Building an online community

When the UK came to a standstill back in March there was suddenly a digital boom. Families unable to see each other face to face took their conversations online. People working from home connected over Zoom. Online pub quizzes, comedy shows and gigs became the new Saturday night in.

Online communities emerged all over the country. Internet usage surged by 50% around the world and Vodaphone showed a mobile data increase of the same amount.

Finding another way to connect when you couldn’t physically be with people was hugely important for everyone’s mental health. It was a way for grandparents to watch grandchildren growing up, friends to chat about the stresses and strains of daily life and a lifeline for people living alone.

But for certain industries like the theatre, going digital wasn’t such as easy switch. Live performers talk about ‘the house coming alive’ and an ‘energy’ which travels between an actor and members of the audience. A connection which isn’t achieved in the same way through a screen.

So, the industry had to adapt – from live shows incorporating in-the-moment audience feedback to finding new ways to ignite the senses digitally.

It’s a similar challenge facing the world of physical activity. Whilst on paper it may look easy to switch something like an exercise class online, it’s not always been that simple. Then there are team sports like netball or football which rely on the physical presence of other people and can’t be recreated over the internet. Plus all the senses that aren’t fulfilled in the same way through a screen.

The digital divide also causes issues when it comes to online video – which requires a high-speed, high-quality connection to avoid the sort of frustrating experience which would put people off for life. For some this is simply unaffordable or inaccessible.

Yet, despite all this, people across Derbyshire have taken the bull by the horns, tackled the challenge head on and connected with others in ways we may previously never have imagined.

The digital journey

While those who were technologically savvy switched to their screens to connect, many who relied on face to face contact were isolated from friends, families and their neighbours. In Crich, the Crich Area Digital Friends was developed with the aim of tackling just that – to help lonely and isolated people in the parish communicate with family and friends using modern technology. But the scheme wasn’t without its challenges.

Cathy is a volunteer involved in the initiative. She explains: “Our initial plan was to get mobile phones and lend them out for people to use. Easy, we thought. But it wasn’t easy at all. Mobile phones contain personal details so we couldn’t loan them long term. We moved to tablets but even that was quite difficult. I don’t think there are many other community groups who do this because there are so many obstacles.

“Cost is also a barrier to some older people – even if they have the money they are reluctant to spend so much on something they know so little about. There’s the cost of equipment and then some don’t have internet so that’s extra to pay on top. There are simpler phones and tablets out there but they are so expensive.

“We’re bogged down with all the covid restrictions at the moment. I want to be able to go around to people’s houses and show them how to use things but I’m not allowed.”

However, when you talk to the residents taking part in weekly WhatsApp calls, the benefits to them are clear. Local resident Heather talks excitedly about how she joined a Zoom call for her grandson’s 21st birthday, with relatives from around the world. While Alan describes how trying to work things out keeps his brain exercised.

Another resident, Freda explains, “at the beginning I didn’t want to join because I’m frightened of technology. I never thought I’d be able to do it. But it becomes automatic like driving a car or walking down the street. It is nice because it means we keep in touch and we find out little bits of useful information from each other.”

Bringing physical classes online

It’s not only older people who’ve had to get used to new technology. For those working in physical activity, it was a learning curve for a lot of businesses and groups. Whilst some struggled to make it work, New Bodies Gym – a small, family-run business with gyms in New Mills and Buxton – had a phenomenal response when they took their classes online.

Andy Lomax from New Bodies Gym in Buxton explains how they worked through it.

He said: “On the day of lockdown we had to work out what to do. As an instructor you want to talk to people. That’s why you do this job. It’s hard when that’s taken away from you.”

Keen to stay connected with their customers, the gym got cracking. There were initial challenges and things to learn. This included discovering the best time of day, which classes translated well on screen and which online system worked best.

Andy said: “I tried one class using the Zoom trial version. By the time everybody had said hello you didn’t leave yourself enough time to do a decent class. That bit is important to us. So as a business we subscribed to the yearly plan which gives you no time limit.”

Another challenge Andy had to overcome was maintaining the safety of people online.

“I always ask people to switch their cameras on at the start so I can make sure we know who’s there. We had one instance where someone who wasn’t a member joined and wouldn’t turn their camera on so I had to remove them. Now I make sure the password to join is only shared in our Whatsapp group,” he said.

“Some people don’t want others to see them exercising. About 50% of my class turn their cameras off when the class starts and then switch it back on to cool down at the end. I’m not physically there so I’ve got to make sure people are safe.”

Kelly Scott from New Bodies Gym in New Mills said: “It’s quite hard for people to hear if we’ve got music on in the background so we’ve not really focussed on the music. For us it was more about bringing people together, doing something together that we’re used to doing. Everyone was just buzzing to see each other. It’s a very social thing and I think that’s the biggest thing that’s worked for us. Connecting everyone.”

