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How to create an online community in a remote working era


April 30, 2020

Remote working is more than moving your events, meetings and community online – simply having a virtual presence isn’t enough. We believe the value of an event is its people and that building an online community is part of creating long-term connections.

When building your virtual community, there are three key considerations which we’ve set out below. You can also read about these in our Futureproofing model of work.

Understanding the purpose of online events

The first thing you should think of is ‘What’s the purpose of this event?’

When considering how to develop a virtual event, there has to be a clear purpose which people can connect to – perhaps more than one. From the clients we’ve worked with, we’ve identified five key purposes:

1. Sharing or broadcasting information

One of the most common purposes of an event is to broadcast information. The key benefit of a virtual community is that rather than broadcasting to an ambivalent audience, which are likely to only be paying continuous partial attention, you can consolidate information into content that people can access when they need it.

The idea of #self-serve is a core principle in our community, and is also relevant here. By increasing autonomy and working remotely, you decrease synchronicity but not at the expense of engagement. The result is people consume information when they’re ready to give it their full attention. By adopting this principle, you can still broadcast to a large number of people, but increase the impact of the message. And by inviting the audience to ask questions and participate in conversation, their understanding and engagement deepens.

2. Bringing key customers or influencers together on a product or agenda

While in-person events often bring influential clients, customers or key decision makers together on a one-off occasion (with great cost and effort), a virtual community provides the opportunity to do so on an on-going basis.

This tactic has been used to great effect by a number of successful unicorn businesses. For instance Monzo (a digital bank born in the UK with over 2 million customers) share their product backlog online, facilitating an online community forum of their most active users to act as a first point of contact for customer issues, reducing customer service costs. Monzo also harness their crowdfunding investors to create a community of active users who are empowered and incentivised to generate further word-of-mouth referrals, reducing customer acquisition costs and marketing spend.

The physical event isn’t the currency of events any longer – it’s making people feel part of a virtual community that counts.

But in-person meet-ups do still have a place. Our #HoxbyHome meet-ups and yearly #HoxbyRefresh festival gives us that opportunity.

3. Social bonding, networking and facilitating connections

Facilitating connections between people is important and evidence suggests that we create social bonds most effectively when we do this in person. But working relationships can be much more efficient at creating and developing bonds online.

One of the biggest issues with networking events is getting stuck in a conversation with someone without any common ground or mutually beneficial connections, but manners mean we can’t leave until the conversation comes to a natural end.

Yet in a virtual community, this problem never arises. We can do our research, single out those we want to talk to and skip some of the basic pleasantries to get straight to the good stuff. We can connect with lots of people at the same time, initiate lots of productive, useful conversations, and end those that aren’t.

4. Learning and development

It certainly looks good to say that you send all your potential leaders on a training course – but the reality is that most of the reported benefits from training courses are down to the people they meet during the course, rather than what they learn from the training itself.

When learning is the core purpose of a virtual community, content can be personalised to the individual and we can learn from the knowledge, experience and connections of everyone in the community. Large-scale events for training and development purposes tend to be less effective, particularly as we learn best in small groups.

5. Input or alignment on a project or strategy

The best ideas don’t always come from those in the most powerful positions. We might want the team’s input on a project we’re kicking off, or feedback on an initial project. It’s about making everyone feel involved and generating new ideas.

These are typically smaller workshops than large scale gatherings, and are more collaborative and participatory. Here in particular, virtual events struggle to match the same levels of engagement as in-person workshops.

Virtual communities can enable diverse teams to come together and work in asynchronous ways. In our community, we often use crowdsourcing and crowdstorming techniques to draw on our collective brainpower – an incredibly powerful process when seeking to quickly gather diverse perspectives and new thinking. It’s also a great way to involve every member of the community in creating and shaping the work of the group as a whole.

Building an online community culture

Building a community culture is key. As Edgar Schein, leading professor at MIT said, ‘If you don’t manage culture, it manages you.’

We believe there are four key elements to consider when shaping your virtual community culture:

1. Unique practices

It’s important to consider what makes your community or event unique.

From O2 customer’s priority moments to Brewdog’s ‘Annual General Mayhem’ event for their investors, the unique things that make people feel they are a part of the community are crucial to generating a loyal following. These don’t always have to be big things. In our community, it’s simply sending our associates a welcome pack or a birthday card.

It doesn’t matter if these unique practices are small or large, physical or virtual. What’s important is that they help to shape the culture and the way people feel about being part of the community.

2. Model behaviours

Culture manifests itself by how people react to challenges, imposed boundaries and to each other. It’s the reaction of the community when someone says something controversial – does everyone else agree or stay silent?

