We’ve been catapulted into virtual working by necessity: the good news is it might end up lowering barriers to collaboration and building trust.
COVID-19 has accelerated our own “personal digital transformations”, requiring us to make the transition to working virtually practically overnight. Given the ubiquity of smart devices, many of us in professional services were comfortable working from home or on the road and have been for years. At the same time, we were doing this in our own mini silos, using email as a lifeline.
Here we are, weeks later, learning how to connect virtually in nearly every aspect of our lives. While this has caused some struggles – be it juggling family life, caring for older parents, solo living in isolation or other concerns – I see some bright spots in virtual working as well.
In my job leading EY wavespaceTM in the Americas, I help companies to reimagine their businesses. That might sound a bit theoretical amid a global pandemic, yet in truth this work is more urgent than ever.
Some companies are faced with entirely new problems – like a government body that must evaluate the best options for getting people back to their lives and back to work once it’s safe to do so. Others must make progress on existing challenges, such as digital transformation projects that have moved from important future investments to urgent and important priorities.
And it’s in tackling these challenges that I’m seeing two surprising upsides: the potential for virtual working to topple some long-standing barriers to collaboration, and new opportunities to enhance trust.
Removing barriers to collaboration
It used to be that collaboration was very much an in-person event. Prior to COVID-19, I’d hop on a train or plane to kick-start the relationship. It was a given that the best relationships result from looking someone in the eye, being there to read body language, from having those impromptu, side conversations where you talk about your university, or that book you’re reading, or your favorite team.
That option has been removed, so we must collaborate virtually. I think it’s pushing aside the artificial divisions created by geography. We are all at home; we are all using the same tools; we are all feeling vulnerable. The crisis has stripped away – in a heartbeat – many of the challenges that global teams face: that people tend to trust those that are within their reach and those that they interact with most frequently. And we’re learning that virtual collaboration can be just as powerful.
Just think of the government I mentioned above. Imagine the challenges of trying to create multiple private/public partnerships that span technology, medical testing, policy, compliance, clinical trials, marketing and behavioral expertise. Before the crisis the timescale would have been years. Now we are working to create this ecosystem in days and weeks, because that’s what’s needed.
The complexities are immense: coordinating COVID-19 and antibody testing, encouraging adoption of a contact tracking app that notifies people if they’ve been in the proximity of someone with the virus and getting millions of people to adopt it.
So how do you bring together all the different perspectives you need, and create a safe place for everyone’s views to be heard? How do you get all these different entities on the same page, with a shared vision?
What’s new is everyone’s willingness to do it virtually. Because we have to. What’s new is people’s willingness to have personal conversations virtually, to build those relationships and to start collaborating. Because we have to. Who knows what long-term ramifications this will have? That’s a question for another day, because today we’re building the collaborations we need to get the job done, faster.
Opportunities to enhance trust
There’s a trust component here too. Trust is such a massive issue – just think of all the major organizations that have had trust challenges in the recent past.
I see this pandemic as an opportunity to build more trusted relationships because we are all in the same boat. There’s a shared sense of vulnerability right now. It’s changing the conversations we’re having – and we know that demonstrating vulnerability builds trust between people.
It’s a truth that we carry assumptions about people we have barely met. Think of your company and an organization you infrequently interact with. Now imagine a task that you can only accomplish with their involvement. Imagine asking them for help before the crisis versus asking them for help now. It’s easier, right? Because now we are facing the same challenge. We are all having to learn new things and face shared risks, including our own mortality.
From what I see, companies are challenging these artificial barriers and learning to work together more effectively. For instance, within companies, leadership teams often have varying opinions on the scope and scale of the digital challenges that they are facing.
One such example is a product-based supply company that must transition from selling traditional products to selling digital ones (Internet of Things and robotic-enabled products, data-based services, digital applications, end to end platforms). The leadership team knows the future is digital and yet many parts of the organization still are holding on to their analog roots. EY teams are using wavespace to create a safe place for them to have these discussions, to clarify what it means to be digital and what must happen for them to move in that direction.
From experience, I know that it’s the combination of the right catalyst (and we certainly have one), collective discussion and co-development of a plan that will make it click for them, when they stand shoulder to shoulder and jointly declare, “We are going to be a digital business.” And they will move forward faster from that point on, because people support what they help create and they’re on a shared journey at this critical time.
Keep looking up
Despite all the hardships that this crisis has created, perhaps there will be some positives to come out of it. As we work through shared challenges, we are having new conversations with work colleagues – and hopefully these, along with our shared vulnerabilities, will help us to build stronger, more trusting relationships.
I see opportunities to break through some of the long-standing obstacles to collaboration. And let’s face it, we’re going to need each other more than ever, long after this immediate health crisis ends, to rebuild our economies and hopefully to build a better future. Creativity, innovation, human ingenuity – these are the things that make the job I do worthwhile and inspiring. So I’m going to remain optimistic and hope for some positive, long-term effects.