The digital organization in the pandemic – field report

A field report. How we founded an organization in the middle of the crisis without ever having seen each other.

A guest post by Felicitas Heger .

The pandemic has been presenting us with many challenges for more than a year now. We had to adapt to innovations in communication and teamwork with special manners within a very short time. We experienced the pros and cons of this new teamwork, mostly taking place on Zoom. What are our learnings from this year? Which 5 pillars do we have to rely on when building and developing a digital organization?

In November 2020, I founded a new network around the topic of sustainability with a few visionaries and enthusiasts. We all got to know each other online during a training course to become an environmental and sustainability manager. We also found online that we all believe in a systemic and sustainable way of thinking in order to be able to tackle the challenges of our time. With this goal connecting us, the direction of the network and the founding of the organization as well as the name “ systaimability ” (system + aim + sustainability) were quickly found. Today we are enriched by the experience of two online meetups so far with countless previous Zoom calls, Slack group discussions, creative Canva templates for social media posts and presentations, and a bulging Google Documents folder. We reached participants from all over the world with great speakers, whom we also only asked for and got to know digitally.

Our learnings for you

But what have we learned from digital collaboration so far? And how can I classify these for your own work in the team on the way to a digital organization? Which 5 pillars are particularly important?

So this is an attempt to give you a guide through the five most common assumptions in the digital space and my resulting assessments. From this I derive 5 pillars for a successful online cooperation.

1st pillar: Free organization of working hours and understanding of the respective situation of the individual team members

During the pandemic, we do not spend most of our work at a workplace, but at home. This is nothing new! But what has fundamentally changed as a result is our strict separation of work and leisure time. This can have negative consequences, such as blurring the dividing line between coping with the workload and consciously taking leisurely free time. In the worst case, this can lead to serious psychological problems and illnesses.

I see the positive consequences of this type of work design in the individual design of the time planning of each individual. This means that you can follow your own internal clock and the mostly family routine. So not having to stick to the rigid analogue structure of “9 to 5”.

What does this new way of working together mean for us as a team?

In my last article, “ Empowering Diverse and Female Team Members ” here on the blog, I wrote about one of the most important ingredients for successful team collaboration. We’re talking about “appreciation”. Without a certain degree of mutual understanding for the respective personal situation of individual team members, working together in the digital space cannot work.

The big problem and the biggest ruse we can fall for is believing that just because we are digitally networked with each other, the other person has to be reachable at all times. That does not work! If this overload and uncontrolled flood of information occurs, motivation dwindles and the entire project runs the risk of failing.

The better strategy is therefore to take on the individual, individual needs without judgement, above all without devaluing them. The distribution of tasks should be divided according to the workload of each individual. Of course, there should also be mutual commitment and trust here.

We can describe this form of team collaboration as a “you’re ok, I’m ok” attitude from Transactional Analysis. This is based on mutual appreciation, recognition for the respective situation of the other person and trust.

At Systaimability , we lived this attitude right from the start, and in individual cases we didn’t get any further or were even disappointed. We have learned from our experience to communicate even more transparently and to recognize this inner attitude in the team as an important first pillar of organizational structure.

2nd pillar: Adhere to timeboxing in online meetings and calls

This attitude also applies to the design of online meetings or shorter meetings (calls). If you don’t learn to appreciate the notified and planned time windows of your team members and stick to the agreements, you will soon only have unmotivated and unproductive colleagues in front of the screen who only listen to your important planning drafts for the project to listen.

At Systaimability , we are currently working very hard on this important pillar of structural development for a digital organization. Now, of course, we also get along well personally. Usually our calls always started with a chat and a personal exchange. I’m sure you all know this form of time delay and when it comes to the really important and relevant topics for the project, everyone is tired or their thoughts are already on the next call.

So we have to be aware that it is also a form of mutual appreciation to stick to agreed times and to discuss all important points in the given time, so as not to become an unorganized time-waster for everyone. We assigned someone on the team to oversee the timeboxing and give us a nudge when we’re drifting into trivialities. What can I say, of course it doesn’t always work out, but it gets better!

3rd pillar: Planned calls for personal exchange in the organization

Immediately following pillar 2 and no less important for building a stable team foundation, it is of course also necessary to set up rooms for personal exchange and team building in addition to “timeboxed” work calls.

Because just because we are in the digital space does not mean that we are not allowed to perceive ourselves as human beings. If we disregard this and deal with it too lightly, pillars 1 and 2 cannot develop positively either. If we don’t manage to set up a space for personal and free thinking, there will be no understanding for each other and thus the appreciation and the resulting motivation for the joint project will suffer again.

How can these digital spaces be filled with life?

For example, you could meet once a month for a “vision talk” with a glass of wine in front of the screen. Completely informal and without time pressure. Everyone is allowed to share their thoughts and personal anecdotes.

