• Mark Williams, Partner |
3 min read

In March, I found myself inside a waking nightmare. The pandemic had just pulled the shutters down on much of the UK economy. Workers were at home, learning to work together remotely.

It was a magic moment for video conferencing software. But I’m in the collaboration business.

I considered what my work looked like in a world without handshakes. We had powerful hybrid and remote options for clients. And plans for more. But face-to-face was always front and centre.

I could immediately see the shift we’d make. But I’ll admit that in the back of my mind, I had an irrational worry. Is collaboration about to change for good? And will I like what it becomes?

A quarter-century of collaborating

This story needs a bit of context. I’ve spent my entire working life thinking about collaboration. For 25 years, I’ve worked with brilliant colleagues to design ways of collaborating that help our clients make breakthroughs. In recent years, these breakthroughs have frequently been about digital transformation. We’ve pushed, explored and invested every year.

KPMG Ignition was to represent a huge step forward in what we can do for clients. Powerful experiences, rich with content, driven by high-quality insights. We were all proud as punch of what we’d developed together.

We could offer face-to-face, remote and hybrid (remote and face-to-face participants having comparable experiences). But they were very much in that order.

We talked together as a team. We talked to clients. We took the remote and hybrid parts of our experiences, and we zeroed-in on them. We accelerated our plans. And we learned three things pretty quickly. 

Remote can surprise you

In my world, we all live for the moment in a room where an idea catches, the energy rises and we’re in a flow-state with our clients. It’s the kind of energy that’s emotional, the kind that you feel. And it takes work to generate it from your living room, through a 15-inch screen. But as Anna Penrose explains in her blog, we are successfully doing it already. And we’ve fast-tracked more.

And what about the advantages of remote collaboration? We knew they were there, but we’d never before put them into such sharp focus. Andy Cox’s experience with a client is a great example. We were able to get very senior people in a global organisation collaborating together, remotely. And we’re finding that the flexibility and repeatability of these sessions mean clients can do more and advance ideas further, in the moments they’d otherwise be at baggage reclaim. 

People are magic

We all know that there’s magic in people, when they are together. For everything we’ve achieved in my team since March, we know there are things we can’t yet replicate virtually.

For example, handshakes create chemical reactions. The physical touch releases a pheromone that creates a connection. When was the last time you gave someone a handshake?

Downtime in workshops is valuable too. The minutes during transitions from one exercise to another, the chats in the more informal gatherings at the end of the day. Conversations at these times will deepen understanding, align ideas and help people own emerging concepts. It’s often where the unspoken personal contracts and commitments are built that go on to underpin the success of the transformation.

Face-to-face conversations can unblock relationships, too. Misunderstandings and disagreements that have built up over years – between individuals or between teams – will often melt away over a day of sharing understanding, small conversations or quick 1-to-1s on the margins of workshops.

But how much of that is really only possible face-to-face?

We’ve long talked about the challenge of ‘making hybrid magic’. We saw it as the future. This year has endorsed that, and it has turbo-charged our hybrid plans.

We’re harnessing digital collaboration platforms, COVID-safe physical environments, analogue and digital work surfaces and we’re bringing them to life in a seamless experience. We’re using high-end facilitation and production skills, courtesy of tech experts like Nick Landesberg and his fellow Digital Ninjas, whose work you can read about here.

We’re pushing the possibilities of hybrid collaboration, so we can hold on to all the breakthroughs we’ve made collaborating remotely and we are working to make the experience as good as being in the room.

In-person vs remote: It’s not an either/or.

I’ll be honest. I always suspected the potential of hybrid. I could see it had the capacity to take collaboration further and faster, to make breakthroughs bed-in more surely.

But I was nervous to step away from the physical spaces that have been my life’s work. And I was haunted by the words of the internet entrepreneur Joe Gebbia: “Digital communication is completely different from face-to-face conversations. One will give you surface insights, the other gives you depth”.

I’m glad the nightmare I had in March forced me to double-down on digital. We’re still experimenting, testing and talking. But thinking about the things we’ll achieve with hybrid is spine-tingling. And we’re now going to achieve them sooner. 

For me, it’s re-emphasised the power of collaboration – and the magic of people.

Take a look at what we’ve been working on here