Online co-working partnerships are community of practice in action

When Naomi Penfold of the CEFP2019 cohort and Stefanie Butland (#CEFP2017) met in person at the January 2019 CEFP training week they decided to continue collaborating online – by setting up virtual co-working sessions. In this joint post they describe the format that’s worked for them and why they’ve found their shared time so valuable.

What is online co-working – and why is it good?

After meeting at the first CEFP2019 Fellows’ meeting, we started a co-working partnership. We meet face-to-face online, at agreed times, to do work – our own work, but together in time. This is remote synchronous co-working via video-meeting.

Briefly, we start a session with each of us saying what we are working on, and how we’d like to break up our time together into work blocks and discussion. At the end of each work block, we report back to each other what we’ve accomplished in that time and whether we’re struggling with anything. These breaks can turn into work discussions when we feel we need that, and that’s the real magic.

We’ve found in each other the magic of working with like-minded people! Sometimes two community managers from different communities relate to issues and approaches better than a community manager does with a team member from their own community. We have built an intellectual partnership across organizations, through which we share “good enough” practices, normalize our expectations outside of our everyday silos, and support each other.

We find that feedback from someone who gets what you’re doing in both a philosophical and detailed way is worth its weight in gold

The breaks are where the synergy comes. Often we help each other get unstuck, ask for advice on how to approach a certain project or task, or say “omigosh that is fantastic”. We find that feedback from someone who gets what you’re doing in both a philosophical and detailed way is worth its weight in gold, and listening to how others have tackled a challenge you’re likely to face yourself is really useful – it’s a mutually beneficial exchange.

Seeing the to-do list of a fellow professional is also very helpful to adjust your own expectations about what is possible to achieve, without over- or under-loading yourself. Co-working partnerships are community of practice in action.

Here’s how we do it:

  • Keep it small: Beyond 3 people, it takes longer to get into everyone’s challenges and it’s harder to build depth in the relationship, so it’s a less effective use of our shared time. We find working as a pair works great. We found each other by trying out co-working with several folks, and it was natural for us to continue.
  • Find the time: Practically, with our timezone differences (Scotland and Canada) and work obligations, we try to find 1h30 to 3h slots to sit down together. For Stef, this sets her up for an inspired day ahead; for Naomi, this ends her day on a high.
  • Share the organizational responsibility: Someone suggests one or more potential sessions in the near future. When someone agrees to a slot, the suggester sets up a video meeting, sends the calendar invitation, and lets people know. We’ve experimented with using a Google Sheet to coordinate this, and sometimes we just list options in a shared Slack workspace.
  • Structure your time: We use a browser-based shared timer (more below) to work for a set time, then come back to check in with each other. We like 45 minute work blocks and 5-10 minute breaks. Naomi uses 25-minute and 90-minute work blocks with others. 

Useful tools

Of course, life’s easier when “there’s an app for that”. Here’s what we use:

  • A place to meet: BlueJeans (no free option), Google Hangouts (free for up to 10 participants using Classic [legacy] version), Whereby (free for up to 4 participants), Zoom (free unlimited 1 to 1 meetings; 40-minute time limit on meetings with 3 or more participants). During work sessions, participants stay in the video meeting but mute audio and turn video off. During breaks, we unmute and turn video back on to chat – for a community of practice co-working partnership, we think face-to-face time on video is important: there’s so much communication in body language. 
  • A shared timer: “Cuckoo” timer is a free browser-based shared timer split into work and break sessions (with editable time blocks and a customisable URL) – thanks to fellow CEFP fellow Jess Rohde for introducing us to this app, it’s a fantastic tool!
  • A tool to coordinate timezones: We like and its Event Time Announcer for scheduling and sharing unambiguous meeting times across timezones (example

Other ways to co-work

1. As Accountability buddies

To “get stuff done” without the shared interest or domain, you could find an accountability buddy (or many! If you don’t chat so deeply, the format is more scalable.) and use the same tools and structure as before. Why do the pomodoro technique alone, when you can do it together?

An example of the results of supporting one another through online co-working

2. Working on a shared project

You can also use the format to virtually work together on a shared project, as Kirstie Whitaker sets out for The Turing Way’s Collaboration Cafe.

Our co-working sessions are for us to spend time doing our own scientific community engagement manager jobs for different organizations at the same time, with the benefit of our mutual interest and experience and empathy. It’s like having a virtual ‘office buddy’ as the community engagement team we don’t have in our physical offices.

With thanks to everyone who has co-worked with us so far. We’d love to hear how you connect with remote peers who help you do your best work.