Coping with COVID, Mainstreaming Digital Development

Chris Locke
Caribou Digital
Published in
11 min readJun 12, 2020

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It’s been a crazy few months. As a company that’s remotely worked without any offices for six years now, we’ve watched as everyone has had to learn what we learnt over that period in as many days — mainly working from home is clearly not the same as working entirely remotely. And we’re still learning every day what does and doesn’t translate well to being a remote company.

We’ve also watched as the development industry, so used to travelling to countries in the name of development, aid, and humanitarian relief, has had to lockdown at home and struggled to transition to a world where we support development at a distance, digitally. Local teams themselves are often also in lockdown, making the situation still more difficult to navigate.

On calls with clients and other organisations I’ve heard many stories and insights into how organisations are coping, broadly fitting into two buckets: (1) how organisations are coping with remote working, and then (2) how digital in development is becoming a more mainstream activity within their programmes of work.

Prompted by what I was hearing, I reached out and spoke to around 20 people at all levels of their respective organisations and, under Chatham House rules, started asking some questions about what they were seeing in their workplaces and where they thought new ways of working pointed to more permanent changes in our industry. Below is a synthesized summary of what I learned as well as my personal thoughts on what this means and how we’ll all move forward from this crisis.

Coping with Covid — remote working as the new normal

IT Departments are the new heroes. Most people I spoke to were full of praise for how their organisation had, from a technology perspective, coped with the sudden move to remote working from home. Aside from the usual discussion on the best/worst video conferencing and work chat platforms, the only real complaints were when specific security requirements meant that some platforms were hard to move outside of the office, or required antiquated kit as it was the only ‘secure’ device. Bandwidth at home is an issue, and this was inevitably more of a problem for those with team members still based in country offices as opposed to US/EU bases, although this was less of an issue than many predicted it would be.

Geographical hierarchies still exist. Usually the worst working experience in the world is being the remote worker/country team member on the speakerphone in a meeting where everyone else is in the room. The sudden and immediate move to everyone being on a conference call could, and maybe should, have been an opportunity for this to change — in that everyone in a meeting now has a similar experience, but also in that the virtual nature of meetings could allow a much broader group of participants from many geographies to participate. But this hasn’t been the case. Often that’s because, where country teams were populated by expat staff they have been repatriated, with country offices staffed by local teams where they have been established. But it’s also because the hierarchies in organisations created around the central head offices have just been transferred to video calls. A once in a lifetime opportunity to break the hegemony of physical head office-dominated power structures in large organisations and work more with local teams appears to have been missed.

The corridor conversations have disappeared. Organisations have migrated the core of work to video calls, but the incidental conversations, office chats, and corridor conversations have vanished, and very few, if any, organisations are looking at how to recreate this. The output of work has been digitised, but not the culture of the workplace. This is particularly gruelling where work includes diplomatic activity that really requires a certain level of face-to-face communication, but it’s organically reestablishing itself within some groups, as peer-level groups communicate on email, WhatsApp, and other platforms such as Slack and Teams. But respondents indicated that this is only happening where a pre-lockdown relationship existed between team members — new peer networks are not being established on virtual platforms.

Decision-making is stalling. Some organisations are coping better than others, but many report that, in the absence of the immediacy of a physical meeting, herding people towards a decision is getting harder and harder, and chasing up decisions is very difficult over video calls (as compared to the old standard of popping your head around someone’s office door). Larger organisations appear to be feeling this more acutely, and some actually appear to be segmenting into small, tight-knit and impenetrable senior groups whilst, below that, everyone else is wondering how to reach them, how to find out what’s going on, and how to drive decisions.

Some management styles translate to virtual better than others. More controlling managers are finding it hard to manage remote teams. Remote work relies on absolute transparency, trust, and delegation. Some managers, however, are keeping staff in almost back-to-back video calls largely to ensure that they’re working. This is a hard style to work under in an office, but over video calls you’re literally invading someone’s home with your controlling management style. People need flexibility, time away from the screen, and time to think to be effective. (As an aside, I’ll be interested if this period of remote working smokes out the ineffective managers who are too controlling and don’t delegate well.)

