The pandemic is ending, but virtual connections have only just begun

March 25, 2021

This is the first part of a multi-part series on community building. The lessons shared in this series are from my direct experience building the Propel community and creating meaningful relationships, as well as friendships, over the last year. The pieces are also informed by thought leaders, including Daniel Coyle and his work on team dynamics and Priya Parker and her work on gathering.

The second and third parts of the series will be focused on 1. my personal story about seeking community, before we built Propel, and 2. a deeper exploration on how we’re philosophically and functionally building the Propel community.

What do you call the energy you feel from meeting someone new at an event, having a discussion with a close group of friends, or bonding with someone while washing your dishes in the workplace kitchen?

Before you answer that, let’s pause here. Do you miss this energy? I know I did when the lockdowns began last March.

As the months passed, and my WFH status moved from something temporary to semipermanent, I started to think about this absence of energy more and more. At first, the way I thought about it was from a scarcity mindset — what was I lacking as my life veered fully away from in-person gatherings and building connection in that way?

I reclaimed this missing energy — and then some — through the Propel community. Now, I’m setting the table for individuals to manifest the same type of organic "collisions" in their own lives. Allow me to explain how.

The answer to my own question — “did I want to recreate this energy virtually?” — was yes. When I figured this out, I immediately started defining ways for collisions to happen among peers in Propel. The impact of collisions on our lives can be profound, even during the pandemic.

The need for virtual collisions isn’t going to go away once the pandemic does. If anything, it will only become more important because we’ve learned more about the right relationships for us and how to find them. Our understanding of how to create virtual friendships will inform the way we spend time with people in person, too.

In addition — instead of using social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook for connection with existing friends, because of the pandemic we’ve moved toward using alternative technology to power our access to new people that deeply impact us. It no longer is an organic connection on social media. It’s an intentional one.

Collisions impacting individuals, relationships, and mental health

So what are collisions, anyway? Collisions are a deeper form of connection that are created through aggregate and sequential connections. The building blocks might be: hallway conversations, random “this made me think of you” texts, serendipitous meetings, dog walking dates with friends, and any other “you see me” moments that stand apart from the surface level conversations that dominate our lives if we’re not careful.

In our virtual-first world, these building blocks might be:

  • Casual phone calls with friends that turn into discussions about current events
  • A recurring book club with a group of friends spread out across the country
  • Ongoing Zooms with your work team

But there’s a catch. The one thing all of these collisions have in common is that they’re rooted in pre-existing relationships. When you’re trying to nurture new relationships, you need to create a new playbook entirely.

Virtual connection has shown the opportunities — and the difficulties — in building meaningful relationships with people right now. In a recent Rapid Response podcast interview, Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, talks about this:

“This is the only time in human history that all of humanity has had the same experience, a shared experience. I think there’s a different crisis as big as all of that, maybe bigger. I think that crisis is loneliness, isolation, disconnection. In fact, I think that many of the problems in this world, the root of those problems is disconnection...we have a mental health crisis in this country that I think is going to be rising. And one of the great challenges is how do we build community and connection in the 21st century? Because the one thing we know about each other is we have to be together.”

As someone who has always valued the importance of creating meaningful relationships over conversations based on small talk or transaction, I was curious how this could work virtually. I desperately wanted to avoid the “how was your weekend indoors?” (the new question replacing the old “how was that trip you took with your family?”). I wanted to build a sense of belonging and leave us both feeling seen.

After a year of personal trial and error in the practice of making meaningful connections with strangers, I’ve come away with three central lessons:

1. There are specific types of conversations that produce individual collisions.

In all historically great teams and groups, corporate, sports, or otherwise, belonging cues are apparent. These cues always send the message "you are safe here.” They possess three basic qualities according to Coyle:

  • Energy: They invest in the exchange that is occurring
  • Individualization: They treat the person as unique and valued
  • Future orientation: They signal that the relationship will continue

We are built to require these signals, over and over. A sense of belonging is not tangible, nor trackable from a business standpoint.

The most prominent place in life that these signals are felt is typically work. Why? We spend at minimum 40 hours thinking about, talking about, and doing our work, even though we are no longer physically present at work these days.

When connection at work isn’t enough to fulfill us, we seek it with other groups and teams in our lives — likely with our families and friends.

What if you could find it in a community, with people that aren’t all people you already know?

As we’ve built Propel, starting with 20 of our closest friends and peers and growing beyond that initial group to a few hundred members, we’ve seen how energy, individualization, and future orientation can be accomplished through community.

2. Group communication is needed for all collisions to effectively occur.

The best way to curate group dynamics is to demonstrate behavior that consistently communicates: “We are safe and connected.”

Within Propel, we’ve instilled those behaviors and, as a result, seen patterns of interaction that help to create bonds in groups, even though it’s all taking place virtually.

Here’s what powers a virtual collision:

  • Short, energetic exchanges — like a response or emoji on the Propel Slack, the virtual equivalent of a fist bump
  • High levels of “mixing” — like creating opportunities to build relationships with other members that may be different than you during Propel forums and learning tracks
  • Asking questions that show you care — Propel is fortunately full of incredibly aware people that create candid dialogue with one another from the first time they meet
  • Listening without interruptions — like asking Propel members to share their thoughts in writing or live on a call, and giving them space to express these without forcing a response or resolution
  • Humor and laughter — the Propel community has a #watercooler channel that replicates the spontaneous conversations that are critical in turning colleagues into friends, and transcends traditional “talk” related to building and leading
  • Small, attentive courtesies — like being respectful of other members’ time, or commenting on another member’s “fun fact” they’ve shared in their introduction

You can create the conditions for these seven criteria to be met in any gathering, whether it’s in a club or on Clubhouse. It’s not always easy, though, and often must be intentional.

3. Great leadership is the final piece to deepening virtual relationships.

We hear about great leadership from all sorts of places. Whether you look up to a CEO of a unicorn startup, your mom that runs her own small business, or anyone in between - leaders of great organizations deliver a common set of cues to the people in their organizations. Those cues are:

  • You are part of this group
  • This group is special; we have high standards here
  • I believe you can reach those standards

At Propel, our community is relatively flat. Anyone can help anyone, and anyone can ask for help. As a community leader, I do my best to deliver these cues through a consistently kind and supportive energy that’s woven into every interaction.

When groups of individuals are empowered by these cues and collisions, they can create real, meaningful change together. That’s happening everyday in Propel.

Whether in the virtual world or the physical one, setting the table for collisions and knitting a community together using these concepts helps everyone achieve a deeper sense of belonging.

A note from a Propel member

Another note from a Propel member

Big thank you to Caro Claire Burke, Malkie Rothman, John Thomey, Tom Guthrie, and Samir Khanna for their support writing this piece.

If you're interested in joining the Propel community, get in touch!

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