Networking in the New Normal
The dawn of the COVID Era has introduced new pressures on almost all aspects of society. These changes and shifts, as difficult as they have been for so many of us globally, present new challenges but also new opportunities to reconfigure and rediscover the process of innovation. One of the biggest shifts in the last two years has been in defining the role of “community” within the innovation ecosystem. Building meaningful networks, encounters, and connections are the bedrock of so much of the innovation process, and are the aspects perhaps most challenged in a time and place in which we feel more isolated and separate than ever.
Despite the obstacles to overcome, the last two years have provided an opportunity within this challenge to redefine how we conduct work, how we interface with our colleagues, interact with our customers, and attract investment and support. At GIST, we’ve seen our innovators and larger international community tackle these challenges in new and novel ways. There has been plenty of iteration and experimentation, trying to figure out what of the old processes should stay and what should be reinvented. We are interested in examining these trends, from “work from home” to virtual ecosystem building, in varying ways. We will look at the role of startups attempting to build themselves and scale in this era, at corporate leadership and institutions navigating new ways forward and shifting their previously existing processes, and towards organizations like ours in venture support as we and other ecosystem builders work to keep connections thriving, networks flowing, and opportunities open and accessible.
Starting from Scratch
Attempting to create and build a venture has always been a daunting and intimidating task. This was true before the pandemic, and is even more so now. The role of networks is vital to a young startup; in fact, almost every first move is dependent on them. Acquiring meaningful mentorship, building a like minded team, and attracting pivotal early investment all require deep levels of human connection, with lots of trust and open communication. Typically this was aided by proximity, where you could interact with innovation ecosystems in your city or region, build networks of peer groups, and close out deals and interviews with eye contact and a handshake. All of that has changed.
Now, young startups are looking for new ways to facilitate the opportunities they would have had pre-pandemic. Many of these startups are proving it’s possible to foster powerful relationships in virtual space, building rapport through meaningful personal investment in their communities. Startups are using new digital tools to create more diverse virtual meeting spaces for building intercompany connections, with virtual coffee breaks and randomized meeting rooms that model the serendipitous connection one might get at an office or co-working space. Some are even finding that informal spaces like video games might be a good way to build more personal connections with investors and peer ecosystems, with organizations turning to virtual meeting spaces in games like Fortnite to build community.
Some of these more out-of-the-box adjustments are going to be the norm going forward, and for one key reason. Despite the many negatives, there has been an unexpected positive: the current crisis is actually encouraging creativity in young teams and founders. Community-building is a key part of young venture formation, and this creative generation of founders is going to find new and increasingly creative ways to accomplish that task, despite the obstacles in their way.
Community At Scale
While there are challenges and opportunities for new ventures in particular, there are shifts underway that affect the whole spectrum of innovators, from individuals all the way to the corporate and regional scale. The major challenges that innovators in all capacities face include learning how to adapt towards work-from-home while building a culture of innovation that can transcend the limitations therein and maximize the opportunities that might be present, shifting networks that might have once existed “IRL” towards a new digital, or often hybrid, future.
Work-from-home is rapidly revealing itself to be far more complex than a simple or temporary fix, and holds within it paradigm shifts that impact the whole of all kinds of work. Work-from-home has encouraged companies and startups to re-engage with questions of equity and diversity in a new light, with particular attention being paid to gender equity. Companies of all sizes should look to the new and ever-shifting regulatory landscape not just for guidelines, but also for inspiration on how to be ahead of the curve in creating a meaningful work culture shift that makes the nature of work better for all employees, particularly in hybrid models that need to make it work for everyone.
One thing that is key for companies of all sizes to keep in mind in this moment of transition is that it is exactly that: a time of rapid change. Parsing through what is a reaction to right- now versus what will be long-lasting are the questions that even the best analysts and thinkers are having a hard time answering. To that end, it’s important for companies and startups to think about building digitally networked communities that last, even after the end of the pandemic. The pandemic has shifted so much in our society that it can be hard to separate what the impacts are on work versus wider life; rebuilding culture that lasts is going to take leaning in and being courageous.
Rebuilt communities are inherently going to look different than they did before the pandemic, and there are opportunities within that transition. Companies and even whole cities are looking at how to create shifts to hybrid systems, buildings, and even whole neighborhoods that reflect our new shared reality. These interventions are surprising and elegant, like the “front porch,” a new feature of the open office neighborhood, where colleagues greet each other in-person and connect with remote colleagues via virtual dashboards, or a tech-enabled “connected kitchen,” where coworkers can hang out, grab coffee, virtually chat with people working from home, and feel connected to a sense of purpose and community that extends well beyond the physical workplace. The hybrid workplace of the future is all about using technology to help build “IRL” communities that are resilient; as the thought leaders at Gensler describe:
“The office is no longer a container for people, but a physical- and digital-enabled ecosystem that equips people with the tools and support they need to thrive while amplifying flexibility, choice, work/life balance, diversity, and equity. This is a workplace with heart — listening at the edges, leading with compassion, and empowering people to innovate, create, and stay connected, wherever they are.”
We couldn’t agree more, and we are inspired by the role the startup community is having in making this idea a reality.
While the pandemic has shifted the entrepreneurial landscape in many ways, one perhaps unexpected shift is that there has actually been a startup boom. According to the latest research from the Kauffman Foundation, there has been an increase in those interested in entrepreneurship and looking to explore it further. This moment is incredibly important for organizations like ours, as we work to help our global entrepreneurship community have the tools it needs to meet this moment head-on. Building community within the entrepreneurial ecosystem has always been vital to the collective success of innovators, and strategies to maximize that process are more important than ever, but simultaneously more challenging.
GIST is working to foster new solutions to ecosystem building, from democratizing access to our archive of startup resources to exciting new developments as we host our first-ever virtual pitch competition, enabling entrepreneurs around the world to have access to community-building, next-generation tools, and personalized mentorship that transcends borders and space. Our Innovates programming over the last year in Ukraine and Bhutan has experimented with and utilized new methodologies to foster regional entrepreneurial communities virtually, and has allowed us to gain valuable insights into this work we can carry forward. Together, we are working with startups, innovators, and partners in the innovation ecosystem to find new ways of building community, coming together in a time where fostering networks is more important than ever.
Join us for Part Two in our series as we gain insight into what our entrepreneurial ecosystem is doing to adapt to our shared new normal, from young ventures and innovators to members of the larger community of entrepreneurial support programs.