“I might be one of the few people coming out of the COVID-19 situation with more friends,” said Karine Durand.

Durand’s words have stuck with me for months. This past June, she and I were both speakers on a JFF Horizons conference panel focused on the power of investing in students’ social capital to break down barriers to opportunity. Durand explained to the audience that in her day job as a nanny, she hadn’t spent much time building a professional network. But since enrolling in Climb Hire, a program preparing working adults for jobs that require a background in using Salesforce, her network had started to look remarkably different. And bigger.

Climb Hire’s premise—upskilling working adults to help them compete for better jobs—is not unique. An array of players from coding bootcamps to corporate reskilling initiatives look similar on paper. But Climb Hire isn’t betting on skills alone to help nontraditional candidates get ahead. Instead, it ensures that its students, which it calls “Climbers,” have access to and the ability to mobilize social capital.

Out of necessity, at the start of COVID-19, the San Francisco-based company transitioned its community-building and learning programs online, and kicked off a series of virtual events geared toward connecting Climbers to local tech professionals.

After the first few online sessions, Climb Hire’s founder, Nitzan Pelman, was taken aback. Climbers were managing to continue to build strong friendships with their peers and coaches, all of whom are Climb Hire alumni themselves, even online. At the same time, virtual volunteer rates skyrocketed. “The hidden blessings of COVID-19 is that it has helped us see that we can build a thriving community online and that doors are opening for the Climbers through virtual cocktail parties and coaching events,” Pelman said.

Durand shared Pelman’s surprise. “COVID hit and I thought, ‘This is awkward… it’s going to be hard to get to know people online.’ But it’s been the absolute opposite,” she said. Even amidst the chaos of the pandemic, she and her peers stayed up late coaching one another on homework assignments and job search activities over Zoom. And the new connections she made at Climb Hire’s virtual events were begetting more connections. “I’ve already met three people, two of whom have followed up with me and connected me with people in their jobs and their circles,” she shared on the panel.

Fast forward to today, and one of those three connections ended up offering a job to Durand.

Making friends on purpose

Climb Hire isn’t the only organization seeing unexpected success forging new connections online.

nXu, which helps high school students explore their purpose, has seen similar results. Its original program consisted of a region-specific, in-person fellowship for high schoolers recruited from a diverse range of district, charter, private and parochial schools. In addition to helping students articulate and pursue their purpose, nXu’s premise is to create friendships among students that bridge race, gender, and class lines.

In past years, according to nXu’s own surveys, over 90% of participants not only reported that they felt more clear about the direction of their life but also that the program had enabled them to build friendships and connections they would not have otherwise made.

nXu’s founder Yutaka Tamura was skeptical that his team would be able to reproduce those results online. “I was particularly unsure about our ability to create a climate of emotional safety and vulnerability to allow students to share their stories,” said Tamura in an interview. But after the shift to virtual last spring, Tamura and his colleagues began seeing that the survey data coming out of nXu’s online programming—in terms of growing both students’ sense of purpose and their friendship networks—was nearly identical to the in-person experience. “It turned out our online experiences could scale authentic connections,” Tamura said.

What’s driving successful connections? Relationship-centered design and data

There’s a healthy skepticism in education circles today that virtual connections are as good as face-to-face ones. But organizations like nXu and Climb Hire are seeing firsthand how the relationship-focused designs and measures they had created prior to COVID-19 are good enough to transcend technology’s real limitations. Long before the pandemic, both organizations were deeply focused—and data-driven—on relationship building as a core component of their models.

For Climb Hire, that meant being explicit about the often implicit role that social capital plays in job-getting, and creating repeat opportunities for Climbers to foster connections with peers and prospective employers alike. “The key thing that we do is explain how social capital works,” said Pelman, who starts the program off by highlighting LinkedIn’s data on the prevalent role that referrals play in landing a job.

Climb Hire has also formalized a pay-it-forward spirit inside its own culture through its staffing model, which enlists recent alumni to serve as Fellows who teach incoming Climbers the technical and professional skills they mastered over the last six to 12 months. “With the Fellowship model, Climbers have a built-in alumni network and a community of support,” Pelman said. “They help one another master the content and they serve as a network for referrals.” Climb Hire even pays a $1,000 referral fee to alumni who successfully refer a fellow Climber into a job that pays $45,000 or more.

Climb Hire also makes building social capital an explicit goal among its volunteers. “We offer Climbers opportunities to interact with volunteers to get feedback on resumes or conduct mock interviews. But that really isn’t the point. The point is to build connection and connectivity…and the real outcomes are when those connections open doors for Climbers to secure interviews at companies where their resumes wouldn’t get noticed by applying cold, ” Pelman added.

For nXu, relationship-building is likewise integrated into the program’s curriculum, culture, and facilitation. One of the program’s very first activities consists of an interview with a peer. Students also create individual “life timelines” that they then share with others, allowing participants to learn about each other in a deep and holistic manner. Approaches like these have all carried over into nXu’s Zoom breakout rooms.

“Given [that] we intentionally designed community building strategies into each experience from the inception of nXu, we’ve been able to focus on how to translate those strategies into an online context rather than to figure out how to foster community from scratch,” Tamura said.

The long-term upsides of online networks: Scale and diversity

Although neither Pelman nor Tamura anticipated it, the pandemic hasn’t just shown them that their approaches could survive the shift online. It also shed light on new possibilities for expanding their reach and impact.

Climb Hire is currently hatching plans to quadruple in size over the coming year, and will likely launch virtual cohorts in cities beyond the San Francisco Bay Area. nXu is not only offering an online purpose bootcamp, but is also creating shorter experiences, such as introductory workshops, for hundreds of students around the country.

And by unlocking new connections between students who might otherwise not meet in person, the virtual approach also stands to supercharge both organizations’ ability to diversify their networks. Climb Hire brings together job seekers from a variety of backgrounds, uniting them around a shared mission and pay-it-forward culture. It has also seen volunteers who didn’t have time prior to the pandemic willing to engage virtually, and has managed to recruit volunteers from across the globe to its social capital events. And over the summer, nXu recruited students nationwide for its purpose bootcamps. It will do so again this fall with the goal of forming both geographically and racially diverse cohorts. In other words, a virtual approach can unlock new, meaningful connections with people students might otherwise not meet.

Technology alone has its limits, and it may not unlock all of the connections and friendships we need or replicate the personal interactions we want. But in a year short on support and inspiration for too many of us, organizations like these are showing how strong, relationship-centered designs can create new virtual programs—and friendships—that can outlast the crisis.

This piece was originally published on EdSurge here.