Article written for the AFOA’s Journal of Aboriginal Management (JAM) October issue.

There is no place on Earth that hasn’t been impacted on a certain level, by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Because of this planetary crisis, we all had to experience the discomfort of going through changes whether it’s in our personal and/or professional lives. This major turning point in our lives has also been a stop sign to help us acknowledge how deeply interconnected we are with one and another and how members of a community can work together to support each other during an unforeseen event like this one. As we’ve seen in the past year, what happens to one individual, can have ripple effects and consequences on the collectiveness. No better example than the potential risks of spreading a contagious virus!

So why is being interconnected so beneficial? Sharing information, experiences, and best practices, can lead us to improve our interactions, develop healthier habits, make better decisions, and thus enhance our personal and work relationships. Understanding the power of collective efforts towards achieving common goals, and consciously fostering ways to leverage that potential can lead to better and more sustained results.

Connectivity in Action

At Boreala Management we have been learning through direct experience the value of connectivity, both from our internal team dynamics as well as in our work with diverse clients.  Internally, we have been assessing our communication mechanisms and making sure we stay connected by keeping and reinforcing our collaborative practices while working remotely. Naturally, learning what works better for us, as an SME, involved exploring and testing different initiatives while keeping a very agile mindset. However, what worked for us will not necessarily work for larger organizations, with higher complexity, multiple stakeholders, diverse levels of knowledge and hierarchical layers. To achieve connectivity at a higher scale, key elements such as a strong organizational culture, leadership role modeling, and effective communication practices are crucial in staying connected.

As a consulting firm working with different First Nations clients, we have been fortunate to witness and support organizations and communities in utilizing the power of connectivity to overcome challenges. By experiencing connectivity in action along with them, we were able to note some valuable key take-aways and identify some success factors for effective communication and collaboration in the workplace during this challenging time.

We were able to participate in a great example of community connectivity in the midst of the pandemic, while supporting one of our First Nation clients in the education sector, when a transversal challenge emerged that impacted the community as a whole: “How can we plan a safe way for students to come back to their communities for the end of the year holidays?” To overcome this challenge, multiple stakeholders needed to work as team to coordinate efforts in a context that they never experienced before.

In a very short period, diverse leaders from the First Nation council, local governments as well as health and education organizations were involved in establishing a collaborative process and making decisions towards a common purpose. The “What” was clear: Plan a safe way for students to come back to their communities for the holidays. The “How” was a different story. They had to find consensus on the best way to go about it while taking into consideration different perspectives and interests. Connectivity was key to make it happen. From an external perspective, we were able to observe how a situation that, at the beginning seemed very straight forward and clear, became more complex and difficult to resolve. Why? Because of the different factors involved such as the number of students travelling from different locations, family members travelling with them, options for doing quarantine periods (7 days at their place of study and 7 days at their communities, or 14 days at their communities only), dates of travelling, completing individual health assessments, sharing their status, and much more. Moreover, although there were essential protocols defined by the public health authorities and specialists, the communities defined their own protocols to welcome back the students, so public safety officers at the local level needed to be involved in the operation. Throughout this process, it was crucial to keep the communication channels open by providing updates on new procedures.

Connectivity and efficiency were critical for success in this VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) context.   There were several interactions going on behind the scenes and although there were some disagreements and reasonable misunderstandings between stakeholders, alignment towards the common goal was stronger than all. Overall, the plan was successful, and students came back to their communities safe and sound.

But what were the key success factors? What is crucial when dealing with VUCA situations in the workplace? How can we leverage the power of connectivity to foster collaboration, overcome challenges and meet organizational goals?

The Importance of Connectivity

In every social system, connectivity is the “glue” that allows individuals to keep a strong connection with the whole. A social system emerges from people’s recurrent interactions, and not from the individuals themselves (Espejo, 2003).

At Boreala Management we define Connectivity as “the quality or capability of an organization to be connected with their stakeholders: employees, clients, communities, etc., in alignment with a common purpose. Connectivity is all about staying in tune with others by openly giving and receiving information to establish effective open communication and achieve higher impact.”

Since connectivity is the result of individuals’ interactions which could vary in levels of intensity and effectiveness, organizations play a key role in enhancing connectivity with their different stakeholders.

Naturally, not all organizations learn, communicate, collaborate, and make decisions in the same way.  Moreover, some organizations may interpret processes and cycles through the lens of their culture, rather than with more linear “cause and effect” dynamics of problem solving and decision making.  Therefore, it is important to keep in mind how unique cultural aspects impact how collaboration and connectivity are leveraged in the workplace.

However, there is an essential element that transversally makes the difference when we talk about the value of connectivity. Intention. Being intentional is critical for enhancing a culture of communication and connectivity in the workplace. Being intentional means actively creating processes and mechanisms which support information sharing and collaboration.

