September 3, 2021

Feeling Together When We’re Apart

4 min read
By Khairunnisa Mohamedali PhD

It’s been an unexpected year that has, among many things, upended how we work, how we collaborate, and how we interact with our colleagues. Just over a year ago, many organisations were forced, with little notice or preparation, to switch to remote working. The focus at the time had to be ensuring people were able to do their jobs from home. 

One year on, we can begin to see the impact this shift is having. Our workplace communities have taken a hit31% of people feel less connected to their leaders, while 37% feel less connected to their teammates. Yet we know community-building at work matters: people who feel a sense of belonging at work are at least 5 times more likely to be engaged. 

Our current social disconnection also has negative implications for learning: 91% of L&D leaders agree teams that learn new skills together are more successful. However, learning also offers a pathway into a solution: 92% of L&D leaders agree that shared learning helps foster a sense of belonging. 

This means development programmes can be rich spaces for building community while people are apart. We don’t need to be together to build community. Want to get a head start before the return to physical? There’s learning we can draw from history.

To meet this challenge, it’s time we rethink how we build programmes. Instead of thinking like programme designers, we need to think like nation-builders.

“Instead of thinking like programme designers, we need to think like nation-builders.” 

Nations are the perfect example of feeling together when we’re apart” because we will never in a lifetime meet everyone who shares the same nation as usYet, if you’re British, travelling in another country and you meet another person from the UK, you’ll feel connected to themYou might strike a conversation, have a drink, and feel you share somethingEven though you’re effectively strangers. 

That’s because there are important things we share with people from the same nation as us, that create a sense of community whether or not we ever meet these folks in person. 

We’ve drawn from the principles of nation-building to identif5 tips on how you can build those important things that make up a nation into virtual/hybrid programmes. In doing so, you can begin building belonging and community for your people.  



Anthropologists use the word ‘communitas’ to refer to moments of intense social togetherness and belonging. For example, singing our favourite song at a concert with 5,000 other people, or being part of that chorus of cheers when our team scores a goal.  

It’s the power of shared experiences. And experiences come in many forms. Studies have found our brainwaves sync up when we’re in an audience listening to the same story, in a group learning the same thing, or simply having a conversation about something we share. 

How can you create communitas in your programmes?  

  • Inspire the collective. Don’t just make people feel like they have a network, make them feel like they’re part of movement
  • Design for familiarity. Design every touchpoint in your programme to feel familiar somehow, so you’re constantly building moments, experiences and memories people can connect through 
  • Beginnings matter. The induction into your programme will set the tone for everything to come, and anchor people’s expectations. Make the first moment count 



From emojis to ‘omnishambles’. From elbow bumps to dabbing. From branded swag to newspaper headlines. Shared language and symbols give us shortcuts for communicating, sharing, and connecting. 

For historians and sociologists, shared symbols are at the root of our ability to form complex communities. Newspapers and magazines, for example, helped us form today’s modern nations. Across a nation, we all read the same headlines, see the same news, and share in the same language with people we’re unlikely to meet in person. 

How can you develop shared language in your programmes? 

  • Think visually. Develop a distinct look and feel for your programme, so people immediately recognize it and feel a part of it 
  • Create physical artefacts. Physical artefacts can feel like a luxury, especially today – but they can be powerful in helping people feel together even through they’re apart. Consider a swag bag 
  • Be an enabler. Consider what tools can you put in place to give people the autonomy to create a shared language of their own – this can be as straightforward as Yammer or Slack channels



Anthropologists define rituals as repeated behaviours that are imbued with meaning. Think of preparing a holiday meal. You aren’t just roasting a joint and some starch. Youre preparing a shared meal steeped in symbolism and meaning—family, country, love, nourishment, etc. 

Rituals anchor us and they connect us with each other. Consider this last holiday season. It might have helped to know that, even if you weren’t celebrating the holidays with your family, you were sharing in rituals with them while apart. 

How can you create rituals in your programmes? 

  • Design for consistency. Consistency is key to strong ritualsDesign consistent touchpoints that bring people together to do the same thing, even if they aren’t together doing these 
  • Unite different groups. Create opportunities for people from different geographies or functions to connect during those consistent touchpoints; this will bring together people who might not otherwise work together to connect through shared rituals 
  • Create anticipatory touchpoints. Use communications to create excitement and anticipation—for exampleinvest in the invites you send to skills sessions, to create a sense of occasion and meaning around learning 



Competition gives us a quick shortcut to creating strong in- and out-group behaviours. A strong sense of belonging with our ‘in-group’ allowed us to survive as small bands of humans who had to survive harsh conditions by uniting us around a shared goal.  

We can apply that same principle of using competition to unite today, by creating groups that compete in the pursuit of a shared goal (in our case, winning rather than surviving!)However, it is important that competition be done well so it unifies without being divisive 

How can you embed constructive competition in your programmes 

  • Gamification. Done well, gamification is key for constructive competition. As a bonus, it taps into our natural ability to learn through play 
  • Create psychological safety. For people to feel like it’s okay to compete with one another, be sure to create a space of psychological safety so that people feel like they can fail without it having a negative impact on how others perceive them 
  • Rotate between large and small. Get people interchangeably interacting with their large cohort and in smaller groups. Connecting with a few people intimately will give participants a greater feeling of connection within the larger cohort 



Nothing brings people together like clarity of purpose. 

Shared purpose aligns people toward an aim. It gives them a set of values they can use to establish norms, both of which are important building blocks for community. Through this, it builds a sense of belonging.   

How can you anchor your programme in purpose? 

  • Make it clear. A clear purpose inspires individuals to do their part in service of a shared goal, thereby creating a sense of togethernesseven when individual paths to achieving that goal look different 
  • Reference it consistently. Come back to the purpose—through communications, during skills sessions, any chance you get. Remind people why they are doing what they’re doing 
  • Make it inspirational. An exceptional purpose inspires and drives people to want to walk the path to achievement and success 



For many of us, the last year was a reactive response to COVID-19 and the forced shift to remote working. This next year, which is likely to bring a shift to hybrid working, is fortunately a year in which we can be proactive in our approach to learning and development. And importantly, to community-building in your virtual and hybrid development programmes. 

Whether your programme will be virtual, hybrid or face-to-face, we hope these five tips help. And remember: think like a nation-builder. 

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