The value of community

| By:
Corie Leaman

While the world continues to maintain varying levels of social distance and most people are partially—if not fully—still working remotely, creating and encouraging a sense of community is more important than ever. One-off social gatherings and events provide the opportunity to interact with other like-minded individuals, but it’s not the same as an ongoing sense of community. With technology providing so many ways to remain in touch, why is it important to focus not only on social and networking events, but also creating emotional and professional connections? 

The importance of community

The sense of community not only enriches experiences associated with events like webinars and virtual conferences, it’s also a key indicator to the quality of life we as individuals lead. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, which began in 1938 and is the longest running study of its time, tracked over 720 men throughout the course of 75 years. The study began with participants from two different groups living in Boston: sophomores from Harvard, and a group of men who lived in some of the most disadvantaged areas near Boston. 

The study was developed to measure what makes someone happy. Every two years, study participants completed questionnaires about the quality of their lives. Researchers also looked at medical records, conducted in-person interviews, and video taped participants talking with loved ones. 

The major lesson from the study: good relationships keep people happier and healthier

People who are more socially connected report higher levels of happiness, are physically healthier in both mind and body, and live longer. At age 50, the biggest predictor of how someone was going to age? The satisfaction of their relationships. People who were the happiest in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.

But if feeling connected and happy in our relationships is a predictor of physical and mental health, what are the risks of having poor relationships—or worse—lacking quality relationships?

This risks of not feeling connected 

For participants in the Harvard study, those who reported being more isolated than they wanted to be were less happy, their health started to decline sooner in mid-life compared to those who were not isolated, their brain function declined sooner, and they lived shorter lives. 

According to Dr. Vivek Murphy, former U.S. surgeon general, there are three types of loneliness: intimate or emotional loneliness (longing for a close confidant or partner); social loneliness (yearning for quality friendships and social companionship/support); and collective loneliness (hunger for a network or community of people who share your same purpose or interest). Lacking in any of these dimensions can make us feel lonely. 

With the impact that relationships have on our physical and mental states, and taking into consideration the current nature of maintaining distance in several relationships, what can we do to ensure we’re able to maintain a sense of community to fight the effects of collective loneliness? 

Leveraging technology to create connection 

While the way our relationships and social interactions look are different than they were a few months ago, there are ways to help recreate a sense of community using the same tools and technology that have always been available. Friends and family are able to feel a sense of connection through video conferencing and social media, allowing them to celebrate milestones like birthdays, graduations, or the ability to catch up with an old friend. 

While this works for existing connections you may have a close personal connection with, it may not solve for the collective loneliness that comes from missing interacting with people who share a common interest, whether personal or professional. Luckily, virtual events are still happening in full force to foster this sense of social connection. For both event organizers and attendees, there are several considerations to keep in mind related to creating the best possible experience for virtual events.

The impact of virtual events 

Even with large, in-person events being postponed or severely modified for the time being, many companies have made accommodations to offer their events virtually so attendees are safely able to gain additional training and create new professional connections. While some of the benefits of an in-person event are difficult or impossible to replicate—being able to travel to a new destination or being physically removed from work, for example—there are some incredible benefits and possibilities associated with virtual event experiences. 

In a recent podcast, I shared both the obstacles and opportunities available with virtual events. If you are looking to organize an event, whether it’s your company’s annual sales training or a boot camp for your customers, it’s important to focus on the Why behind the event. Why is your company organizing this event? Why is this compelling to your audience? By having those questions at the center of your event, you can ensure everyone who attends is able to get the most out of their experience. 

Just as with other virtual experiences, communication before, during, and after the event is incredibly important. How can you address attendee questions quickly during the event? How can you train your attendees on how to use and get the most out of the virtual platform so they maximize the level of experience they receive? 

But perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome is how to create an environment where attendees are able to network and share advice with each other—a virtual community. Without the ability to connect in person during meals or after-hour events, event organizers are tasked with being more thoughtful and deliberate with their event structures to create a sense of camaraderie with attendees who are scattered throughout the country (or globe) at any given time.

I advise that event planners create opportunities for attendees to interact and encourage attendees to participate. Depending on the type of virtual technology or platform that exists, leveraging chat or Q&A tools can foster a feeling of engagement and provide opportunities for conversations where attendees are able to interact directly with each other. In addition, there’s opportunities to create virtual happy hours to encourage attendees to meet with one another in a more relaxed, conversational environment instead of sticking to only the structured conversations during sessions. 

If you are attending a virtual event, the most important thing you can do to get the most out of the virtual event experience is to participate in all the networking and conversation opportunities available. While it might feel a little odd at first, engaging with other attendees during sessions, visiting a vendor’s virtual booth, or attending any after-hours events are great ways to feel more connected to people who are also experiencing the same event as you. This ability to feel connected during a time where there is so much physical distance can combat some of the feelings associated with collective loneliness and create a more robust experience for all involved in this technology community. 

Leaning on your virtual community

But it’s not just networking that can help you feel connected to a great sense of community. In our professional lives, sometimes the lines between work relationships and personal relationships will blend. At IT Nation Evolve, members are assigned to peer groups and meet throughout the year to talk about ways they can build and develop their personal and professional legacy thanks to the help of experts and their peers. 

Members are encouraged to talk openly and candidly about hurdles they are facing both in their personal and professional lives, and lean on the advice provided by their facilitator and fellow peers to overcome these challenges. By facilitating these open and honest conversations, even virtually, members are able to combat the feelings of social loneliness as they share vulnerable problems they are working to overcome. Even during financial hardships, IT Nation Evolve members have continued to pay membership fees to participate in the quarterly meetings because they find the advice and technology community so valuable. Creating a strong bond on a personal and professional level allows attendees to feel heard and welcomed into a safe space to help them navigate these challenges. 

If you are unsure how to handle a difficult situation in your business, relying on the advice of trusted peers in your industry can provide a much-needed perspective shift for you and allow you to realize you’re not facing challenging situations alone.

Whether through virtual events, peer groups, virtual team outings, or any other creative event you can develop, it’s important for your long-term health to remain connected to a virtual community even while isolating. By working to combat some of the levels of loneliness, you can experience both physical and mental health benefits, as well as increase your quality of life, for years to come.