Community is by far the biggest buzzword in the coworking industry. With that in mind, this isn’t going to be yet another bland or fluffy article on the subject. Instead, I want to address a serious issue that keeps coming up in my conversations with coworking founders and teams. That issue is community engagement.
Bear in mind that by community engagement I don’t mean community growth, which I define as finding ways to increase the chances of a person joining your community as well as retaining current community members. I also don’t mean community management, which I define as tools and processes used to anticipate and respond to community needs. I mean community engagement, which I define as the willingness of community members to engage with one another, typically informally, for some purpose, either personal or professional.
I call growth, management, and engagement the core community components.
This issue is particularly interesting to me because we very often use all three of these components interchangeably. For example, we talk about wanting to increase community engagement but are implementing community management tools and processes instead. In fact, while initially writing the last paragraph I mistakenly substituted the term management for engagement.
This synonymizing is so common that it’s worth a quick exploration. What are the implications of equating these components to one another, why are we doing it, and how can we stop equating them to actually improve our communities?
If it isn’t obvious to you why this is a problem I’m not surprised. As coworking people, we sign ourselves up for a superhuman task. Running a space is no joke, so it makes sense that we would want to simplify it as much as possible.
However, oversimplification here results in a lot of wheel-spinning and head-scratching as you implement community initiatives that don’t actually affect the community component you want to improve.
“Why isn’t this community thing working?!?!” you might exclaim. It’s not working because, as those of us with experience in this area have realized, we can neither manage our way to community growth nor grow our way to more member engagement. In the same vein, having an engaged membership cohort doesn’t make our processes more efficient. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Each of these three parts of community requires the others in a balanced symbiosis. Simply put, when it comes to community; engagement, growth, and management are all different and integral components.
We tend to simplify and automate our most difficult tasks. And our most difficult tasks are either intellectually complex, involve emotional labor, or both. This is why many businesses, coworking included, have given scripts to their salespeople and replaced their customer service folks with IVR systems and email auto-responders.
The three components of community cultivation and development require a lot of intellectual complexity and emotional energy. They require tough, personal, engaged and human work to foster engagement and create a sense of belonging. They also need smart leadership, growth strategy, communication planning, and scalable needs-management. You need to be highly emotionally connected to your community members to care about them and create opportunities for further connection among them, and you need to think strategically about how the community will grow, function, and create value both internally and externally.
That’s tough work.
So we tend to look for tools and systems and processes that will do it all for us. But tools and processes are only one-half of the equation, and if implemented too early or with too high of expectations or hype, they will fall flat or even backfire.
The solution is simple. We must break down our community work into the distinct components of engagement, growth, and management
Everything we do affects at least one of them, sometimes two, but rarely all three. Sometimes we’ll do something that improves one component, but that detracts from another. Here are some things to think about as we go about this:
It’s pretty easy to get carried away with all the fluffy conversation surrounding community in coworking. I think the key thing is for us to avoid any complacency when we’re dealing with the most important element within our spaces. Our communities deserve and require our intellectual and emotional energy to develop fully. Don’t oversimplify. Do it right.