This editorial article is a part of Technical.ly's Community Building Month of our editorial calendar.
Indy Hall, the Old City coworking space and a community of folks across industries in the Philly area and beyond, has always hosted a form of that community online.
Alex Hillman founded the organization after realizing that working for yourself or working remotely can be an isolating experience. Nearly 15 years later, in addition to an active Slack, membership offers programmed events, communal lunches and a space where people can feel comfortable to gather or host meetups at its current location at 4th and Market streets.
A good chunk of Indy Hall’s members — about 70% — don’t come to the physical space on a regular basis, Hillman said. They maintain memberships for the access to the community and its perks.
The pandemic-time reality now for Hillman and other business leaders around the world is that they don’t know when operations of daily life, including folks showing up to work somewhere other than their homes, will resume.
“We’re in the place of not knowing how long it’s going to last, and not sure what we’re coming back to,” he said. “Long-term planning is impossible. So, we’re going to look for pockets where we can have some certainty.”
One of the biggest aspects of work life lost right now is the casualness and serendipity of interactions with other people, the founder said. So, to mirror its IRL open-house style first Friday events where anyone from the community is welcomed in to the space to meet others and cowork, Indy Hall is trying a virtual Open Hall @Home. It’s essentially a daylong virtual event where people can come in and out of sessions all day using different platforms or digital tools, if they’re looking for some casual conversation, to share a cup of coffee through a screen or just to have folks there to keep them motivated.
The first Open Hall on May 1 had six sessions throughout the day, lasting from 15 minutes to an hour for casual chats, a “show and tell” or the chance to all watch rotating YouTube videos together (try PSP-TV.com, Hillman advised). Hillman said they plan to continue the first Friday rhythm, hosting an Open Hall at the beginning of each month. The next is on June 5.
Other virtual events on the schedule include an “Animal Crossing island crawl” and Saturday morning cartoons.
Flying high on gratitude for everyone who participated in todays @indyhall at home “Open Hall" experiment!
It was overwhelmingly successful with dozens of participants, including several from outside of Philly.
We learned a lot, and the next version will be even better. 💛 pic.twitter.com/tHfgG9HCgB
— 📙 Alex Hillman (@alexhillman) May 1, 2020
The “playbook” for community building hasn’t changed, even though it might be virtual now, Hillman said: “Bring people together, listen and build on what you hear.”
Remote work isn’t new to Bon Alimagno, who’s worked remotely for a few jobs at Indy Hall for about three years now. He said if anything, the lockdown has made him get more involved in the community, not less.
“But what Indy Hall provided then with its physical space is what it provides now with its digital spaces,” Alimango said. “I needed anchor points. I needed places I could vent about a bad day. I needed people to have a happy hour with. And that’s been this community.”
The virtual Open Hall was a good start, he said. Although it can be hard to create the sense of surprise or newness in a virtual setting for visiting folks, they managed to do that through a walkthrough of the space and different plans throughout the day, including his favorite part, a happy hour.
“What may have been the highlight was our happy hour that day where musicians popped into the Zoom and performed which transformed our typical weekly toast into something more of a chill party and celebration,” Alimango said. “Really capstoned the community spirit of the entire day.”
Amanda Thomas, the publisher at Lanternfish Press, works out of Indy Hall with a few coworkers and said that they use the space for various things: a place to work, a place to have in-person meetings, a place to store their growing pile of books. Still, “the community has always has been more important for us than the physical space,” she said.
Thomas has been hosting the 9 a.m. coffee calls and writing micro challenges for the community every weekday and said maintaining routines, breaking down tasks into tiny steps, and externalizing information where she needs it are her strategies for being focused and healthy. She said the Open Hall fell on an especially busy day for her, but it was cool to see some new faces.
“It delights me to know that even in these bizarre times there are folks who want to join this community,” Thomas said. “There’s someone who is a regular at 9 a.m. coffee who joined just before all this started. It’s different getting to know people remotely, but the fundamentals of human connection haven’t changed. I get to say hello and ask people about their days just as I always would have. Now it happens via a Zoom call instead of in the Indy Hall kitchen.”
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