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Community during Coronavirus – Welsh ICE

Introduction

I’ve been building communities of one sort or another for years without really thinking too hard about it. As I’ve become more and more interested in the subject on an academic level, I’ve written thousands of words about it. Until I find a proper home for that writing I’ve decided to write a short series of blogposts about creating, building and maintaining communities during this global Coronavirus pandemic. I’ll be interviewing community leaders to ask them about their communities, how they’re coping, and the work they’re doing to keep their communities together at this time. Hopefully it will provide some insight into the work people are doing, and provide inspiration for those of us who also run communities.

My first conversation was with Jamie McGowan, community manager at Welsh ICE, a coworking space and business support centre in Caerphilly, South Wales.

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NC: Tell me about your community.

JM: “We have a community of 250 businesses who have memberships to ICE, meaning there’s a total of about 400 individuals in the community, with a further alumni of 200-300. All of them identify as startups, creatives, or self-employed. They’re all businesses of some sort, but they all want to do something different. They don’t want to work for “the man”. What’s interesting is that they’re not from any specific sector. We have dog walkers through to lawyers, and they come from across south Wales, although lots of them are from the valleys.”

NC: And what’s your role there?

JM: “My role is effectively to recruit people into that community. It’s not an open door policy. But we do make it easy. You can effectively have a desk within an hour of walking through the door. In terms of supporting and building the community we try not to be too hands on. On top of that, I kind of play the role of a “Tummler”, which is a Yiddish word. A tummler is basically someone whose role, particularly at Jewish weddings, is to introduce people to each other and make sure they meet other interesting guests at the event. I’m there to make sure that people can find the right person at the right time.

But beyond that, we give the community permission to run their own thing, because you can’t do everything for them.

Our culture means that we never say no. It’s about helping people, it’s about being open with your black books, and helping without expectation.”

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NC: And how are you dealing with the Covid-19 situation?

JM: “It’s not been easy, because everything we do is about convincing people to spend time around other people and not work from home all the time. Our whole messaging is based on that. But we’ve stopped recruiting new community members, and started really focusing on helping our existing members.

Currently a lot of the activity is in our community’s Facebook group. We’re in there, engaging with the community, and taking part in the many discussions that are happening. It’s basic, but it’s where all the conversation happens.

On a more proactive level, we’ve moved all our events online. Our events tend to be mainly practical. So workshops about how to use Mailchimp, Photoshop, and that kind of thing. But we haven’t just moved all that online, we’ve tripled that amount that we do.”

Our thought process was ‘Let’s scale up, not scale back’.

We’re also adding stuff that is more relevant to the current time. Webinars about mindfulness, cashflow, and things that help specifically right now. Also, we traditionally have our own members run the majority of the workshops on their areas of expertise. It makes connections within the community but also keeps the payment internal, too. And that’s so important right now.

We traditionally have a communal lunch at ICE in Caerphilly but now, between 12 and 1pm, we have an open video chat channel for people to jump in and join. You can see your coworkers. Hear them. Talk over lunch. But we try not to talk about work. It’s just normal conversation.”

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NC: Yes, I’ve had a Google Hangout running much of the day while I’m at home, with the mic muted, and I publish the link on Facebook. Friends can swing by and wave at me from my second screen. Just getting a daily sense of there being other human beings around, especially if you live and work alone, is so important. What other group activities are you running?

JM: “Our monthly film club has always been really popular. Traditionally we’d go upstairs to a big training room, and use a projector there. It often attracts some people who don’t go to anything else. Maybe just because you sit silently in a dark room, it can work for the introverts who are members. Now we’re running them online using Netflix Party [https://www.netflixparty.com/]. It allows us to all watch together, in sync. We chat in the chatbox, and it’s a fairly communal experience. We’re just curating feelgood movies at the moment though, for obvious reasons!

We have a daily check-in thread in the FB group, which is working really well for accountability. Everyone drops by first thing in the morning to say the things that they plan to get done that day, and it’s just a way of us all keeping accountable to each other. And it’s entirely run by the community.

Perhaps the best example is the online award ceremony we ran. We have a programme called The 5-9 Club, which allows those still in full time employment to work on their new business after work. It operates across 6 towns in South Wales, and an awards ceremony for the participants had been planned. Instead, the main facilitator, Lesley, and I dressed up in our finest awards clothing, a tuxedo and ballgown, and presented it online. We had over 50 people in the online audience, and they all had their microphones and cameras turned off, unless we announced them as a winner. In which case they switched on their microphone and camera and came to the “stage” to accept their award. They were greeted by digital clapping – everybody typing X’s in the chatbox. It really felt like a proper event, and real celebration of these people who were working so hard after hours to get their businesses launched.”

Outro

I’ve long been a fan of Welsh ICE, and the buzz when you walk through the door there is always noticeable. They have such a great community feel, and it shines through in everything they do. And they’ve gone above and beyond to make their community feel special. As Jamie said, they decided to scale up, not scale back. And despite the inevitable challenges that the next few months will pose to them, they’re clearly not going to abandon their community.

While you’re here, check out these other posts which might be of interest:

The Dash, and how it helps us build better communities

A weekend of thinking and relaxing

Happiness – my reading list

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By Neil Cocker

More at NeilCocker.com

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