How to Build a Vibrant Global Community, Virtually

How do you maintain a high level of connectivity and collaboration while working on complex topics—despite the increased physical separation?

Moments of challenge and complexity are also moments when the power of community can be the most catalytic, but it takes practice and intention to create community environments that are adaptable and resilient in times of need. Knowing that expertise on this topic lives in many communities that have been doing this work for some time, we asked members of the OpenIDEO community for their advice on how to build virtual, long-term, and accessible communities. 

Structure your digital space for optimal collaboration.

Just because you’re sharing a virtual space doesn’t mean you should be any less thoughtful in designing it. When setting up meetings for communities that don't share the same first language, abilities, or context, creating a container in which individuals can connect can unlock the most potential for problem-solving. This starts before the actual session. A few tactical tips to start:

  • Provide written materials to participants in advance so they can get a head start on reading or translating the text. 
  • Have a dedicated space for collecting questions before, during, and after a virtual meeting. 
  • Be aware of the "who": Instead of holding the knowledge as the facilitator of the session, aim to elevate and build appreciation around the diversity of perspectives and points of view that are being brought into the conversation. This is also something that grows and evolves as you get to know your community better.

“Create intentionality before the meeting starts by reminding your group to join by video (not just audio, if possible) and to make sure they’re in a quiet and uninterrupted space with pen and paper in hand. Garner agency by assigning roles to meeting attendees so they have a reason to stay engaged. A couple of roles you can try include the ‘observer’ (someone who points out when something needs additional clarification or when the meeting needs an energy boost), the ‘chat box wizard’ (keeps track of incoming messages or questions during a call), the time-keeper, and translator.”

— Daniela Restrepo Ortiz, OpenIDEO Chapters Community Strategist (Bogota, Colombia)

Design for global audience with a lens of accessibility.

Much of the technology leveraged today to connect virtual communities, such as the evolution of text messaging, was made possible by the work of people innovating with a lens of accessibility at the forefront.

Whether people are navigating language barriers, varying physical abilities, or a lack of video technology at their disposal, taking simple actions to ask and support various community's needs—like adding the question, “Do you have any accessibility needs?” to an RSVP form—can go a long way in designing an effective, accessible digital session.

Make designing for accessibility a habit. Here are some questions to begin the planning process for your next virtual global conversation:

  1. What is the shared goal of the session? 
  2. Who is joining, from where, and what languages do they speak? 
  3. How might I create space for participants to explicitly voice their needs to feel virtually supported?
  4. What accommodations might be helpful to the people in your virtual space? (Pro tip: Remote collaboration tools like Zoom and Google Hangouts have built-in accessibility features like closed captioning, transcripts, and screen reader support.)
  5. How can I build in rituals to learn from the breadth of experiences of the individuals present in this call?
  6. How can I continuously collect feedback that helps me better understand how community members feel supported?

Share locally to connect globally.

It’s easy to get frustrated during a busy workday and forget the magic that a video call can bring, or the brilliance of the other people on the line, which can get lost between time zones, continents, and languages. Take a moment to practice a simple grounding exercise to ease the tension and strengthen your team’s ability to co-create. Consider sharing where you’re located, bringing an artifact from your space, or asking the group, “What food reminds you of home?” Doing these things once isn’t enough to create community: Make it a consistent practice. We’ve seen that taking time to ground in a local context not only increases a team’s ability to work together, but also boosts impact.

“Take a moment at the beginning of a call to share an object from your home. This breaks the wall of the screen and opens the space for team members to empathize and connect with each other. We’ve seen this momentum lead to some amazing collaborative outcomes—between innovators, mentors, partners, and beyond!” 

Dima Boulad, OpenIDEO Community Fellow (Lebanon and Dubai)

There is power in injecting beauty and delight.

When designing resources for participants, institute moments for digital joy and play. Consider a wide range of learning styles and formats: Beyond text-heavy slide decks or word documents, can you include audio, video, or graphic resources? It may sometimes feel frivolous to take extra time to design for delight, but we’ve found that taking a moment to add visuals to an email or to play music during a virtual brainstorm helps boost engagement and activate creative thinking. 

“We spend a lot of time tracking our work and communication on boring, grey spreadsheets. I found that if I take a few extra minutes to design these spreadsheets to feel more collaborative, fun, and easy to interpret, it changes the mindset with which the entire team approaches and engages with that work.” 

Itika Gupta, OpenIDEO Community Fellow (India and the Netherlands)

Leverage the power of distributed communities to collaborate—despite the distance.

Whether it involves conducting interviews with end-users or doing analogous research across sectors, digital design sessions can help us source inspiration from places we may not have considered. For example, during the Education in Emergencies Alliance, social ventures from more than 40 countries focused on delivering education into emergency settings (post-disaster, refugee areas, crisis zones) were supported virtually and by people from all over the globe. By lending their voices and expertise, mentors and entrepreneurs helped the teams push their solutions forward—often from completely different parts of the world. While distributed work may have its challenges, it also enables collaboration beyond geographic boundaries and fuels greater creativity through cultural diversity.

