Working collaboratively in a crisis?

5 min readMay 12, 2020


Since we moved into lockdown, my team and I have been experimenting with ways to continue working together from our different homes. We are privileged in that we don’t need to go out onto the frontline and be in constant contact with others, even if we are in constant contact with those who do.

1. Pivot your team around missions and root your work in relationships

We’ve organised our team in a way that helps support the emergency responce. We’ve got strategy leads who lead on supporting each of the different Covid 19 workstreams, while coordinating the involvement of colleagues from our corporate services, developing new multidisciplinary teams around key missions and surfacing & reporting in the collective intelligence to help make rapid decisions.

We’ve been able to do this because we’d built strong relationships with people at all levels, from senior leaders to frontline staff, through to local partners and our communities.

We’d also developed a multidisciplinary approach where we didn’t have functional roles for different types of work, but recruited for diversity, be it service designers, data scientists, community developers, change managers, social entrepreneurs, as well as policy makers. We’d also developed an autonomous approach to working as a team, with different members working closely with different teams.

2. Encourage the team to be open and vulnerable so they feel supported

We’ve moved to daily chats where we check in on each other’s physical and psychological health, almost like a family. We share what’s making us vulnerable — whether that’s feeling overworked, stressed, lonely or overwhelmed about the whole situation. But we also share what’s making us feel optimistic — whether that’s the social solidarity people are seeing on our streets, tips on how to get food without having to go to the supermarket or what we’re looking forward to.

The poet and psychologist Hala Alyan wrote a beautiful essay, in which she suggested that this pandemic is “serving as a flashlight — illuminating people’s unsteadiest, half-finished parts. It’s showing us where our work remains. People talk about their ex-boyfriends, their long-resolved eating disorders, their childhood secrets…”

3. Continuously evaluate & share what you’ve learnt to be able to respond to a changing situation

We also have daily lessons learned where we bring together our strategy leads to ensure continued alignment by the work streams to our overall response, resolve any interdependencies between the work streams, resolve any resourcing & prioritisation issues and re-allocate resource accordingly, share lessons learned to identify & action improvements across the work streams and escalate any cross-cutting issues that need to be resolved.

Twice a week we have extended check ins, where we deep dive on a particular issue or theme we’re trying to tackling as a way to come up for air and take a step back from the emergency we’re in to make sense of it all, what connections we’re seeing and what we can do to join it up or to help accelerate or scale the work others are doing.

We’ve moved to work across services and organisations in collaborative ways. Sometimes people’s enthusiasm and sense of urgency to help means that there’s duplication in the work we do and we could be making better use of people’s skills.

We prioritise our work based on values and need to share with people the principles that underpin our work

Harvard Business Review shares three tips on this

  • Check bias at the door
  • Assume positive intent
  • Be consistent and accountable

4. Distinguish work and home to create a sense of work-life balance

I’ve found during this situation that I’ve had this surreal sense of working from my living room protected from the impacts of the Covid 19 with being able to do online deliveries and have a garden to chill out in, while responding to the impacts the virus is having directly on people, whether they’re in very vulnerable situations and have urgent need for food or suppliers or they’re supporting people who do. For all of us, we need to realise that “what you are doing is not remote work, it is coping in a global emergency”.

Commuting creates a separation between home and work, so if we don’t commute anymore, how do we make sure work and our personal life doesn’t just blend into one? How do we get a break from being on our screens not stop? I do a daily walk to get fresh air, exercise and time with my partner? How do we create “breaks” in between our meetings? I walk around my garden and even have “walking 121s” which I used to have before the crisis, albeit walking with the person I was having a 121 with. How do you this?

Matthew Knight who runs Leapers for freelancers, recommends different ways to use exercise to break up the day

5. Take time to reflect while still responding to the crisis

In an emergency situation, we are very quick to respond and while it can be very stressful, being mobilised around a single priority is easier than the slow burn of how we recover post-emergency.

How can you make time to reflect so you can anticipate new emergencies and what’s needed to recover, but also time on how to create space for others to be able to make sense of what lessons they’ve learnt and what to do next?

Cat Drew reflects that “The way I make sense of the world is often through the act of drawing or writing”.

How can you make time so everyone feels they can contribute, not just those best placed to work in an emergency, recognising that this is affecting people in different ways.

We’re creating a multidisciplinary approach to both how we make sense of what’s happening now and how we can use learning to shape the future. To kick this off, we’ve created weekly check ins at the start of the week specifically on our renewal work and at the end of the week on lessons learned. We’ve also created bi weekly extended team meetings to deep dive on a particular area and we’re crowdsourcing needs.

We’re also going to be kicking off scenario workshops with people to help them imagine what the different futures could be? We’ve started this off by exploring with people what are the critical uncertainties we might face and analysing trends across different policy areas.

Other people or organisations who are exploring ways to tackle these tensions are @lankellychase and One Team Gov who’ve got an excellent way of having weekly discussions and prioritising what themes they work on, in particular top tips for looking after our teams particularly those who are on their own / isolated and the all important question of how we can hold onto collaboration in a post-emergency situation?




Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese