Modeling Everyday Community

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Monday, November 8, 2021
Richard Harvey Jonsen
Lecturer, Rohrer College of Business, Rowan University
Photo by iStock/Rawpixel
During the pandemic and beyond, organizations can thrive when members feel like they belong.

I recently attended a memorial service for one of my former students. Steven (a pseudonym) was a person many would consider a model student. Outside of the classroom, he was an everyday community builder who always greeted colleagues enthusiastically and was ready to help anyone with any task. In class, he was excited to learn and quick to lead discussions, but always drew others in to join the conversation. When I made eye contact with Steven during class meetings, his ever-present smile seemed to be saying, “This is great stuff. Let’s keep going!”

Upon graduation, Steven landed a position with a local wealth management service company. His managers and co-workers described him as a hard worker who cared about doing the right thing for his clients. While Steven’s accomplishments were regularly recognized in the form of pay raises and promotions, he always said the money and attention should go to somebody else—he was just doing his job. And he meant it.

Unknown to his college community and his work colleagues, Steven faced a desperate internal struggle as he tried to work out his role and purpose in the world, resulting in an experience of profound isolation. Upon learning of his deteriorating mental health, Steven’s family members worked to get him the help he needed. Yet, sadly, in early 2021, Steven took his own life.

The Need for Community

At our core, we humans are social creatures. The 20th-century theologian Thomas F. Torrance labeled our need for human connection “onto-relatedness”—meaning that relatedness is actually each human’s reason for being.

Our social science colleagues help us understand that experiencing community is the essence of human life. Anthropologists research human community. Sociologists explore the nature of relationships and human social behavior. Political scientists explicate the ways we choose to govern ourselves in the context of these relationships. Developmental and motivational psychologists shine a light on the source and development of our need to relate to others.

Steven’s simultaneous adeptness at engaging with the people around him and isolation from them prompted me to consider the importance of training future business leaders to build community in their own organizations—and making them feel like they belong.

People feel a sense of community in organizations when they have influence, make emotional connections, experience membership, have their psychological needs met, and feel a sense of responsibility for the group.

Branda Nowell and Neil Boyd explore this concept in a 2020 article in Public Management Review. They note that people feel a sense of community in organizations when they have influence, make emotional connections, experience membership, have their psychological needs met, and feel a sense of responsibility for the group. All these factors contribute to what psychologist Seymour Sarason describes as “feeling that one is part of a larger dependable and stable structure.”

Other experts emphasize humans’ need for connection. In a recent set of interviews with business and academic leaders in the Journal of Management Inquiry, Hector Rocha, Michael Pirson, and Roy Suddaby call for business and business education to focus on the common good. They point out the need for people to develop relationships within the organization—in other words, to develop a sense of community.

Institutions like the United Nations also recognize humanity’s onto-relatedness. The U.N.’s Global Compact, Sustainable Development Goals, and Principles for Responsible Management Education initiatives are all examples of our need for community on a macro scale.

Community-Centered Leadership

I have the good fortune of being connected with a group of organizational scholars who study community building from a variety of perspectives. This group, led by Reut Livne-Tarandach of Manhattan College in New York City, organized a professional development workshop titled “Together Remotely: Seeding and Cultivating a Sense of Community in a Virtual World,” which was presented at the 2021 Academy of Management meeting. One of the speakers was Tuan Ha, a Silicon Valley marketing director whose leadership philosophy favors creating organizations where members feel a sense of community.

He shared his experience with building everyday community in a remote work setting during COVID-19. During the early days of the pandemic, he conducted organizationwide surveys and found that employees—who had shared common work and leisure spaces before the virus forced them to work from home—were now feeling disconnected from their jobs, teams, and company. People were working more hours but being less productive. They missed the spontaneous connections they made when they shared a workspace with colleagues or had a conversation over lunch. And they were being quickly worn down by the competing demands of home and work life in the stay-at-home economy.

Ha worked with his team to develop mitigation strategies. They scheduled Zoom coffee chats, more frequent online meetings, and a host of virtual activities such as offsites, paint and sip parties, and happy hours. Most of these efforts fell flat. Ha and his team realized that they were attempting to translate in-person activities into a digital setting. This realization prompted a change in strategy as they focused on leveraging the tools that work best in remote environments:

  • They used chats for personal updates and recorded videos so they could asynchronously share information that previously would have been shared in real-time all-hands meetings.
  • They shortened synchronous sessions and made them more focused—and more frequent. Quarterly meetings were now monthly, and monthly meetings happened bi-weekly.
  • They adjusted their hiring strategies to take advantage of the remote workplace, expanding recruitment to cities and regions beyond tech hubs so they could reach more diverse talent pools.
  • They used existing employee resource groups to create additional opportunities for connection, particularly when employees wanted to discuss events such as the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Among the best practices for establishing a sense of community are engaging the team in co-creating solutions, focusing on inclusion and flexibility, and emphasizing recognition.

Through these efforts, Ha helped his remote workforce reestablish a sense of community. Ha also identified several best practices, such as the importance of engaging the team in co-creating solutions, focusing on inclusion and flexibility, and emphasizing recognition. The co-creation process and the new ways of working together provided employees with a sense of influence, membership, and emotional connection. Employees’ psychological needs were met, and responsibility for the group was fostered. A sense of being part of a larger, more stable group was achieved in what seemed like an out-of-control situation.

Everyday Community in the Classroom

During the pandemic, the sense of community on university campuses was similarly stressed, but the 2021–2022 academic year finds most business colleges going back to some form of in-person learning. And while the majority of students, faculty, and administrators were looking forward to the return, our collective regathering has not been without its challenges and miscues. In particular, many first-generation students have continuing family and work responsibilities outside the classroom, so their college careers are still complicated by the ongoing pandemic.

Through these days, I have been thinking about Steven and Ha. Steven reminds me that the person is important for creating and modeling everyday community. Ha reminds me that certain tools are essential for success in that effort.

As my undergraduate students have encountered personal and pandemic-related challenges related to their studies, I’ve endeavored to co-create solutions with them that achieve course learning objectives while accommodating their situations. Flexibility in course design and assignment due dates has been an essential part of these accommodations. Another key to building community in the classroom has been recognizing students for the work they do—and just for who they are as people.

In these complex times, it’s essential for business faculty to acknowledge our onto-relatedness and to help students experience membership in a larger, more stable social structure. One way to achieve this is to follow Joseph Rost’s ideal, proposed in his book Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, in which he calls for leaders and followers to co-create their collective future.

As we find our ways forward after the pandemic, business schools must continue to put community at our centers. We can do that in part by incorporating the Principles of Responsible Management Education into our missions and accelerating our adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in our curricula. We must remind ourselves and our students that, with any actions we take, we need to place humans at the heart of our efforts. During these uncertain times, creating everyday community in our business schools helps create a better world.

Richard Harvey Jonsen
Lecturer, Rohrer College of Business, Rowan University
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