who are part of them are committed to taking part and contributing.

The benefits of strong online communities

Why do we maintain a strong online community? For our administrative professionals, it means being able to tap into the collective experiences and wisdom of the group. If they come across a problem or have a need they’re not sure how they’re going to fulfill, asking the group can prove to be invaluable. We always say; “if it takes longer than 15 minutes to figure it out, ask someone else.”

The administrative professional role is one of many where it’s important to nurture networks and strong relationships. When something new comes up, someone else may be able to provide insights and vice versa. A thriving online community can provide an efficient means to problem-solve rather than “reinventing the wheel” each time.

Here are some other benefits of an online community:

Beat isolation and build rapport

One of the challenges of getting a team to work cohesively in a remote environment is that people can often feel like they’re isolated in their own little slice of the world. If the only communication they receive is via email, this asynchronous format can make people feel disconnected from their colleagues.

Consider an office environment; spontaneous communication tends to be the norm. You have a quick chat with a colleague while collecting your documents from the printer or while refilling your bottle at the water cooler. It’s those spur-of-the-moment conversations that help to build rapport and allow colleagues to get to know one another on a more personal level.

Email by contrast is not a “casual chat” medium and is almost always used to share professional-toned business communications. It can seem cold and impersonal as a communication channel.

A thriving online community via a channel like Slack can bring back that personal touch of the casual chat. It helps to beat isolation and make people feel that they belong to a team.

Communicate more efficiently

Don’t get us wrong - email definitely has its place, especially when you look at more detailed messages or sets of instructions. However, email is inefficient when it comes to those quick questions or tips.

For example, let’s say an AP needs to get tickets to the sold-out Lakers game for clients for tonight. They’ve tried the channels they know to get them and had no luck, so now they need to broaden their search. Sending an email to crowded inboxes will often get overlooked or missed until it’s too late; a quick message on the Slack channel, however, will be seen by more people, more quickly. “Hey @channel, I’m looking for four tickets to the Lakers game for VIP clients for tonight - does anyone know where I can get them?”

Sending a message like this will notify everyone on that channel immediately and improve the AP's chances of getting a timely response.

Build an effective team

Teamwork is one of the challenges of working remotely. Social interaction and open communication are features of a good office environment that help to build up that sense of camaraderie and effective teamwork.

Your online community can also help to foster effective teamwork when set up well. It can provide a space for social interaction that helps to allow team members to get to know one another on a more personal level.

Make a meaningful contribution

Strong communities share information and help to raise up each individual. Part of that is being able to make a meaningful contribution. People often thrive off feeling that they can make a difference for others, which is one benefit of a strong online community.

Being able to contribute helps to combat any feelings of isolation or disconnectedness from the wider group. Importantly, it keeps people engaged and enthusiastic about belonging. Don’t underestimate the value to people on your team of knowing they can make a difference!

How to create a strong online community

So there are some amazing online communities among remote workplaces, then there are some that are much less effective - how do those strong online communities do it?

Set expectations

We always hope that people will “get” our intentions and use communication channels as we’d expect, but it’s still important to actually set expectations. Online communication can be a minefield of misunderstandings, especially if things like tone don’t translate well to a written medium of conversation. (We’ve all had that colleague whose humor leans toward the sarcastic and whose intentions get misunderstood!).

Set expectations around appropriate use of your online community and encourage people to have fun, but be thoughtful. Recognize that with body language and tone missing, sometimes that message you intended as innocent humor can be misinterpreted!

Effectively organize the channels

Messaging apps like Slack give you the opportunity to efficiently organize conversations into channels. There are many ways you can do this depending on your own needs and work set up. One thing that the strongest communities tend to do is make space for those “watercooler” sorts of conversations.

Having a channel called “fun,” “random”, “watercooler” or whatever you want to go with gives permission for people to have those chats that aren’t necessarily work-related. This helps team members to get to know one another on a more personal level.

The bottom line is that humans are social creatures and we tend to need some form of social interaction to build rapport and work effectively with others. Make the space for it!

Model the behavior

Who’s in charge of making the online community work? It’s important that this is assigned to someone and that they are modeling the behavior or use of the community that you’d like to see from everyone.

It can seem a bit awkward to team members when leadership sets up a communication tool, tells everyone to “go for it,” but doesn’t use it themselves. Someone needs to take charge - this can be a great role for an administrative professional! People will use the community as-intended, especially if they see that others are doing so.

Recognize good work

A little recognition can go a long way when someone has worked hard to make something happen. Part of a strong online community is recognizing and celebrating that work. Shout-outs or announcements that share that recognition with the team help to make people feel valued and to encourage others to contribute.

“Huge shoutout to @allison! She was able to get me the four last-minute Lakers tickets and we have some very happy clients!”

Final thoughts

For companies that work either fully or partially remote, a thriving online community can be a real asset. It becomes a great source of knowledge-sharing, team-building, and effective communication.

Strong online communities don’t happen by accident. They’re built up thoughtfully, with consideration going into how they operate and what is needed to make them effective.

As professional communicators, administrative professionals can be great assets to your online community. APs are often the ones to set up the appropriate systems and processes, as well as lead by example. Talk to Worxbee about working with one of our amazing APs here.