betterplace lab Team, Photo: Andi Weiland
This case study looks at the effects of the corona crisis and remote work on the betterplace lab, a Think and Do Tank I founded in 2010 in Berlin. As part of its transformation into self-management, the team has had a lot of experiences with inner work (more on that here).
Act 1: shock and paralysis
During the first week of the corona pandemic, our financial overseer Carolin confronted the team with a hard truth: “We are going to lose up to 20% of our revenue. All planned events have been canceled and numerous projects in the pipeline can’t be realised under the current conditions.” For a social enterprise like the betterplace lab, which aims to break even by year’s end and has almost no reserves, a situation like this is existentially threatening.
Almost every member of our team was affected. Hanna and Nadine had planned a series of networking events as part of DAS NETTZ, in which organisations that fight against hate speech and promote a culture of positive debate in the internet were to exchange ideas. Katja was in the middle of planning a large scenario workshop for digital initiatives promoting democracy. These great projects were supposed to be strengthened through learning to better measure their impact and scaled through cooperations with innovation-friendly communities. Isabel and Nora had to unpack their suitcases last-minute, since the workshops they had planned in Uganda as part of the Digital Human Rights Lab had to be cancelled due to travel-restrictions. While Franziska had barely managed to meet her project partners in Kiew in person, the planned presence-modules of the TechSisters, a mentoring program for Ukrainian women engaged in civil society, were cancelled immediately.
Initial reactions within the team oscillated between disbelief, insecurity and shell-shock: is this really happening? Are we still going come in to the office? Which projects are going to fall away? By the time that there was talk of kindergardens and schools shutting down, the decision unanimously fell in favour of working from home.
Interlude: from theory to practice
The change from working from our office at bUm to working from home confronted the betterplace lab with an exciting challenge: how would the team, made up of a dozen employees, perform their jobs so radically decentralised? Most projects included several team members, and all conventional management functions were likewise, based on holocratic principles, organised in groups. Collaboration, amongst ourselves as with partners and clients, is at the center of our work.
Theoretically we were well prepared: Over the past six years we had completely restructured our organisational culture, working self-organised in a flexible, competency-based hierarchy, without fixed structures, bosses or role descriptions. But not only that: we had learned that fluid structures only work when we learn new competencies as human beings. And thus we had already put a lot of time and money into the development of concrete abilities: individual competencies like self-contact and self-reflection, relationship competencies like empathy and transparent communication, and field competencies such as process-consciousness (meta-reflection) and intuition. In our book New Work Needs Inner Work we had described this path in detail.
Act 2: Inner competencies stabilises a team in times of crisis
As a think- and do-tank exploring and promoting the social potential of digital technologies, the betterplace lab has built up a solid digital infrastructure over the past years. In Matt Mullenweg’s five levels of distributed work, I would locate us between levels three and four. Employees are digitally competent and are used to working with a variety of digital tools. We are good at documenting our work, and all documents are accessible to employees through the cloud. That makes us different from many charitable organisations who keep their most important information filed away in cabinets and are now paralysed because they can’t access them. Our digital affinity also showed itself in that, in a matter of days, we tested and integrated into our work a whole series of new tools, such as Mural.
At least equally as important as the proficiency in digital tools, however, was the “psychic infrastructure” of the team members, that is, how they were able to deal with the changes occurring on many different levels.
Inspired by Frederic Laloux’s concept of wholeness, over the past few years we had developed a shared understanding and a common language about what it means to show up to work as a “whole person”. Thus, it was clear from the beginning that we would offer the coronavirus a spot on our team. In meetings we talk about our difficulties such as working in a room with one’s small children, share unpleasant feelings such as paralysis or fear, and discuss coping strategies.
“The first few days of working from home I was completely blocked,” remembers Hanna, “but at the betterplace lab I learned to better reflect on my emotions. That way I was quickly able to figure out how I needed to get settled in at home in order to be able to work.” Nadine agrees: “ My self-contact really helped me. To understand: what’s happening to me? Why do I feel under pressure? And how can I get relief?”
Over the past years we had repeatedly encountered a particular mechanism on a small-scale: in times of stress and uncertainty we like to fall back on structures that are familiar to us and have worked for us in the past, but that may not be suitable for the current situation anymore. For example, team members may withdraw within themselves and the team fragments. Then, the team had sought stability in me, their former boss, or in Carolin, our foreign minister.
Thus prepared, the team was aware that they would have to prevent such a fragmentation, and focused especially on the synchronisation amongst them. Did everyone have the information they needed? Which team members needed more personal encouragement than usual? Did everybody feel included?
“We’ve been communication more consciously and appreciatively in this situation,” says Katja, “and we’re developing the necessary formats, such as a digital coffee break or the morning check-in over Zoom”. Franziska: “At the moment we’re being very honest with each other about what works and what doesn’t. Everybody has learned to voice their needs openly. This can be a little exhausting, for example, when you have to take into consideration a co-worker’s new jogging routine, but we always find a way.
Carolin agrees: “The team is currently well tuned in with itself, without becoming less productive. Everyone has a good feeling for what others need right now, and are capable of supplying each other with the necessities.
While, in hierarchical organisations, it’s the boss’s job to have an overview of the company as a whole, give teams security, and inspire them to new projects, in the betterplace lab all these things are taken care of by the team itself. They are aided in this by their repeatedly trained process-consciousness: team members can clearly articulate what’s going on within themselves, on the level of the team, and in their projects, and determine what’s necessary for everyone to stay in their flow.
