Rebuilding Cultural Capital in the Collaboration Economy

We pivot, we adapt, and we find a level of resilience we might not have tapped otherwise.

Ed Eppley
October 9, 2020

Given the circumstances we find ourselves in, it’s pretty remarkable that we have an economy that is doing as well at it is. Back in April the thought of an 8.4 percent U.S. unemployment rate by end of August wasn’t believable. Right now, not a single one of my business-to-business clients are having a down year. In fact, some are seeing growth as high as 25 percent. This, arguably, is what happens when our collective backs are against the wall. We pivot, we adapt, and we find a level of resilience we might not have tapped otherwise.  

But questions still loom over the way we’re working right now: Is this sustainable? Will we abandon office space for the convenience and perceived cost benefit of virtual work? What do we lose by not being together and collaborating on work in the same space?

Maslow got it right... and also wrong.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs starts with the need for basic survival, steps up to the need for safety and security, and then rises to the need for belonging. These are the critical building blocks before striving toward the pinnacle of personal achievements. Indeed, in a pandemic and on a person-by-person level this makes absolute sense: survival, safety, and belonging are intuitive and in the right order.

But businesses are different. While many companies have risen to the challenge to rethink how work needs to get done, it’s not how work was meant to get done. In fact, it might be the opposite of Maslow’s first three needs.

In order to exist, companies rely on people who form a shared connection and purpose (belonging). A company’s survival is based on the belonging and culture of its people coming together and working toward a shared goal. Without people, the company doesn’t exist. Without deep interconnectedness, the company won’t survive.

You don’t have to look far to find evidence on how the pandemic is affecting our mental health and social well-being based on six months of restrictions. Technology has allowed us – and will continue to enable us – to show up, be visible, and be heard without putting our safety at risk. It will allow us to touch base more frequently with colleagues, partners, and suppliers across the globe now that we’re becoming proficient in virtual meetings. But it’s not a substitute for human connection as we know it. As herd animals, we are designed to be in community with each other.

Come together or stay apart?

The question leaders and employees alike will need to grapple with next is this: when we no longer have to be apart, or when it is safe, or safer, for us to be together, what will we choose?

For a variety of reasons, we want to see the economy do well. For purely selfish reasons, we want our company economy to do well regardless of any other indices. And that requires an understanding that the company economy is rooted in a collaboration economy – with our colleagues, suppliers and customers. Said another way: we’re better together.

I recently held an off-site meeting with a group of ten executives who hadn’t been in the same room together in more than 10 weeks. When it was over, I asked if this was worth it and if the meeting could’ve been conducted online. All 10 executives were unanimous in saying that it was crucial to be together. A different dynamic and impact emerged in person, even when keeping social distances.

Another client put it this way: his company has borrowed all it can against the cultural and relationship capital it has built with its people by asking them to work remotely for six months. As a result, they haven’t been reinvesting in those relationships; by default of being virtual they are losing the collaborative energy, connectivity, and creativity they were accustomed to fostering.

A new set of workplace challenges.

At the start of the pandemic’s work-from-home experiment, people were on their best behavior. As it becomes more of the norm, perhaps you’re seeing people slip into a level of comfort that breeds bad habits or sloppiness, new silos and alliances emerging, and a posture or tone from others that wouldn’t happen face to face. These are symptoms of the fragmented workplace.

Right now I see four realities facing businesses as they contemplate what that future of work looks like:

  • Culture is becoming more fragmented because of virtual work
  • The emergence of silos and fiefdoms are harder to prevent in this environment
  • As investments in a strong culture and great people have turned into withdrawals, to keep moving forward in a remote environment requires a reinvestment strategy
  • WFH might be desired and enjoyed by some employees, but it must be weighed against productivity and collaborative contributions

Once we have the data, I predict we’ll see a precipitous fall in productivity in the remote and virtual model many have been required to work under.

I also believe that companies with strong cultures will have people that want to get back to the office safely and engage with their teams, while employees who are at-risk take the necessary precautions that work for them. That won’t be the case for companies with cultures that are marginal. There’s likely no urgency to return to an environment where the people and work aren’t valued.  

Carefully weighing the health of employees and the health of the business simultaneously is a balancing act that leaders never thought would be required of them. But that’s 2020 – a year of unique challenges.  However, when leaders see that company culture, which most will agree is critical, is the bedrock of a company’s connection economy, they’ll strike that balance by leading with their core values and knowing what benefits everyone.