In living through the lockdown have we been part of a revolution? Maybe not the kind of revolution we might associate with sudden social change, but certainly a revolution that has accelerated changes that we were working towards, and might have resolved by the end of the decade. What we have seen is a massive shift towards socially distant working, as the pandemic has forced people and organisations to adapt to teleconferencing and online collaboration as a matter of necessity. This shift has put many people in a position where they are rapidly adapting to new roles and new working practices, which can be both disempowering for some, and empowering for others.
One overarching challenge associated with the pandemic has been the need to maintain business continuity, ensuring that service delivery commitments continue to be met. The pandemic has forced many organisations to respond to the challenges of the lockdown in creative and innovative ways, and despite what they might have previously thought was feasible. By enabling colleagues and partners to maintain a high level of online social contact, despite being socially distanced, many organisations have ensured that they have continued to responded to the needs of their clients and customers, because they have been able to retain a focus on the delivery challenges that they are still obligated to meet.
However, this shift has also been a significant reminder that for many people there is life beyond the office and the workplace, and that it’s possible to leave behind the stress-points and inhibitors to our wellbeing, such as the daily commute, feeling chained to one’s desk, and endless point-to-point meetings. The online working patterns that have been established during the lockdown are probably here to stay, so the question now is about how we get the best from them?
The shift to online collaboration cannot simply replicate the in-person structure and experience of an organisation or work team. Because we will have to maintain social distancing for some time, this is going to put some stress on the ability of organisations to do their work. There is going to be an extended period in which a reduced level of social contact and associative peer practices that people may have been familiar with and relied on, becomes the norm. We are social creatures, but isolation is a form of punishment, and so we’ll need to make more changes as we adapt to the longer-term impact of the pandemic.
Getting our heads around the multiple platforms that are now available to use for teleconferencing and collaborative working, from Zoom to Teams, and from Workplace to Google Hangouts, is going to require a shift in the way we think about getting our work done. Coupled with our awareness of the multiple forms of media that feed into these platforms, it’s no wonder that there is a certain amount of anxiety about which platforms we should use, and what we are going to get from using them.
Reports of Zoom and Team burnout are growing, as more focus is placed on attending online meetings, especially when we don’t know if they are relevant to us. Likewise, individuals don’t now get to see the tangible outcomes of their work, such as the delivery of stock or the issuing of certificates. We are remote and decentralised, often working from home, so we have to think of new ways we can value the process of workplace engagement between one another.
There is a risk, also, that some organisations might overreact to perceived threats to the integrity of their network, and become risk averse. Locking-down processes which then prevent their colleagues from spontaneously using the collaboration platforms that have been invested in ways that are social and organic. At worst a surveillance mentality could take over, with staff and partners being unwilling to openly contribute to projects because they feel like they are simply being endlessly measured and monitored. The surveillance culture that is the shadow side of online collaboration can destroy trust if it is not kept in check.
So what can we do about this. Here are some pointers I would recommend:
First, we can recognise that the priority of online collaboration must be focussed on wellbeing and the recognition of contribution. This is about creating a meaningful online environment in which participants and colleagues feel that they have a role to play, rather than focussing simply on task administration and the management of the process. It’s about getting the cart before the horse and putting people first.
Second, we need to look at how interaction is enabled, and the ways that this interaction is empowering and inclusive. This might be a challenge to the assumed management culture and task orientation of a group or team, as we shift from the in-person assumptions we have about business development. In the online world the established management practices can no longer be taken for granted by anyone, it has to be clearly expressed by all participants, and especially by leaders.
Third, what the online collaboration needs most is an ability by the people taking part to listen to one another, and to help each other tell stories about change and development that foster a more caring and nurturing environment.
With my skills and background in collaborative forms of media engagement, I can assist organisations and groups to review their use of online collaborative processes, and I can help different people in these groups, from new arrivals to established leaders, to identify the values that will enable the people involved to align their motivations based on inclusivity and developmental practices.
I can help mentor, tutor and advice groups to rethink their expectations about the collaborative way that they work and how they can go on to meet their service delivery objectives. I have over twenty years teaching experience using online media, and I can train and guide people in the effective use of media applications and platforms that will enhance engagement.
We should always ask what difference any kind systems or platforms that we introduce to a workplace will make? My focus is on improving communications and collaboration by being inclusive, decentralised and contribution focussed. If we are going to support service delivery for the long-term, via online media systems, we need to get planning and thinking about these changes now, because there will be no going back to the way things were. It’s going to be a case of Building Back Better and taking advantage of the affordances that are offered by the teleconferencing and collaborative online working systems to enhance creativity, mutual engagement and personal development.