As I proposed, built, and co-led the Writer’s Jam, a monthly virtual gathering of Dropbox creatives intended to sharpen our craft remotely, I expected it to feel easy, like building “weak ties” at the office did.

In my experience, community seemed to happen to me in workplaces. I missed the spontaneous social opportunities at the watercooler, complimenting someone’s obscure band T-shirt. But I’m learning that accidental community doesn’t just happen in virtual spaces. In a remote workplace, people gather for a specific purpose—a project, a deadline—but otherwise, it’s tough to expand your social circle beyond your immediate collaborators.

That is, unless you create the intention.

What you need to know to build a virtual work community

We all know that no one should be forced to be “fun” at work to advance their career. But if you’re open to the initial discomfort of building new relationships, you can lose the commute and keep the community.

First, community in remote workplaces gives us back the chance to encounter valuable information by accident. At our monthly Writer’s Jam, we discovered new information all the time. Recently, when someone from marketing shared their page analytics, I realized that my team could use similar metrics to make our own content more user-focused.

Remote work community even has some advantages over in-person gathering. People of color have reported that they find remote workplaces less taxing to navigate, and neurodivergent folks may experience working from home as more conducive to focus. While not everyone desires a sense of professional community, remote work can provide a safe and productive alternative for many.

Here’s how I’ve found success in building remote community.

There are two things I do well—writing and forming community—so the Writer’s Jam made perfect sense. When I learned about the concept of a “challenge network,” at a Q&A with Tiffani Jones Brown, my first thought was I bet we could benefit from that here.

Before the pandemic, I’d spent years building spaces for folks to connect. I’d served as a minister at two small, progressive churches in California, a unique challenge as political divisions worsened after 2016. I led writing workshops and committees for Showing Up for Racial Justice, teaching people to talk about anti-racism in ways that were clear, informed, and impactful. I’m also a professional improv comedian, so I know that creativity and craft flourish in community.

At the first meeting to discuss the Jam, Dropboxers warned, “This might take a while to get started. It’s hard to get people to show up to things.”

I thought about how many pizzas I’d taken home because no one attended an event, how many improv shows I’d played to five people. I thought about how little that fazed me.

“It’s all just part of the process,” I said, smiling. “I’m ready.”

The Jam would never have launched if key people hadn’t championed my cause. Executive support is a major predictor of project success, so if you want traction, get buy-in.

When I shared my Writer’s Jam proposal with Senior Copywriter Shaun Kissing, he offered to help get the word out and to co-lead the Jam, despite the fact that my pitch was our first interaction.

Shaun brought my proposal to the Editorial Council leads, who were generous with their time and encouragement. They talked up the Jam in email blasts, on Slack channels, and even on Dropbox’s intranet. Their voices and public support validated the Jam in a way I couldn’t have done alone.

When preparing to build communities, try participating in a few first. Get a feel for who supports new initiatives, and invest in those connections. Remember, helping each other feels good.

We spent the first Writer’s Jam connecting and building trust. It felt easy. But as subsequent Jams unfolded—chatting without much structure—they weren’t as relaxed. They began to feel forced. After the third Jam, I noticed that I felt tired rather than energized.

At first I attributed this to a smaller turnout. But then I remembered the first rule of organizing: Plan meetings with a specific objective. Even dates are more fun when they’re planned, and group video meetings flow better when they have an established purpose.

Shaun and I planned to focus the next Writer’s Jam on learning and development. It was our biggest turnout so far, with seven Dropboxers joining, from across Brand, Content Design, Customer Experience, and more.

When you’re building your community, do what professional organizers do: Ask your friends to show up. If your friends decline or are noncommittal, ask them why. Their answer could help you figure out what might resonate better with your audience.

When I interviewed Dropboxers to find out what they needed from their work community, many creators felt most connected via their one-on-one meetings. Research shows that having a “best friend” at work is even more important in remote environments, so it’s not surprising that individual relationships drive connectivity.

We show up when we know someone. Be that someone.

There’s an unspoken truth about the work of building community and deepening connections: Sometimes you won’t feel like showing up.

That is absolutely OK. It, too, is part of the process, and, if you expect it, it won’t slow you down.

I made the mistake of thinking that the Jam would eventually hit its stride, the way in-person groups gel at work (for better or worse). I didn’t make space in my calendar to reach out to people or plan the programming; I worked on the Jam only when I felt inspired. Any artist will tell you that if you work only when you’re inspired, you might never finish.

Offer yourself compassion. Remember that we’ve been working in person for hundreds of years, but remote work community is new. We are wired to connect, but we haven‘t had time to figure out how—or even if—to do that while working remotely. Remember the value of what you’re building, and set aside time to refine it. Be patient with the process.

A different measurement of “success”

Although it hasn’t always been easy, I’m filled with gratitude for the community we built. Even though it didn’t feel quite the same as the office watercooler, we still connected people around a shared purpose.

Dropboxers brought their colleagues to the Jam, saying that it felt like “getting back to the basics of craft.” We got vital info about how other teams worked and how to communicate cross-functionally. We uncovered holes in our workflows that new connections helped us to patch. To this day, former Dropbox colleagues still ping me on LinkedIn to ask how the Jam is going.

Building a Virtual First community did require more intention—but honestly, I’d choose that over a commute, any day.

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