Over the last year we have seen the important role that technology has played in keeping people connected. Of course, the remote work that we have all become so accustomed to would not be possible without the technological tools that we have come to reply on some much.  However, upgrading internet access, putting in place the latest software or installing leading-edge virtual tools to enhance connectivity at work is not enough to instill new practices in an organization.  Leaders have a bigger role to play in establishing and imbedding a culture of communication and encouraging connectivity across and beyond the organization. This is especially true when navigating VUCA situations and overcoming the obstacles associated with new ways of working.

The Role of a Leader

The past year has highlighted even further the key role that leaders play in helping their organizations navigate change and supporting their teams through uncertainty.   From an organizational and change management perspective, to successfully implement any new initiative or change of direction requires strong alignment and support from the leaders themselves to reinforce the desired behaviors.

Anyone in a leadership position should be mindful of the need for good lines of communication and transparency with their employees to keep them engaged and working toward organizational goals.

Additionally, with increased the lines of connectivity and interdependence within organizations as well as with external stakeholders, the impact of leadership on fostering a culture of collaboration transcends the traditional hierarchies and departmental divisions.

Leadership Success Factors:  Key Strategies to Foster Connectivity in the Workplace

  • Connect with Purpose: Every organization and community are aiming to accomplish a purpose. Leaders should systematically ask themselves about how different initiatives, and even daily tasks performed by staff are linked with the collective purpose. Helping employees ‘connect the dots’ with clear and tangible messaging regarding how their work contributes to the overall purpose will help avoid confusion and encourage a culture of collaboration.
  • Communication, Communication, Communication: In change management and particularly within a VUCA context, there is never enough communication. However, it is crucial to identify what works best for your organization and employees. Create mechanisms that will work for you to have an agile flow of information, include multi-directional communication channels and different perspectives. Consider options such as pulse surveys, weekly catch-up team meetings and one on one touch-base calls. It is also important to provide regular status updates even when there are no final decisions, keeping team members and other stakeholders in the loop and giving them a forum to ask questions and raise concerns.
  • Be Empathetic: The toll of the pandemic, and for many, the impact of working remotely may have affected employee’s mental health and energy levels at work. Leaders need to go deeper in understanding the needs of others by practicing active listening and taking the time for meaningful dialogue with team members and other stakeholders. Leaders should be mindful and open in conversations, carefully prepare key messages and validate understanding to ensure alignment across different audiences.
  • Navigate Challenges Collectively: The changes in relation to workplace dynamics are far from being over. We are now entering a new cycle of change in work dynamics with more hybrid working models that will continue to evolve overtime. These new ways of working will further enhance the need for collaboration and connectivity. For leaders to navigate these changes effectively, they need to integrate different perspectives and engage all stakeholders. Allow space for people to share ideas and brainstorm strategies for new ways of working together.
  • Create Collaboration Mechanisms: Connection and collaboration can of course arise organically, but coming back to the importance of being intentional, it is highly important that leaders clearly establish mechanisms to encourage and enable connectivity. Processes should be created and regularly updated, systematic meetings should be in place as well as formal and informal spaces for interactions in different formats across different stakeholder groups. Consider flexibility and ongoing adaptability for implementing collaboration mechanisms. Leaders should give employees the space to test ideas and invite and encourage individuals to take accountability in those dynamics. Of course, recognising efforts and showing appreciation of employee contributions goes a long way in fostering an environment of healthy collaboration.
  • Use Action – Reflection Cycles: In an era of ongoing uncertainty, more than ever it is important to go back to the “Why”, review the initial goals, and assess the actions that drive results. After implementing an initiative, testing a new process, or closing a project, take the time to formally assess with the team. What worked well? What didn’t work? What could be improved and be done differently? In order to get the best from collaborative dynamics, it is important to engage people and develop the habit of systematic conversations for continuous improvement. These action – reflection cycles are opportunities to connect and share from different perspectives and harness collective learning.
  • Self-Inquiry: Keeping a practice of reflectiveness is healthy for increasing self-awareness, which is key for improving effectiveness in relationships. Leaders should ask themselves questions regarding their leadership dynamics such as:
    • How can I be more effective in my work relations with others both in person and remotely?
    • How does collaboration at its best look like with my team or community?
    • What might I not see clearly from this situation?
    • What is the impact of my leadership on others?
    • What feedback am I getting from others?

Being curious and reflective can help leaders continue to build their capacity in the self-inquiry process, which can lead to positive actions and impactful change.

Accountability for All

Although leaders play a crucial role in fostering a culture of collaboration in the workplace, ultimately every employee must take accountability within their areas of responsibility for embracing the benefits that connectivity can bring.  Everyone, no matter their level in an organization can take actions to connect, communicate and collaborate with colleagues and relevant external stakeholders, not only during times of uncertainty, but every day in the advancement of the organization, or community.

Although we have been living through challenging times, and changes to our ways of working continue to evolve quickly, the pandemic has been an been a great opportunity to accelerate processes, utilize technology and implement changes to keep us connected.   Now is the time for organizations to take stock of what has worked well and what can be further enhanced to continue to leverage the power of strong connectivity in the workplace.

What lessons has your organization learned from the experiences of the past 18 months and how can you use this information to build capacity for a stronger organization, ready to face the next challenge?