Building relationships is a basic requirement for successful cooperation in PTB projects given their intercultural context. For reasons such as time or geographical distance, this aspect is often overlooked. Misunderstandings and frictions might arise when cultural differences are not taken into account in the design of the cooperation. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, good relations could be set up on site through personal meetings and informal events (for example, joint lunches, celebration of successful project activities, etc.). However, virtual collaboration poses a new challenge when it comes to content and conceptual planning and implementation of projects. Some reasons for this are a greater risk of misunderstandings due to a reliance on virtual communication as well as a lack of space for addressing issues that are not directly related to the content of the collaboration. This is particularly important in new projects, where the people involved still have to get to know each other and develop ownership of the project as well as an understanding of its intercultural aspects. When key individuals such as project coordinators or long-term experts change in an ongoing project, the challenge of building new relationships also needs to be considered and addressed. With continuing travel and contact restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are more and more circumstances where professional relationships need to be built up from scratch without having met in person before.
Space for establishing a personal connection needs to be created in the remote work setting. There is no single solution that fits all situations and people involved. In general, enough time should be allowed to get to know new partners. Since PTB projects are carried out in complex multi-stakeholder settings establishing trust should be embedded in a process of discussing and clarifying the forms of cooperation to achieve a common goal. In contrast to the traditional mode of collaboration, in the virtual room it is important to establish and keep regular contact with the individual project partners more frequently. It does not always have to be a project-related occasion. In meetings and workshops a good balance between personal and work-related issues should be established.
Especially at the beginning of new projects, a mix of individual discussions, virtual meetings in small focus groups, interviews, steering committee meetings, etc., is a good opportunity to share different perspectives, interests, roles, and contributions of those involved with a view to achieving the common project goal. Apart from official meetings, it might be advisable to foresee informal onboarding or getting-to-know-each-other sessions with project partners.
Different options to do so are presented below.
Area of application:
Aside from working groups and workshops, it should always be emphasized that time dedicated to fostering personal relationships is never wasted. It should instead be perceived as a good investment because it can be more challenging and time-consuming to resolve a misunderstanding or conflict over distance or to deal with non-responsiveness than to establish a relationship over distance. If needed and appropriate (e.g. if concerns about time limitations are raised), the objective of establishing a personal relationship may be addressed directly. Moreover, it is advisable to use a suitable mix of synchronous and asynchronous work and clearly define the roles and tasks of the people involved, as well as a common goal, to allow for an efficient collaboration.
A channel for regular communication should be established. Depending on the preferences of the people involved, this can be a videoconferencing solution or phone calls, and instant messaging or e-mails for written communication. It is important to allow time for the relationship to develop and to be aware of the intercultural dimension.
It can be helpful to:
- Organize deliberately a first virtual business trip (e.g. one week) to meet the most important project partners bilaterally; this creates an opportunity for a personal exchange and allows, at the same time, to discuss the project’s status, goals, upcoming activities, etc.
- Establish a routine that is acceptable for all people involved, e.g. weekly calls with similar sequences to create a safe and controlled environment where participants feel confident to interact.
- Create space for one-on-one exchange, e.g. with breakout sessions or regular bilateral calls.
- Use video whenever possible, so that the communication is not limited to audio.
- Actively address key questions regarding preferences in collaboration and communication, e.g. preferred communication channels, times for meetings, “you can always reach me on the phone, but I cannot promise to be available for videoconferences that are planned way ahead of time”, etc..
- Split a big project team into smaller working groups to facilitate exchange and make it easier for everyone to participate.
- Note: It is recommended to have meetings with the whole team at longer intervals to share updates, ensure coordination and make it possible for members of different sub-groups to meet, exchange and get to know each other.
- Create optional space for further exchange, e.g. informal lunch meetings or the possibility to come back earlier from breaks for an informal chat. These informal occasions should also be used for informal talks on a personal level, not only for an extension of work-related discussions.
- Note: It can be nice to name the videoconferencing room after a well-known restaurant or café to reinforce the impression of being in an informal setting.
- Local project staff or other partners in the country might help as door openers to establish an open and trustful relationship, so they might be included in meetings.
- Use quizzes or other elements of gamification to loosen up a formal setting and get to a more personal level involving all the participants.
- Share documents, presentations, photographs, if possible and where appropriate, to meet peoples’ visual demands (not just talking).
- Consider organizing an intercultural training or team building process to develop a common understanding of the cultural differences of the people involved and define how to work together efficiently taking these differences into account.
Tools and technical aspects
Videoconferencing solutions that allow breakout sessions easily are particularly suited to implement some of the suggested activities above. It is very helpful if all participants have a webcam and make use of it.
It may be helpful to use poll and quiz tools, especially in larger groups.
In case the people involved are in different locations but some of them can meet in person, hybrid solutions may be considered. This may be the case, for instance, if a new project is launched and a local project representative is hired. In that case, in-person meetings between the project representative and key project partners should be encouraged. During such meetings, the project representative can then also reduce technical barriers and involve the project coordinator and / or expert abroad by setting up videoconferencing.