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  • Sarah Black

Four tips for building community at work

Community – it’s one of those words that I think we’re all a bit guilty of throwing around without ever really thinking about what it means.

And it’s a big word. It’s very easy to exclude individuals by unintentionally defining community in a way that excludes them. If you don’t feel connected or that you belong, you won’t feel that you are part of the ‘community’.

Last week, Advita Patel invited me to talk about community and connection at work on her new video channel, Curious Rebel. We talked mostly about connection and the challenges of making meaningful connections at work in a hybrid world.

It was a thought-provoking conversation. You can watch it here.

But it left me thinking about community. And that prompted a fascinating WhatsApp conversation with some of the communications experts around the world with whom I regularly work.

Here are my four big tips if you’re talking about community building at work.

1. Define what community means for YOUR organization: if you can’t define it, how will you ever know if you’ve built it? And if leadership isn’t clear about what it means for your workplace, you also can’t measure it or share it with people. I feel quite strongly that being psychologically and physically safe, feeling respected and comfortable at work are essential. Community is a separate thing.

2. Understand what community might mean for your people: there are apparently lots of benefits to a sense of community at work.  So, it could be good for business. But what do your people want from community at work? Some may want to just do their job and go home without any pressure to be forced into social or other ‘community building’ activities. For others, work ‘community’ may be what they need because it’s the only place they are experiencing a sense of community. And that might just mean that they want to get on well with their immediate teammates, rather than feel that they need to be somehow indoctrinated into a corporate belief system.

And don’t forget that organizational culture and national/regional culture intersect. Ideas about work/life boundaries can be different in different cultures. And whether a culture is geared towards community rather than the individual could also have an impact on how community at work is perceived and experienced.

3. It takes more than communication to build community: of course, I am going to say that communication is essential to community building. But it’s not enough on its own. You cannot communicate your way out of negative workplace experiences, poor salaries or toxic and inequitable cultures. Building community requires hard work and action. It is ongoing conversations, listening, dialogue and working together to create something that is shared and owned by everyone.

4. Think about your language: the word ‘community’ is often used to describe an underrepresented group or identity. For example, I hear ‘LGBTQ+ community’ used all the time, but I cannot remember the last time anyone used ‘cisgender community’ or ‘the straight community’.

There are two things here: first, language like this can be reductive. It implies that somehow all LGBTQ+ (or other identity group) are a homogenous group and of course, they are not.

Second, it can be othering. We don’t name what we perceive as ‘normal’. So, with the best of intentions, sometimes these references to underrepresented identities as separate communities can make individuals feel further isolated or ‘different’ from everyone else.  It is definitely something to think about if you’re working on creating a workplace community that truly includes everyone.

What does community mean to you? What are your expectations around it at work? I’d love to hear more from you about this. Also thank you to Cath Brew for her insights and discussion about this topic.

Photo credit: Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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