 OpenIDEO Chapter Organizer Naman Mandhan trains a group of prototypers from around the world to help health entrepreneurs build out and test their concepts

“As innovators, we often spend a lot of time working on solutions within the local context that surrounds us. Having access to a global community helps build inclusion into our work from the very start, and gives us the opportunity to test that our work can be scaled globally.”

Naman Mandhan, Innovation Engineer, OpenIDEO Prototyper, and Chapter Organizer (Detroit, United States)

Use digital storytelling to change narratives and power dynamics.

As you build your community, there may come a time when you want to look outward and share your work with the world. Take a moment to step back and consider how you share stories to foster inspiration and shift perspectives—this starts with carving out consistent time and space to hear local stories.

For instance, BridgeBuilder 2018 Challenge winner TIMBY—founded by filmmaker and entrepreneur Anjali Nayar—provides hard-to-reach communities with the tools to tell and share their stories to solve complex problems. Using an encrypted mobile app and platform, TIMBY helped the indigenous Sengwer community safely document forced evictions through capturing pictures, videos, and data to tell their stories to stakeholders and decision-makers they normally were not able to reach.

The ability for communication to elevate unheard voices is evident in the work of Mohsin Mohi Ud Din, founder of refugee-led platform MeWeSyria, which enables young people in Syria to leverage social media to take back the narrative of how their experiences in the country are being told. He explains in this video how digital storytelling and communications act as vehicles for healing, community building, and change-making.

In thinking about your work, how might you empower your community to voice their stories and experiences? What are some creative ways to share those stories more broadly?

Last year, we hosted a panel about the BridgeBuilder 2019 Challenge at the SOCAP conference in San Francisco, USA. Although we were unable to have the Challenge mentors (who had lived experience as people on the move) in-person, we used video conferencing tools to make sure their voices and stories were represented in the room.

"When we understand each others’ stories and how that connects to the work we do, we are able to go deeper in that work and persevere when things get tough."

— Isaac Jumba, OpenIDEO Community Fellow (Nairobi, Kenya)

Use visuals to make things tangible in real-time.

Use analog and digital tools to visualize ideas, make strategies more concrete, and enable collaboration. When you consider that 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual and images are processed in the brain at 60,000 times the speed of text, taking time to share and create together visually during a virtual session can not only help you think more creatively and more efficiently, but it can also help overcome language barriers to get to a shared understanding of a concept or idea more quickly. Whenever possible, use visual tools (like photos, sketches, concept maps) or activities (like hosting a visualization exercise or going on a virtual field trip).

Examples of doodles, maps, and prototypes from our global community.

“Visualize to simplify, using metaphors, doodles, and simple language to help team members get engaged. To help mentors in the Healthy Bones Challenge coach teams through the human-centered design process, we killed the jargon, then simply drew out the ideas on post-its and shared them on our screens. It made discussing user journeys maps and working prototypes so much easier to do.”

Manisha Laroia, OpenIDEO Community Fellow (Delhi, India)

Community Fellow, Manisha Laroia, adds a creative touch to OpenIDEO's challenges by translating complex ideas and concepts into beautifully drawn doodles

Stay connected by maintaining regular communication.

It's far too easy for feelings of stress and loneliness to replace human connection during times of crisis. Fill this gap and stay connected to your team via regular check-ins, frequent updates, and casual conversations. Don’t underestimate the in-between moments: Leverage tools like WhatsApp, Slack, or Facebook groups to share informally and connect between sessions. Make sure to create a consistent rhythm for your communications, and design moments for spontaneous connection.

From WhatsApp groups to Slack conversations dedicated to sharing stories, music, and links that are inspiring us, our team uses these informal channels to build rituals for daily connection.


Creating a virtual community, just like creating an in-person community, takes time, intention, and a willingness to adapt in response to your specific communities’ needs. Building empathy and understanding is the first step in creating resilient and creative virtual communities. We believe empathy is the foundation of creative problem-solving and it’s a muscle to be built.

In addition to taking this moment to boost our remote work and community building skills, we’re curious about how distributed communities can unlock opportunities to elevate unheard voices and shift power dynamics, especially in these extraordinarily uncertain times. We’d love to hear how your work has shifted due to the COVID-19 outbreak, along with your own tips for digital community building. Share them with us on Twitter or Instagram.

RESOURCES

Want to dive deeper? Here are a few of our favorite tools for virtual collaboration:

Tools:

  • Shape — A visual, collaborative digital space to help teams build, test, and refine their ideas
  • Miro — A whiteboarding platform that makes it easier for teams to brainstorm online
  • Mural — Similar to Miro, a visual workspace that can be used to share sticky notes, organize ideas, and synthesize information
  • Tips on using Google for Collaboration

All illustrations by Manisha Laroia