Zurich to London and vice versa – highlights from a 2-months life swap

Isabel Kaeshammer · 5 min · 04.12.2017

Isabel and Julia first met on Skype on a cold January morning in 2017. At this point, there was only a bad Skype connection and the vague idea of doing a staff swap between Impact Hub Zurich and Impact Hub Islington (London) at some point later in the year.

Fast forward nine months, during which many more Skype meetings took place and funding from Stiftung Mercator Schweiz was secured, they met in London to start the 2-months exchange. It didn’t just involve swapping organisations and teams – they went all in: flats, bicycles, neighbours, hobbies and pets. The exchange was sparked by an appetite to learn from another Impact Hub and concluded with plenty of insights, memories, chocolate/tea and renewed energy gained. Here they share their main take-aways.

Julia and Isa met before they swapped their lives for two months.


Julia: London to Zurich and back

Impact Hub Islington, where I’m usually based, is the ‘original’ Hub in the network and is known for its coziness and tightly knitted community. Islington has remained small over the years, with 170 members and a team of 6 staff, with a strong focus on community building. So Zurich was a real adventure for me – over 900 members across four locations and a team of 60+ employees (!) I worried that it would take me ages to remember anyone’s name…


Looking back, it has been an incredibly insightful two months, and I am really grateful to all the lovely people who made me feel so welcome! Key things I have learnt:


  • Space design really does shape people’s behaviour: Impact Hub Zurich has many communal lunch tables, a spacious kitchenette and a beautiful rooftop terrace. Given the options, it seems silly to eat lunch at your desk. I’ve observed lunch clubs forming spontaneously every day between members simply because there is an inviting space to sit. Our space in Islington is more limited in that way, but there are still things we can do to encourage people to have regular communal lunch breaks – they’re great for everyone!


  • The scales may be different, but the community is made of the same stuff:  Whether you have 900 members across four spaces or 170 in one location, the basics of what makes people feel part of a community are the same: being seen, experiencing meaningful connection and feeling included. In a large community like the one in Zurich, it’s perhaps more about forming smaller clusters between members that gives them a sense of belonging, rather than aiming to make everybody feel connected with everyone. After all, scientists have suggested that humans aren’t capable of cultivating more than 150 relationships at a time… That’s a real challenge for Impact Hub Zurich that they’re trying to address by encouraging members to join topic-specific tribes or social clubs.


  • Hearing an outsider’s perspective on my ‘home’ Hub is invaluable: Throughout the two months, Isabel and I would Skype once a week to discuss key things we’d picked up across several categories including space, community, team, programmes etc. The fact that we each knew our respective teams meant that we were able to have really meaningful conversations about the observations we’d each made in our exchange Hubs. It’s sometimes difficult to disentangle things when you’re in the middle of it, so Isabel asking questions like ‘why do you do it this way?’ prompted loads of helpful thinking. In Islington, her input lead to the development of a protocol for running different kinds of events.


Isabel: Zurich to London and back

My ‘home’ Hub in Zürich has doubled in size within the last two years, prompting some rethinking of our approach to community building. Impact Hub Islington looks back on over 10 years of community building experience – what a learning opportunity! It was a very special feeling to come to the place where it all began, and I definitely found the inspiration I was hoping for. Here are two things that will stay with me:


  • Community needs both fun and personal connection: I attended a community event every day of the two months I was in Islington, throwing myself into the experience. It struck me that these events both created a space to chat and be silly, but also to talk about the challenges people are facing. The personal dimension created a strong sense of belonging, while the events also offered something at the professional level. I participated in the U.Lab meet-ups for people interested in systemic social change, where I connected with so many participants at a deep level while being offered the opportunity to think about the world in bigger terms. I was reminded of my own creativity and playfulness during a number of activities including crafting, carving pumpkins and meditation… and it felt great!


  • An Impact Hub can truly get you started in a new city: London can be a fairly daunting place, so when I first walked through the doors of Impact Hub Islington and was greeted with a warm smile, I instantly felt really welcome. Known to be one of the friendliest Impact Hubs in the network, I can say it definitely lives up to its reputation! Every day I got to know new people at the community events, gained new perspectives and learned new things. In the evening, there were some really interesting events on offer on topics including storytelling and how to negotiate purpose and profit in business, as well as a legendary Halloween party. In addition to making new connections and friendships, I heard from a number of members how their business had developed since joining the Hub. People seem to be very generous in sharing connections, which can really help when you’re starting out!


What next?

This was an experiment in inter-organisational learning that we can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone interested in gaining a new perspective on their work. We are developing a handbook based on this experience to share with Impact Hubs around the world as well as any other organisations interested in doing something similar (if you’d like to receive a copy email julia.oertli@impacthub.net). We both came back refreshed, inspired and with renewed commitment to our work in our ‘home’ Hubs.

We’d like to thank Stiftung Mercator Schweiz and their Expeditions Programme team for their generous support that enabled this exchange to happen, and our teams who welcomed a new colleague with such open arms.  


Originally published by Impact Hub Islington on November 29th 2017.

Written by Julia Oertli (Impact Hub Islington) and Isabel Käshammer (Impact Hub Zürich)

Isabel co-founded Future.preneurship, an Impact Hub Zurich spin-off. Future.preneurship connects career starters with innovative companies for internships.

Isabel is a trained work and organizational psychologist. Her joy of learning and her curiosity took her to different places and challenges. It has, amongst others, led her to do research...

Isabel Kaeshammer, Innovation


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