Keeping children safe online

At Area 51 Martial Arts Academy in Bolsover, Director and Senior Instructor Jess Holmes was also experiencing the challenge of keeping everyone safe remotely as a lot of their customers are children.

“In the beginning we used Facebook to do various fitness challenges and initially had good engagement but then it dropped off. We realised by doing it on Facebook we were relying on parents using their accounts. We weren’t able to reach the people we wanted to this way,” she explained.

A month in, despite the daunting prospect of using something she wasn’t familiar with, Jess decided to try Zoom. “It’s gone really well but it’s been hard,” she admits. “Discipline is a big part of Martial Arts. In class we have full control but at home, in their own environment, the behaviour was different. When we were doing the primary age classes we would have younger siblings trying to join in but it wasn’t age appropriate and we weren’t insured for their safety. There were lots of things we’d not thought to highlight to parents first.”

Getting over the fear of new technology

Rachel Jennings is an osteopath and yoga teacher in Crich. Prior to the pandemic she described meetings on Zoom as ‘terrifying’, ‘awkward’ and ‘toe curling’ but when she was unable to touch patients or meet in groups for yoga she had to take the plunge.

“It’s obviously the only way to go…I need to get over myself,” she thought. “Telehealth or online consultations were my next mental block. The challenge was to get the right camera views to be able to diagnose someone from their living room and persuade them this is worth paying for and without hands-on treatment, could still be effective.

“I felt very gawky and immature, completely out of my 20-year flow of questioning, examining and treating someone. Trying to film my foot and demonstrate rehabilitation needed a third hand or cameraperson.”

People began to say they’d wait to see her in the clinic but with a GP friend expressing how far away that could be Rachel was determined to try.

“People who were in pain may still be, and new people with new injuries, aches, pains and arthritis will be building up. Getting them diagnosed, reassured or referred for tests/scans and started with some good advice, explanation and key exercises/selfcare/ways to relieve pain is totally doable.” Rachel said.

“And not providing that service, a criminal waste of my professional expertise. So online I go. It’s very quiet out there so far, but I’m sure there will be that tipping point when people embrace it as a great use of new technology and simply the way we do things now. And in an ideal world, there will be a move to taking more responsibility for our health, the importance of self care and understanding that the body does the healing, not someone else’s hands.”

Staying connected and having fun

For a lot of people, being active is about more than just being physically healthy. Social connections are made across the world of physical activity – from football, hockey and netball teams to jogging groups, exercise classes or down to really small moments like a ‘hello’ or ‘how are you’ at the gym. The challenge to recreate those social interactions through a digital screen was huge.

One network to rise to the challenge was Jog Derbyshire. Instead of packing away the running shoes, the passion of the volunteer jog leaders shone through and Facebook exploded in a shower of challenges, support and friendship.

From online blogs and classes, hilarious videos and virtual hide and seek to joggers’ bingo, 0-5km graduation runs and virtually participating in cancelled races – new and inventive ways to stay connected online popped up across the county. If you’d like to hear more about what they got up to you can read the full blog here.

One group who did this particularly well was Rogue Runners in Ripley. During the first lockdown their challenge was to set activities which could be completed in the daily allowed exercise limit.

Jog leader James Illsley said: “One thing that came as a surprise to our leadership was running was only the second most-valued thing we did.  By far the overwhelming thing people valued most about our group was the social interactions and the friends they’d made through running and this was what the vast majority of people were missing most.

“As a result of this, the Rogue Runners’ leadership decided to try and help. Our weekly challenges were starting to become very popular amongst our members and our Facebook group was alive with chatter, despite us all being remote from one another.”

Whilst some challenges were of their own making, social media had also created a network of ideas from groups across the country which were shared and adapted.

James said: “We all know bad press is often afforded to social media and, while this can be true, it also can be a force for great good.  Social media has certainly kept our group more connected, over both lockdowns so far, and enabled those who cannot be together to at least connect virtually, stay in touch and still feel they are part of a collective in these challenging times.”

James’ full blog can be read here.

Moving community online

Another group who didn’t let lockdown stop their fun was a Fairfield based cooking group. The established group used to meet in the local school but when everything shut down they wanted to remain connected and moved to Zoom.

Shift community builder Emma noticed: “It’s almost better online. When you’re in a room together people break off and have separate conversations, which is great, but on Zoom you can keep focus a bit more. It also makes us less dependent on the school and gives the group more ownership.”

When the class were in the school they’d started to be active together after class and online chat revealed they were still keen to do this in an online setting. A funding bid unearthed £500 for them to buy some equipment and they are using the knowledge New Bodies Gym have gained to discuss what would be best for them to do.