Before we started and worked together at Systaimability , our team member Luci had a great idea. She invited us all to an online cooking evening and sent out the shopping list in advance. The evening with wine and oven-roasted vegetables turned out to be very cheerful.

At the moment we’re more on the model of holding a “vision talk” every two to three weeks. Here, too, there is certainly still room for improvement, but we are on the right track. Our third pillar for a digital organizational structure is taking shape more and more.

There is also an exciting webinar on motivational meeting routines to check out in our archive.

4th pillar: Clear communication about the communication channels used

The “magic word” for good communication in a team is and remains transparency! Above all, it is important not only to name them and classify them as important, but also to really live them. For this to succeed, shared information must be able to be received and read by all team members. So that this does not degenerate into a flood of communication channels and we would then be back to assumption 1 and the result of it, dwindling motivation and the failure of the project would be in front of us, we first need a clear overview of all our forms of communication.

Which tools or programs suit you and which you consider valuable is not of great importance at first. It is important that all team members can use the agreed communication channels. Discuss in advance for which tasks and project development steps you need which tool. You then commit yourself to individual, useful tools.

At Systaimability , we started with a Slack group, a Miro board, a Trello board, a Google docs shared folder, a Hootsuite account for all social media platforms, a Canva account for designing Logo, posts and presentations, with a account and with a Zoom account.

After almost half a year, we have cleaned up our communication channels. We limited ourselves to those that really helped us in our day-to-day organizational work.

We continue to work with these channels:
And we don’t work with these channels anymore:
  • Trello (has been replaced by working lists on Google docs)
  • Hootsuite (has been replaced by setting individual responsibilities for individual social media channels)

You can only experience these learnings by trying them out and simply “doing”. “Trial and error” so to speak! If you then evaluate again and again whether all your team members are taken along, whether the flood of information can be managed and you can thus create the greatest possible transparency in the team, then nothing stands in the way of setting up your Pillar 4.

5th pillar: Introduce conscious times of unavailability and “digital detox”.

In order to set up the fifth and last pillar of your digital organization, you can orientate yourself on the first pillar again. The assumption here was that each of us is and should always be available in the digital space of project implementation. Of course we know that this is not feasible and that breaks are also incredibly important for the joint and creative success of a project. Because a constant overload and an uncontrolled flood of information on the team members inevitably leads to a decrease in motivation and zest for action during implementation. As a result, the entire project fails due to this sensory overload in the first few weeks and months of founding an organization or implementing a project.

We at Systaimability also got this self-made flood of information at the beginning. We have achieved a lot with the implementation of our first meetup for the time being. After that, however, the motivation collapsed and everyone was correspondingly flat and without energy.

What we learned from this was definitely that, as team members, we were free to express when we needed a break or when we needed to be unavailable. In the meantime it works so well that everyone explains about their own breaks and we generally declare the weekend to be an online-free zone with family and friends.

Here you can of course decide freely and creatively how you want to handle this and how long you want to create a “digital detox” in the team given your workload and special urgencies. It is important to note that creative processes and, above all, thought processes can only arise if “free time” is also consciously planned. Especially in the digital project room! After all, as you know, new, innovative ideas can come your way anywhere.

My conclusion for your organization

What is important for a digital organization in the pandemic?

In order to set up a digital organization in such a crisis, it is important to know that we cannot translate the analog organizational world and project development 1:1 into the digital space. Not only do we have to make sure that we are well and transparently networked with each other, but we also have to keep reminding ourselves to allow interpersonal relationships and a mutual understanding of the respective situation of our counterparts, even in digital space.

What attitude do we take as an organization in the digital space?

I plead for an understanding and appreciative cooperation as well as for a free organization of working hours, in which each individual can perform and develop their full work power and thus lead the team to success. The way we plan online meetings and calls and stick to the agreed times is also an important form of mutual respect and appreciation. So that personal exchange is not lost in the digital space with all the desired “timeboxing”, times and spaces for free thinking should be set up very consciously. This also has a major impact on team building.

In addition to these points, there are other ingredients, such as appreciation and interest in the respective situation of the individual, as well as a good deal of well-communicated transparency in the selected communication channels.

If you observe these points and are aware that there must also be an end of the working day with online free times in the digital space, you can get off to a flying start as a digital organization. I wish you every success in the implementation and hope that these five pillars will help you.

About Felicitas Heger

Systemic organizational developer, sustainability manager and coach. Founder of . Felicitas Heger deals with the strengthening of women in teams and management positions by combining coaching and voice to actively name one’s own resources. She has also worked for many years in the non-profit and cultural sector as a project manager and organizational developer. She is still concerned with the question of possible solutions for more social cohesion and greater structural development in small to medium-sized cities.

About Systemability

Systaimability wants to draw attention to the challenges of our time, network innovative systems with each other, make different, interdisciplinary fields of sustainability visible and thus inspire action. Aside from the events (online meetups), the goal is to build a growing community that continuously interacts, discusses and develops solutions together.

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