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Caroline Esterson

Genius Learning Ltd


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The relationship economy: how to foster a collaborative working culture remotely

Why results revolve around relationships – even in a hybrid work environment.

Collaboration is key for many organisations, yet few have been able to truly master collaborative working. As the old adage goes, ‘we are stronger together’ and never before has this been so critical to success. How can this be achieved, however, when we’re not in the same room?

The ability to create these meaningful, emotional connections will have as great an impact now as mechanisation did in the industrial revolution 200 years ago.

We no longer have physical contact to bring about the energy and dynamic of actually ‘being together’. The removal of informal opportunities for a quick chat in the canteen, the energy that comes from being in the same room as others, or the real value of sitting down with someone and exploring makes ‘togetherness’ a tough ask. Add to this the barriers that working in the virtual world can bring, and many people are struggling with the tensions of this new hybrid working environment, creating unnecessary friction.

Collaborating remotely

Over the last decade, our work and personal lives have been revolutionised by the advancement of digital technology. There have been dramatic changes to the way we access information, work and entertainment. We have more choice than ever before – over what we watch, when we want to watch it, how we connect and with whom. It has also altered the way we communicate and behave, both at work and at home.

With more people working remotely, the digital era has made it difficult for some to form and maintain meaningful relationships with others. The pandemic has brought this problem to the fore dramatically and employers need to be even more creative in how they collaborate using digital platforms and in person.

Tools versus the human factors

Platforms like Slack, Monday, Hopin, Teams and Trello offer simple, effective, collaborative platforms. The complication comes when you add people to the mix! We don’t always fit easily into a process and some of us proactively opt out.

These tools don’t replace the need to nurture relationships – they support it. This is why some organisations still struggle to capitalise on their true potential. They think the process or platform will solve any human issues, but they won’t.

More willing participants may develop wide-reaching, valuable relationships around the organisation and beyond, however they will leave behind a cohort of more reluctant members of staff who never move beyond passive observing. This exacerbates a gap in group cohesion.

The relationship economy

There is a movement towards recognising the current era of change as the ‘relationship economy’. The ability to create these meaningful, emotional connections will have as great an impact now as mechanisation did in the industrial revolution 200 years ago.

This demands a change in ground rules for collaboration in a remote world. While we are operating in a space of immense technological transformation it is the people and the way they interact (with and without technology) that defines true and lasting success.

This era is about focusing on connections, trust and human interaction as its currency. It recognises that in a world where everything is connected and mechanisation has reached a tipping point, the key critical differentiator for organisations between products and services are the relationships that develop. The ‘relationship economy’ focuses on driving a greater sense of community, inclusion and purpose despite the decrease in face-to-face interaction.

According to Clear Company, 97% of workers believe a lack of team alignment directly impacts the outcome of a project, and 86% cite lack of collaboration and poor communication for workplace failures. This demands a rethink of ground rules to ensure people know what is expected of them to help them feel safe whilst contributing. You can’t just assume because they collaborated well face-to-face that this will translate virtually. People need the safety of rules in order to be able to contribute fully.

Virtually, people feel even more exposed because of the ‘forced’ nature of the collaboration. This can lead to unspoken ideas lying dormant and a cycle of sameness being generated. This makes it even more important to have clarity.

Establishing ground rules in a virtual workspace

Ground rules need to be worked out together with the team to encourage full and open participation. One of the key ground rules to embed early is to encourage everyone to act on the basis of assuming the positive intent from others.

In a face-to-face situation it is easier to assess where people are coming from and to clarify when unsure. Online responses, however, are often more instantaneous with no luxury of caveating your explanation – you just put it out there for everyone to see.

This can even come down to the simple use of an emoji. What did that person really mean? Why did they do that? Did they like or not like my comment or my contribution? There’s a whole unspoken thought process that goes on for every team member.

Unless positive intent is assumed, it is easy for others to feel slighted, confused or frustrated; or for someone to withhold their ideas for fear of being judged, and this leads to unnecessary friction.

What about that virtual background?

Many people also feel more vulnerable when collaborating virtually with the possibilities of children, pets and other distractions literally coming into the frame. In addition, the screen removes a boundary some people have put on their private lives. Even TV advertisements have picked up on this, using the dynamic to advertise the value of getting a new kitchen, for example, as your existing kitchen looks old, dated and messy on those Zoom calls.

In contrast, when you’re physically ‘at work’ no one would necessarily know or care what your kitchen at home is like and make judgments accordingly.

Organisations know collaboration is the spark that ignites ideas faster, stronger, and better, yet it takes effort and patience now more than ever. It may even highlight the need to bring in a third party to help with this. If we believe in the importance of relationships, we will work hard on developing and nurturing them, both face-to-face and digitally. It is up to each person to evaluate their approach to communication.

As an L&D leader in your organisation, you can pave the way by:

  • Being the first, not only to push out messages and ask for help on any digital platforms, but also to challenge, compliment and comment on other peoples’ posts
  • Being a willing explorer, open to expanding your personal understanding and to help others enhance their thinking too
  • Networking effectively and supporting others
  • Showing vulnerability so that others will not be afraid to do so if they are having issues of any kind
  • Taking the digital lead in understanding that it’s not just about the technology – it’s about the human dynamic

As we emerge from this intense period of crisis and re-adjustment, we need to invest fully in relationships if we are going to create a culture of collaborative working within our organisations.  

Interested in this topic? Read How to give your L&D interventions a human edge in the flexible working era.

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Caroline Esterson


Read more from Caroline Esterson

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