Enabling face-to-face coaching

Another area of work which has had to move online has been Fit 4 Life one-to-one coaching sessions. As the first lockdown hit, Fit 4 Life advisor Ashley had only just started working with staff at the police headquarters in Ripley. The one-to-one sessions are a key element of Fit 4 Life so not being able to build those face to face relationships was a big challenge.

Whilst some preferred phone calls to Zoom, for those who were engaging online, the opportunity to still have face to face conversations was important. Jasmine Widdowson has been part of Fit 4 Life since March.

“I’d already met Ashley and got that rapport with him when I was at work. So it was nice to have the option of being able to catch up with him over Zoom. It feels like you’re sitting and having a conversation instead of just calling or texting because it’s not got the same personality to it,” she said.

“It’s helped me massively because it’s felt like I’ve still got that support line there when I’ve needed someone to talk to. Some days I would admit I’d been a bit less active than usual and was struggling with my motivation. It was so nice to have Ashley there to say that to face-to-face on Zoom. He could be supportive, tell me not to be so hard on myself and try again next week.”

What have we learnt?

There’s one thing connecting all these stories – and that’s people. We might be living in a more digital world but it’s still real life people making the difference. Here’s what we’ve learnt about what works to connect people digitally over the last few months.

Finding local, reliable people who are willing to help is much more valuable than drafting in professionals to ‘teach’.

This was particularly important when engaging Crich residents in using technology. Cathy said: “There was one lady who would say, ‘video calls aren’t for me’. She still sometimes makes excuses not to do it but I find myself being a bit of a bully. I push her but know when to stop. It’s a breakthrough for me when somebody says, ‘it’s good to see people and have a laugh’.”

Cathy also targeted local people who she knew might be able to help share their expertise. “I knew one gentleman used to be a computer programmer and had the knowledge so I asked if he’d help support others with less knowledge. He wasn’t sure at first but he’s got a lot out of helping others and it’s given him a role to play in the community which I think he needed.”

Kelly from New Bodies Gym agrees. She said: “We’ve got quite a few older people joining in with ours which is brilliant but we had to physically take them to one side, download it on our phones and show them step by step what to do. And they’ve loved it, it’s like a new lease of life. But I seriously think if I hadn’t done that they wouldn’t have done it.”

Rachel Jennings also benefitted from local help in getting everything set up.

“Friends and neighbours rallied round with equipment and advice and before long my lounge was cleared to become the film set,” she remembers. “I found a camera position where I could be seen both upright and horizontally and I was ready to reconnect with everybody. After a lot of time teaching people how to use Zoom, most people got it, stayed on and the lounge became an extension of the class.”

Intimacy and trust are key to this working

When the Crich Area Digital Friends tried to integrate new people into an already established WhatsApp group of people who knew other, there was a level of resistance. It became clear that intimacy and trust meant a lot to people when connecting online.

“I realised the way forward is to target little groups”, said Cathy. “Someone’s going to set up a WhatsApp group on their street. When its little groups who know each other they’re more willing to connect.

“When I host weekly WhatsApp calls I always give everybody a call the day before to see if they want to join.”

It’s a similar story at New Bodies Gym where people know each other and have regular classes which has helped keep them engaged online.

Kelly said: “They all have their own little groups. It’s down to that socialisation again and familiarity with what they’re doing and the people in the class. Everybody likes what they like.”

The gym has also placed its trust in its members by loaning out equipment so people can still do the same classes at home.

For Ashley in Fit 4 Life, trust and intimacy are key elements in his one-to-one coaching sessions.

“It’s harder to build trust when you’re not seeing someone in person,” he said. “It’s difficult on the phone trying to talk about sensitive things when the person on the other end doesn’t know you and can’t see you.

“One of the huge benefits of Fit 4 Life is those personal conversations. The more I get to know someone personally, the more I get from them. On Zoom it adds an element of body language, you can tell if you’re giving each other your full attention.”

Creating interaction makes a big difference

One of the main reasons the Jog Derbyshire Facebook challenges took off was the level of interaction it created. It gave people a reason to get out and something fun to do to ease the boredom of running alone. Once people began posting pictures of themselves it created a snowball effect which made everyone feel involved.

Donna Christie, a member of Jog Derbyshire group Sole Mates said: “So far I have not recognised any of the pictures posted and it’s made me realise I need to venture a bit further than Lea. It has also been a reminder of how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful part of the country that has so much to offer right on our doorsteps. Looking forward to visiting some of the stunning locations you guys have posted.”

Julie Corne, Jog Duffield leader fondly recalls the day the group did a challenge day to raise money for the Erewash Home Start project. She said: “I spent the day watching my phone. Messages from joggers were pouring in, everyone was supporting each other there was such a buzz! It was wonderful, we all got so much out of it.”

