What separates a group of people from a community? The latter is cohesive and has a sense of purpose. A group evolves into a community, when there are shared qualities, needs, or goals. Research shows there are three kinds of communities, all of which overlap with our workplace:

  • Origin communities. We are part of these as a result of our birth, and based on factors such as gender, race, language, religion, etc. These communities provide our first understanding of the world. Whether we personally identify with them or not, we are often categorized according to them. Workplace communities can also evolve out of these identities. And they offer a safe refuge for similar people to learn together. For example, women’s leadership groups.
  • Growth communities. They are made up of people we feel an affinity with, based on our current likes and dislikes. They may be official – such as the company football team – or informal, such as employees who regularly meet for yoga. These communities often provide us with a feeling of security, and give us maps of the world different to those formed by our origin communities. A key piece here – these groups help us form emotional ties, especially in our workplaces. Think of the lunch group that eats together, the Christmas parties, or even project teams. They help us be more invested at work.
  • Aspiration communities. They are different from the above two, as they are built based on differences and not similarities. Moreover, they need not last long. Such communities are often formed when people collaborate to use strengths and qualities unique to each one of them, to achieve a common goal. And they may dissolve once the goal is achieved.

According to researchers at IE Business School, Celia de Anca and Salvador Aragon, people benefit most when they can move between different kinds of communities, without being restricted to any. Especially origin. Thus, the most effective communities for employees are those formed by aspirations, making different groups more permeable and accessible.

How can organizations leverage this knowledge, to provide people with a steady community experience, while using the benefits of a community to meet strategic goals? Anca and Aragon offer some ideas:

  1. Allow employees to build common creative projects, and invite participation from across the board. The goal would be to solve an existing organizational problem. Everis, a data company, issues innovation challenges related to their strategic plans, and invites employees to vote for the best plans. Project teams are then formed to execute them.
  2. Make community organizing a formal task. One of the key objectives of people management is to help employees find their space at workplace. So how can managers help create communities which people can volunteer to participate in? How can these be devoid of origin identities? Build them based on shared leisure activities, skill-based learning, etc.
  3. Build an inclusive organizational culture, such that people consistently feel like they are part of a bigger picture. For example, build cultures of purpose, of open space collaboration. Or even one where there is no hierarchy – Valve Corporation has done so.

Whether temporary or permanent, communities help companies leverage employees’ diverse strengths and motivations. When created consciously, these structures help employees move out of their comfort zones and form cross-organizational ties that benefit both parties. Why not try and see?

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