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Lessons from coworking during the COVID pandemic

coworking during COVID
How can we create a sense of community without physically gathering?

Up until COVID hit, we sold coworking memberships with language like this:

When you put a bunch of people from different industries and backgrounds into a physical space, spontaneous interactions occur that lead to collaboration, community, and better work overall.

So what happens when the physical space is removed from coworking?

First of all, let’s unpack these “spontaneous interactions.” Community does not happen spontaneously. Throwing a bunch of people into a space does not guarantee that they will interact with each other in meaningful ways. Community must be created intentionally, and this requires both thoughtful leadership and hard work.

Talk to any successful coworking operator or community manager, and you will discover that they work their butts off to create an environment where meaningful interactions actually do occur. From the tour experience, to new member onboarding, to the way we handle things like dirty dishes and loud phone calls– all of it creates community. If these building blocks are handled with intention and consistency, your community will take on a life of its own.

How to be intentional, apart

So how does this translate when your coworking community is suddenly distributed?

We can offer something meaningful and valuable to our members when we are apart, especially if we apply the same intentionality that we do in the physical space.

Here’s what we’ve learned at Groundwork so far:

Create consistency and familiarity

I’ve been watching Cheers re-runs to cope with my pandemic stress. Cheers is wonderful because it’s consistent and predictable: Norm will sit in the same barstool, Carla will make fun of Rebecca, Frasier will wear an epic sweater cardigan… I could go on.

For many of us, our coworking space is a real-life Cheers, that place where “everybody knows your name.” At Groundwork, we can count on our fellow members enacting their quirks with remarkable predictability. It’s why so many of us say that Groundwork feels like home.

Without a physical gathering place, consistency is more important than ever. We crave seeing the same faces and feeling a sense of belonging. Maintaining a regular calendar of social meetings in the digital world is one of the most important services we can offer.

Hold space for vulnerability

Many Groundwork members have commented that we’re relating to each other differently these days. Conversations feel more vulnerable. We’re sharing our deepest fears, our coping strategies, and the things that give us hope. We are peering into each other’s living rooms and makeshift kitchen offices on Zoom. We are laughing through tech challenges and zoombombings together.

I’ve opened up to members on more than one occasion, sharing my anxieties and frustrations, and they’ve held space for me just as I’ve held it for them. It’s truly a gift. Right now, we all need a space where we can safely fall apart and put ourselves back together again.

Sometimes it’s a silly Slack message, a word of encouragement, or a phone call that can change your day. It all matters. We build strength and resilience one interaction at a time. And that’s how I know we’re going be okay as a community.

Lead with hope and optimism

It’s no secret that our federal leadership leaves a lot to be desired during this pandemic. We desperately need strong leaders. In our coworking community, there are a couple of things we can do:

First we must continue to show up, even when we want to curl up in a ball. (Consistency matters, remember?) Some days will be better than others, but the simple act of showing up will stoke the fires of hope in everyone around us.

Secondly we must shine a light on others in the community, so that they too can step up to lead. Each one of us has unique gifts to give, and now those gifts are needed more than ever. In our communities, we can offer invitations that allow everyone to contribute and shine.

Looking forward

We’re all figuring this out as we go along, and the next few months are full of unknowns. I wish you the best and I encourage you to lean into your existing communities however you can. And if you find yourself in need of a safe space, we are accepting new members into Groundwork’s “distributed coworking” community. You can find all the details over here.

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