Building a strong communications community of practice across countries, time zones and cultures.
By: Sarah Wilbore, Communications Director
The restructure process that 350 went through in 2020 was based on the two, perhaps conflicting, principles of (i) decentralization and (ii) alignment building. How could we do both at the same time? Decentralization and regional empowerment still require decision-making, strong organizational culture and robust processes — and it intersects with how people connect to each other. Considering our goals and the risk of decreased information flow between communications function staff we were advised to create a community of practice:
Definition: A community of practice is a group of people who share a common work function or interest in a topic, who come together to fulfill both individual and group goals.
Just for some background, 350 is a global organization and our work is grounded regionally, with campaigns focused on local issues. We operate in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Each regional team operates independently, with the same goal to end the age of fossil fuels by cutting off the money to fossil fuels, stopping any new fossil fuel projects and demanding a just transition to 100% renewable energy.
With an aim to empower regional teams, it was decided that support functions like communications, which were previously centrally managed within a global team, would now move under regional management. This was positive and mirrored other functions like digital that were already regionally managed. But there were some risks attached, primarily that this could affect communication flow between teams, which is already a challenge in a completely remote work environment.
In our structure, having these communities of practice meant establishing a critical space for peer-coaching and support, for setting up standards for our work, for gathering and giving feedback and having strategic conversations with colleagues working in roles similar to ours — even if in different contexts. Also, as opposed to matrix management, it meant a flatter hierarchy and an emphasis on collective spaces. This was happening simultaneously with the campaigning, organizing and digital functions across the organization as well, it just happens that communications was the first community ready to form.
Here are 6 things that help set the communications community of practice up for success:
- The community is “owned” by its members
The communications community was already well established as a team because all roles were formerly managed centrally, we wanted to embrace this and build a true community. This meant that members participated in the creation of the ways of working, group norms, and agreed to share facilitation of the space. Members facilitate a series of three community sessions each. So far this has worked really well, we still have a central coordination team consisting of the Global Communications Director, Associate Director of Editorial & Languages, and Senior Admin & Evaluation Specialist to ensure accountability and consistency.
This model of collective ownership also helps us to welcome new voices and ideas, and to foster the participation of those who tend to speak less: everyone will be in the role of facilitator at some point, and everyone is welcome to propose topics or to host a session.
2. Meeting time equity means being ok with dividing the team
We have members in the community from over 10 different time zones! Which means we have great global coverage but it’s almost impossible to have everyone on the same call within their working hours. We split the community calls into two calls and managed to divide the group in half. We’ve found that even though we traded off meetings with the whole community, the smaller groups mean there is higher participation in conversations and call times are equitable among team members. The facilitator of call 1 sends their facilitation notes to the facilitator of call 2 so there is alignment between meetings.
These meetings are bookended by an annual communications community retreat that lasts over 4 days and often provides topics for discussion or further deep-dive ideas for community meetings.
3. Keep it interesting!
Something to always keep in mind is that the community cannot be a performative function, simply existing to check a box. Members need to feel they gain value from each meeting. Having a community owned space helps with this because members generate ideas for call topics. And we try to balance the topics between brainstorms, debriefs, new information or skill sharing, project updates and culture conversations. This can feel like the bi-weekly meetings are all over the place but it really keeps members engaged and keen to attend these calls.
We try to always think about session designs that don’t rely only on the traditional presentation format. We use a lot of break-out rooms to give people the chance to interact in smaller groups and have deeper discussions, and we’re always seeking new ideas to make our calls more interactive.
4. You can’t improve what you’re not tracking
It’s important to continuously monitor engagement to make sure everyone is finding these spaces valuable. Right now we conduct an annual survey to assess how things are going and what can be improved. The first survey showed us that people felt more informed with the communities of practice but wanted more cross regional alignment and discussions about strategy, so we updated meeting topics accordingly and made strategy a bigger component at the communications retreat this year. Our second evaluation is scheduled for April 2022.
5. Build relationships and communication lines with community member line managers
Regional communications staff moving from the global communications team to regional management meant that they were now going to be the only communications person on their team, and their line manager (typically not a communications expert) would have less understanding of their day-to-day work. We felt it was important to establish strong relationships between the communications director and the regional team leads to ensure transparency and an awareness of communications work. This involved some 1:1 meetings when the transition happened and quarterly updates to regional team leads on how the community is functioning.
6. Foster trust with the community first, and then extend beyond
We were lucky that many communications people had well-established relationships given that they were centrally managed previously. When decentralizing this team we were mindful that we wanted to continue a trusting environment. This meant community ownership and creating a safe space for everyone. Communities of practice are not confidential spaces, but it’s highly important for us that everyone feels comfortable to express their honest feedback, ask questions and ask for support when needed.
We’ve also realized that we’d like to extend the community space beyond communications and bring voices from other teams like campaigns, fundraising and movement support. This will help us build stronger relationships with other teams and create a collaborative environment that strengthens the communications work.
The communications community has been operating for over a year now. In that time the campaigns, organizing and digital communities are now up and running. So far we think that this model has been effective and we look forward to conducting a collective assessment on all the communities in the future.