We’ve discussed the important role of virtual leaders before – and it’s just as important here to model the right behaviours. It requires a conscious effort to reward and reinforce, and it can help to identify early on some cultural architects within the community to help. This is something we’ve done from the outset, when we invited a small team of associates to participate in shaping the culture in their own image.

Ultimately, it’s how you define your community, and understand the culture and the behaviours that are expected within it.

3. Owned symbols

Physical reminders of the culture, such as artifacts, objects and symbols, play an important role in cultural reinforcement.

In the army, this might be ceremonial flag waving rituals, medals of honour, uniforms and polished boots. In a virtual community, these symbols can often be more subtle, but it’s equally important to have a number of elements which help to shape the cultural experience people have in the community.

As well as the ‘refresher’ symbol, which acts as a constant reminder that we’re ‘refreshing work’, we also created a number of symbols and emojis for various uses under our brand. We even use the term ‘Hoxbies’ to refer to each other, a practice which many of the big tech firms seem to have picked up on.

4. Shared beliefs

Ultimately, a familial culture is about feeling comfortable around how the community operates and ensuring that everyone shares a common set of beliefs that are well understood.

In the context of an event turned virtual community, part of the process will be going on a journey as a community to create these shared beliefs and culture, through the decisions made and the way people engage and choose to act.

Make your virtual community platform super-agile

Technology is more than an enabler – reimagine the physical event as a digital platform.

While technology is often referred to as an ‘enabler’, this terminology can be misleading and downplays the role of something that’s actually transformative. Not only has technology radically reshaped business models, but from our own experience, it also shapes our attitudes and behaviours in everything we do.

We choose all of our technology systems with one of our core values in mind – #lovewhatyoudo. Whether it’s software for accounting (Xero), project management (Basecamp) or communication (Slack), we believe that these technologies impact how we experience work. Our decisions on which systems to use are based on whether we’ll enjoy working with them, rather than primarily on cost or features.

When thinking about a virtual community rather than an event, the same thinking should apply. Instead of asking ‘What are we providing?’, we should ask ‘How do you best facilitate a value exchange between exhibitors and their audience?’

There are three key questions to focus on here:

1. Matchmaking

Once you have members in your community, you need to figure out how best to connect them.

Facilitating matchmaking effectively is where the value of data comes in. Understanding what’s important to each user group in your virtual community – and quantifying this – enables you to find ways to connect users as efficiently as possible.

What this means for your virtual community will depend on the purpose of the event. In a virtual learning environment, it might mean promoting recommendations for a training course, or identifying which coaches might be a good personality match.

A word of warning though – don’t expect any plaudits for matchmaking – because when it’s done well, we hardly notice it’s being done at all.

We like to use Donut for random matchmaking and Elfster for random matching at Secret Santa time. We also structure our channels to make sure that everyone with similar skill sets and interests can find each other quickly.

2. Tools and services

Selecting the tools and services you provide on the platform requires a good understanding of what the community values, and must deliver the services or the experience they most need.

The tools we use in our community are as ‘self-serve’ as possible, and we keep all our documentation, branding, templates and training materials in shared drives.

Services, however, are centralised and require constant involvement, with customer or technology support being the most common examples. But it’s important not to over centralise. For example, our wellbeing week is curated and provided by the community, offering a far broader range of activities than if it was organised by the central team.

It’s critical to keep these tools and services in constant evolution, depending on how they’re being used and the changing marketplace. We continuously trial new ways of doing things that might be beneficial to the community.

3. Rules and standards

Finally, it’s really important to set clear rules and standards for virtual communities.

In the same way that an event might have rules about sharing on social media or the use of mobile phones, in virtual communities you must make people aware of the guardrails and expected behaviours. As Ryan Sarver, the head of platform at Twitter puts it, ‘Our job is to create incentives and disincentives to produce the best behaviour, the best outcome, from a bunch of people you’ll never meet.’

In addition to basic rules of engagement and behaviour, transparency is crucial in compensating the lack of visibility and passive listening that comes with a remote community. Over-communication and high degrees of transparency are key for ensuring people aren’t left feeling in the dark.

How we’re helping the online community

Over the past five years, we’ve built a virtual community of more than 1,000 Hoxbies. We’ve also recently launched as a platform to provide support to employees working remotely for the first time. This is done via a virtual buddying system, as well as through a collective exercise challenge and a quarterly occurring wellbeing week.

If you’d like more information on creating online communities or need assistance with implementing the right remote working practices, we're here to help. Contact us at or watch our webinar on how to build a virtual community.

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