Even people isolating who weren’t able to go out at all, were included. Many of the Derby Joggers were shielding during the first lockdown. But that didn’t stop them being creative with different challenges.

Norman Todd, Derby Joggers leader said: “We knew many from our jogging community were unable to go outside. Reaching out and keeping everyone involved is our main priority. We have a WhatsApp group and there is lots of conversation and different challenges happening including baking – my phone is full of photos of people’s food! Reaching out is important. Sometimes people just appreciate a call or a text to check in.”

Creating a friendly atmosphere is key

The success of online classes at New Bodies Gym was largely down to the community they’ve created. People wanted to be a part of the classes to stay connected, have a chat and support them.

Kelly said: “It isn’t a big corporation where people come and go. We know people individually. We describe it as a big dysfunctional family, that’s kind of what we are.

“It’s not just about them coming to the gym and exercising.  For a lot of people it’s part of their life. Some people on the first lockdown were coming up to me nearly in tears at the thought of the gym closing and not being able to see people or having that social interaction.

“By doing Zoom it’s kept a bit of a bond and it’s kept people connected. The classes are great but it’s that connection that sets it off for us.”

Andrew said: “On Zoom it’s important not to rush that class and go straight into another. Giving them time in the beginning to say hello, have a bit of catch up and five minutes at the end to say bye.

“A couple of the older guys who do my classes haven’t been out in months. The only people they see is on this screen. Even in between lockdowns they didn’t come back to the gym. When we could put classes on in the studio I put my laptop to one side so I could still stream it to Zoom for them. It kept them included and active and they still got to see people. Then you had everyone coming over to the camera to say bye to them at the end.”

Friendliness also comes from the casualness of WhatsApp conversations which have been taking place around the county.

Kelly said: “It’s a way for people to chat. Someone asks, ‘what time are the classes on today?’ and then everyone joins in with, ‘I’ve done this’ etc. You can be sat down at night and someone will suddenly pop up and go, ‘I’ve just done my class from yesterday.’ It’s people interacting with each other. It’s really good.”

Rachel Jennings takes the same approach with her yoga classes.

“We used to go on somewhere for a drink after class, we now stay and chat. For me living on my own, it’s a sanity-saver,” she said. “When I heard how some people in the village are struggling emotionally, a friend asked if there’s something I could do. So after a lot of deliberation, I came up with the idea of three mindfulness sessions each week where people also could reconnect socially on Zoom afterwards.”

Technology won’t always be perfect

This seems an obvious reflection but it’s an important one. So often we beat ourselves up when technology doesn’t go our way. From poor internet connections and outages to it just being ‘one of those days’, we’ve all had it fail on us at some time.

During a chat with the Crich Digital Friends, resident Eadie commented: “One day one of you phoned me and I couldn’t get it to swipe up. I must have been doing something wrong.”

“It happens to the best of us, Eadie”, Digital Friends host Cathy was quick to reassure her.

Andy from New Bodies gym remembers: “During the first lockdown I was at home doing it from my garage on Wifi. If you were doing classes at 5 or 6 o’clock everybody seemed to be on the internet at the same time so sometimes it used to go quite jittery. I do it from the gym now and I’ve run a wire from the router so I know it’s not going to drop out.”

Jess at Area 51 Martial Arts Academy was experiencing similar issues. “When we had to do the classes at home our internet stopped working so we had to wait until we could go back to the club to do it. We’ve had times it’s frozen for us or it’s frozen for others and we can’t really see what they’re doing. Despite this we’ve got really good on Zoom now and being able to use features like the breakout rooms for splitting people into different groups is useful.”

At the Fairfield cooking group, resident Sandy was struggling with a poor internet connection. But, seeing the value in being connected with the rest of the group she upgraded her internet. She’s now able to join in without issue.

A digital environment can increase confidence

Taking things online can sometimes be viewed as the lesser option and done out of necessity. But there’s been evidence of a digital platform playing a positive part in increasing confidence.

Jess from Area 51 Martial Arts Academy talks about their experience working with children.

“For some, being online has really raised their confidence”, she said. “The older ones have been putting positive comments on things the younger ones have been posting online. It’s made them really proud. I don’t think they realised how important they are to the club.

“There’s an eight-year-old girl who wouldn’t dare talk to an 18-year-old in the club. But it was completely different when we were all on screen laughing together. We would do silly talking games at the start before we did training. This has built the relationship up between them and made them feel a bit more equal. Now she struts into class with a new confidence.

“With older children doing the classes at home it’s also enabled younger siblings to have a go in their own environment and now they’re coming to classes too.

“We’re so proud of what our students achieved and how they adapted during the lockdown with the online training. It kept them connected and active, as well as providing structure for them, at a time when that was most important.”

If you’d like to find out more about how we’ve worked with communities to enable online engagement send us a message using the form below.

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