By  Hilary Harvey and Tom Van Dyck.

There’s no doubt that collaboration has become a challenge in recent times. The lack of face-to-face interaction, the onset of fatigue and feelings of isolation might well be taking their toll on our teams. And while it might have been easier to drum up a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ at the beginning of the COVID crisis, the initial burst of belonging has ebbed. We are now in the long haul.

How do we create and sustain collaboration going forward? Is there a way to build trust across virtual workplaces? How can we create an environment that fosters partnership, collective purpose and innovation?

To address the situation we invited TPCL’s associate partner Hilary Harvey (UK) and managing partner Tom Van Dyck (Belgium) to a panel discussion. They considered not only how collaboration can work in the current climate but also how we can break new ground to tap into our greater collective potential.

Collaboration is a personal experience

Hilary and Tom agreed that while we’ve set up systems and software and processes to keep our teams connected and collaborating, it’s our relationships – personal, team and inter-organisational – that will breathe life into our collaboration.

Collaboration is not just about working together; it’s about what it feels like. It’s the enjoyment of a process in which you contribute and you get something back on a relational level.

“I’m often having conversations with clients about how they feel isolated,” says Hilary. “They know that they’re part of a system but they feel very alone in it. And the combination of personal pressures and a mounting workload is becoming overwhelming for them, draining their ability to stay motivated and find energy. This is largely because they’re not feeling a sense of collaboration.”

Sustaining the feeling of collaboration

“During the initial crisis response there was a realisation that hit leaders, particularly the non-senior leaders who were closer to delivery,” says Hilary. “They realised that they needed to shift their focus to relationships, not just tasks and activity. Because it’s a given that organisations will focus on tasks but it’s not a given that they will look after people.”

Investing in team relationships is still an essential priority. The initial shock of the crisis awoke us to a need. But that need will only be answered if we continue to make relationships a prerogative.

“I think it is more important than the work itself,” says Hilary. “People need to feel they are part of something cohesive. They need to sense that together they are pulling cohesively to work on something larger than themselves.”

Organisations have spent months building the mechanisms for collaboration. Now the challenge is to engage with our humanity. To connect to one another and to tackle the greater human issues we see around us.

Collaboration cuts through to our humanity

For people to feel collaboration, they need to feel that they are included. And the pandemic has united us all in difficulty. There is an unprecedented, clear need to include everyone. And there is also an unprecedented awareness of each other’s needs.

“Everybody, whatever your background, whatever your race, we’re all affected in some way,” says Tom. “In terms of inclusion, I’ve never, ever lived anything like this that has affected us all globally. And I think it has awakened, or has the potential to awaken, our sense of humanity.”

There is now an opportunity for organisations to work on a person to person, peer to peer level. That’s the area we need connection. That’s the level at which most of us are feeling a sense of loss. But there are other related facets we can address too.

“The question we’re really asking is, ‘What’s the basic humanity that we want to see more of?’” says Hilary. “Because whether we’re talking about the future of inclusion and diversity or collaboration, it’s all getting at the same thing. It’s all about our humanity.”

Opportunities to do good are business opportunities

Massive societal needs have emerged from the COVID crisis. And opportunities. Organisations now have a window to roll up their sleeves and make a real difference in the totally disrupted society that lies beyond their traditional remit.

“If you’re taking corporate social responsibility seriously, you can do more than visit a home for the elderly or deliver a 1,000 Euro check on a team day,” says Tom. “If you’re smart about what kind of CSR activities you could deploy, you can create a way to keep people together, working towards a common goal with a clear sense of purpose,”

This is an opportunity but it’s also a necessity. For who will pull through if organisations don’t see themselves as part of the solution? What will be the impact on the local economy, on our society, on the environment? This is what many emerging leaders are asking, leaders who want to feel part of the solution.

‘Imagine if businesses didn’t only consider a CSR strand but wove social responsibility into the way they do business,” says Hilary. “If they can do this proactively, businesses are more likely to have a good reputation and are more likely to recruit emerging leaders.”

So there are certain elements we have to consider: gender equality, employee wellbeing, the impact we have on our local and broader environments through our supply chain. If we don’t uphold our social contracts, then the bottom line is we’ll lose our best people and we won’t be able to maintain our businesses or make money. But when we raise our sights, we’ll find it easier to sustain collaboration, because it will be powered by a sense of purpose.

“Social responsibility is an opportunity even if it moves us away from our core business,” says Tom. “But if businesses are smart, I think there’s always a way in which you can do good through your core business purpose, the reason you entered business in the first place.”

A collaborative wave of action

One way in which businesses have acted to respond to societal needs is off the back of the work of 23-year-old footballer Marcus Rashford. His campaign to petition the UK government to keep providing free school meals to children during week-long term breaks did not swing the decision of parliament – but it did attract the action of businesses.

“It became this big wave of positive actions as more and more businesses signed up to step in to provide free meals,” says Hilary “And it’s a beautiful example of one of the opportunities open right now to organisations. And it was all spearheaded by one young guy demonstrating basic humanity.”

There is a need and an opportunity to tackle isolation on a societal level, to address education and to tackle hunger and poverty, even in the first world. And there are issues that are in our hands to change now.

“Forget all the corporate speak and all 2030, 2040 long-term vision plans,” says Tom. “Just think: What is it that the people around me need? How could I make a difference? If we make these steps at a micro level today, a shift will occur. As Obama said, ‘A change is brought about because ordinary people do extraordinary things.’”

We won’t bring back a sense of collaboration just by finding ways to work together. We need to access a depth of humanity that defines what we are working towards. That, along with our renewed investment in relationships, is what will inspire us to extraordinary action. Our organisations and teams will no longer be siloed off by circumstance. Instead, we will be drawn together to change it.

For more insight on organisational opportunities in the current climate make sure you don’t miss Hilary and Tom’s discussion on Diversity and inclusion – the present and future. Or drop us a note to foster ‘collaborative waves’.

@copyright TPCL (2021)