Every team member I’ve spoken to for this article has emphasised their trust in their colleagues. “Nobody here is a control-freak or believes that some of us are being lazy. Everyone is currently doing the utmost that their living circumstances allow.”
In this way, even the onboarding of new colleagues was a success. Our new working student Katharina has never physically met any of our team members, and even her job interview was held over Zoom, but after a week of digital collaboration she’s astounded by how well things are going: “In a lot of companies I know, there is a desire for more agility, but I’m amazed by how independently and naturally it’s being implemented in the lab.
Interlude: What’s difficult?
In my conversations it has become clear that the respective living circumstances of team members play a large role in determining how comfortable they feel working from home and how productive they are able to be there. It doesn’t come as a big surprise that employees with little children, who live in a confined space together with their partner, have a harder time working from home than those with a garden and a partner on maternity or paternity leave. It’s not without reason that Isas Zoom-background is a virtual south sea beach; her storage room is best suited for undisturbed work.
On top of that, everyone is exhausted from the many Zoom meetings. Some wonder whether the regular feedback-sessions work as well digitally as they do at the Indian restaurant over lunch. Others are unsure about whether they’re missing their colleagues’ emotional reactions on the screen. “Digitally, I can’t see the raised eyebrows of my colleagues. If someone is feeling lonely or overwhelmed by their domestic situation, am I going to notice?” Franziska asks herself.
Above all, it’s unclear for how long the team is going to be able to keep up this level of productivity. Editor Barbara: “Are we, in the midst of this flood of information, allowing ourselves to take enough breaks and look after ourselves?
Many projects, organised from home, now also have to adapt their strategies to remotely bridge great distances. When I spoke with Isabel, she had just emerged from a three hour long Zoom workshop with some of her project partners from Uganda. “It was actually supposed to be an intimate getting-acquainted-kickoff with our communities of practice. It worked quite well, but many human rights organisations, especially from rural areas, weren’t able to participate, since only Kampala has reliable internet, or rather electricity at all. And I miss the warm human relationships that usually emerge in these workshops and which are an important foundation for our work. Today, we even had to switch off our cameras because the connection was so poor.”
Act 3: Creative project work
But generally, the team spirit is high. This also has its effects on the level of the project. In the last few days we’ve had many good experiences with hosting our own events online or helping less experienced partners host theirs. Stephan, Katja and me moved a mentor group meeting to the internet at short notice. We adapted the weekend workshop in such a way – short impulses, discussions in breakout rooms, social kitchens, as well as body exercises and guided meditations – that the participants were across the board enthusiastic. Many even noted numerous advantages of the online over the offline meeting: mentors and mentees had never exchanged so much as equals before and the randomly generated breakout groups were much more diverse than usual. Additionally, more participants in total were able to take part digitally, and the number of participants over the two days constantly remained between 54 and 60.
The team is also developing new formats at lightning speeds, for example, a well-attended regular evening event in which Kübra Gümusay read from her book “Sprache und Sein”. To cover the needs of many civil society organisations for effective digital methods of collaboration, a small team from the betterplace lab developed, within a few days, Jetzt Digital Handeln (Act Digitally Now). Supported by the Die Zeit Stiftung, we not only present tools, methods and instructions, but also offer, each Thursday and Friday, a free consultation to NGOs catered specifically to their needs.
Next to the concrete project work, the betterplace lab has spent much of the third week of the corona crisis looking beyond the current phase of crisis and asking about what our different stakeholders might need in the next phase. In the NETTZ we observed how the online debate culture is developing and how there are opportunities as well as risks in this crisis. Which challenges will civil society organisations, volunteers, but also donors be facing?
But we’re also asking ourselves: what positive things are we experiencing right now that are worth sustaining post-corona? Some colleagues mentioned that they now have more space to think and would wish in future to be “bombarded” by fewer events and meetings.
During this time, we’re also falling back on our experiences and studies gained from past crises, especially on our work on digital refugee aid. As in 2016, we are now seeing a proliferation of digital innovation and activity: from the many fundraising campaigns calling for solidarity on betterplace.me to the Hackathon of the Federal German government. Let’s not repeat the errors we made then, such as a lack of both user-centrism and collaboration with public partners!
Epilogue – digital competencies and Inner Work belong to the future
After anticipating a high five-figure deficit based on early calculations, by the second week the betterplace lab managed to cut this number in half. After four weeks, the deviation from fiscal planning came to just 6.000€.
But more important than these numbers is how the employees of the betterplace lab withstood this stress-test as a team.
There are many scenarios circulating about how the world might look after COVID-19. For my taste, too many project their own wishes and interests onto the future.
But at this point I’ll dare to make two claims:
Firstly, it’s already clear that the coronavirus will lead to an immense and positive push towards digitisation in the social sector. All the more important will be the debate about independent and secure digital infrastructure and the creation of a digital ecosystem directed at the public good.
Secondly, precisely those competencies, which we acquired in our Future of Work process, have made us resilient and crisis-proof. When outer structures dissolve – be it through digitisation or a pandemic – we have to build inner structures that give us security and orientation. These inner competencies help us to master the current crisis. The underlying values and principles – developing our potential, wholeness, empathy, multiperspectivity, emergence, and so on – can aid us in making the post-corona world more human and sustainable.