In our day-to-day work, we meet and collaborate with many stakeholders establishing and building relationships. Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, face-to-face interaction was the most prominent way to secure long-standing relationships. Now, these meetings are predominantly held remotely via numerous video conferencing tools.
To ensure we build trust and deepen relationships with our stakeholders while collaborating virtually we need to find ways to connect across more personal dimensions.
RECONOMY is an inclusive and green economic development program in the Eastern Partnership and the Western Balkan regions. So, the RECONOMY team, all our stakeholders, partners, and even the representatives of our donor—the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida)—are in different countries, making our collaboration quite exciting but also challenging.
In the beginning, this structure of RECONOMY required many efforts to ensure smooth collaboration, but also quite some creativity in establishing close relationships. We needed to find ways to make sure we as a remote team gather and feel comfortable working in the virtual world until we were able to travel and meet in person, but also to find meaningful means and tools to start collaborating with our stakeholders and partners from other countries.
So, what have we learned over the past two years about deepening connection with stakeholders in a world where digital communication is becoming mainstream?
Building strong stakeholder relationships remotely
As the well-known Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
It’s all about connection, interaction, and deep listening. We need to hear what our stakeholders and partners are concerned about, find a way how we can work together, and how we can exchange and support mutually.
How do we at RECONOMY do this? We brainstormed how to work together many times. And while we may not have the best recipe, we always try to find new and creative ways to build relationships remotely and to sustain and improve those that have worked well.
We set up regular virtual meetings and workshops to talk about the activities, the sectors we work in, the challenges faced, the support needed, the mutual collaboration, and so on. As part of organizing regular weekly and monthly exchanges, we introduced onboarding workshops for all new partners, ensuring they become familiarized with the regional program but also the interventions and the other partners.
We also organize regular pause and reflect workshops. During these workshops, we try to discuss all that relates to our activities, the success stories, the lessons learned, the constraints faced, the results achieved, and the way forward. Together we try to solve concerns and identify potential risks.
Aside from that, we organize various capacity-building events. We try to follow a non-standardized format to make sure everyone contributes and feels part of the group. But also facilitate different virtual gatherings, just for leisure, like this year’s pre-New Year e-coffee gathering.
A word of caution. It isn’t always so straightforward. Meeting with someone you haven’t met in person, and on top of that talking “business” sometimes creates a bit awkward and too formal environment. So, we need to master the art of small talk.
And while I do agree with my colleague, Zenebe Uraguchi, who in his blog The Power of ‘Small Talks’ for Creativity & Productivity says, “work from home diminishes the opportunity for small talks with colleagues and partners or communities — in the office or visiting a country for work”, we still need to find a way to introduce these small talks as part of remote relationship building processes. We can start the conversation with a small talk related to the topic of our meeting or workshop and transform it into a big connection… virtually.
For example, if the topic of the meeting is related to establishing regional collaboration, we can start by asking or talking about some specifics of that region. This includes talking about their countries’ natural beauties, their latest innovation or economic development that triggered our interests, or simply expressing our impressions in case you have visited or read something about that region or country. This way, we open the door to a more profound discussion related to the topic of the meeting or workshop.
People working in different countries will speak different languages and have different cultural contexts, habits, attitudes, and behaviors we’re aware of. Of course, English is the common working language, but we find it useful to at least know one other language, trying to say basic phrases here and there. This way, we’re aware that we all have a culture and identity that exists beyond us individually. We try to show our colleagues and collaborators that beyond their role in the regional program, we see them as human beings.
As the old saying goes "You have time what you make time for?", small talks should be part of that time!
And while all the above seems very much “automated”, we felt the need to also connect “off-cycle”. At RECONOMY, we have established a habit to reach out to our partners and stakeholders just because we wanted to inform them of a new knowledge product, a new and interesting reading or publication, or just because we thought of them and wanted to connect and have a quick chat. We realized that this approach is very much welcomed as it “disturbs” the fixed agenda and allows for that personal touch.
When was the last time you called someone just because “they crossed your mind”? Let’s bring more of this “unconventional” no-agenda, no-email connection, and simply ask the other side how they are doing today!
Isn’t it therefore true to say that the most fundamental value for building healthy relationships is trust? Trust is that social glue that holds and sustains these great stakeholder relationships together.
It's also about giving when it comes to remote networking and collaboration. The best relationship builders are givers. They disseminate information to educate, inspire, and motivate others. In a distributed society where people are largely connected through digital channels of communication, the capacity to listen for opportunities and to provide added value for others is the key to building long-term relationships.
Also, we’ll soon launch a single centralized shared space for keeping our colleagues and collaborators updated but also a way to exchange knowledge and learnings during the implementation of RECONOMY. To have teams spread out across the regions regularly communicating on Teams, other stakeholders using Skype for business, some others preferring emails, you end up with information spread across platforms which makes it difficult to track previous conversations or find useful information later on. Common channels of communication are important – be it for regular communications or storing valuable information and decision.
We may not have all of the best solutions on how to build and sustain stakeholder relationships remotely as we also learn and improve daily, but one thing is for sure: we are stronger when we work together when we collaborate, exchange, and when we double down on our relationships.
The success of our work can only be harvested when we, our stakeholders, our partners, and the donor are satisfied with the outcomes, the services delivered, the impact achieved, and more fundamentally the relationships that are being built while achieving these goals.