Recommendations:

  • The missed opportunity of breaking geographical hierarchies in organisations will, I think, change over time if remote working remains a significant part of how people work. I also think recruitment practices will change. The main reason I chose not to have a head office for Caribou Digital was simply that the world-class people I wanted in the company didn’t all live in one country. Once you don’t herd people into offices, you can hire from anywhere in the world. And, in the meantime, if everyone’s still working remotely you can hear from everywhere in the world. Include remote teams in core meetings, and use this chance to break geographic hegemonies and make remote and diverse thinking part of the new virtual headquarters. Time zones will always limit how possible this is, but there is still an opportunity to have more participation from a more diverse range of people within the geography of an organisation.
  • Rethink decision-making. It needs to be smart and quick for virtual teams, and transparent. A decision communicated face to face can illustrate empathy and how much consideration there has been before the decision was made. One communicated by email can’t.
  • Delegate more, trust more, show more, share more. Managing virtual teams is more performative than managing physical teams, as a lot of the non-verbal cues that are transmitted in face-to-face communication — and those transmitted by just being in the same physical space as others — are missing. You need to show and tell more, be more open, and trust people more to manage their own time and tasks. Equally, you need to check in with staff more often, as you can no longer tell if they’re unhappy just from their demeanor in the office. This is where video conferencing has some advantages over voice conferencing, although everyone suffers from fatigue if it is overused.

Mainstreaming Digital Development — going digital when you have no other choice

Digital Development had been increasing as a practice in many organisations pre-COVID-19. Most people reported that there was a specialist team within their organisations managing ‘digital development’, even if it wasn’t named as such. In some cases this has grown out of an ICT4D or tech team, or even the IT function. But in all cases these teams were primarily responsible for digital programming, or at least primarily consulted when digital programming was being developed. In the last three months these teams have been deluged with requests as digital became the only way to launch responses to COVID-19 and/or manage existing programmes on the ground. The pattern appears to be similar across many organisations; an initial prioritisation of non-digital activities (traditional vaccine, health, social protection programmes), a slowly dawning realisation that many of the traditional ways of delivering these programmes were not viable under global lockdowns, then an urgent request to digital specialists to contribute to a discussion of how to digitise pretty much everything an organisation wants to do.

Most commercial organisations now have Chief Digital Officers, most development organisations do not. Staff who have developed expertise in digital development, or have developed skills during their career, tend to be younger, mid-level or junior staff approaching digital development for their future careers. Senior staff at the back-end of their careers are less likely to have deep digital experience or knowledge. This means that as digital mainstreams in organisations and as more and more programmes have intrinsic digital components, senior staff are making decisions on things they often know little about. We have moved away significantly from previous technology for development models that assume technology only has positive outputs, and decisions now need to consider the nuanced benefits and risks of deploying digital solutions — particularly in COVID-19 responses around digital social payments that require identification.

Digital transformation is happening in the countries where we work faster than it is within our organisations. Digital payments are accelerating, digital platforms are pivoting to serve customers with groceries and other services, work is migrating online where possible. This is a uniquely global health and economic crisis happening at a moment of uniquely global digital transformation. Many people I spoke to felt this wasn’t properly understood within their organisations, many of whom assumed digital solutions would not reach the populations they are aimed at, or misunderstood the very human physicality of digital networks in emerging markets. Or, conversely, some senior management are overestimating the reach of digital technologies, when actually the rapid digital transformation of many countries’ key services is likely to make digital exclusion even more brutal. The need for senior management to properly understand the the pros and cons of digital transformation is immediate.

Where digital programmes lead, digital Measurement, Evaluation, Research, and Learning (MERL) follows. Everyone I spoke to reported a marked increase in the need for digital programming, using digital channels to deliver services and reach populations. A few also indicated that there was a burgeoning need for digital measurement and evaluation. Initially this is being framed as a new engagement with digital platforms to do MERL, because field research is currently difficult or impossible. Although this has been a growing field for a number of years, but is now accelerating quickly, we’re also seeing some realise that as populations digitise rapidly we need to move beyond simple MERLtech to ask ‘how do we do MERL in a digital age?’ Increased digitisation means increased ways of reading signals from the field — as well as increased ways of tripping over privacy and surveillance issues. Some respondents bemoaned simplistic thinking these past few months, with most delivery organisations just trying to do more phone or digital surveys to replace field research. (Anecdotally we hear that responding to paid digital surveys is increasingly a viable replacement for missing incomes in some countries…). Our Caribou Space clients are investigating how to track and monitor vast capital development projects using satellites. As always, Linda Raftree is ahead of the curve here and plots how MERL will adapt to new data sources and new methodologies, which will only be accelerated as a consequence of COVID-19.

Recommendations:

  • Support senior management to make informed decisions, and, as digital is mainstreamed, centres of excellence and specific digital teams will most likely amortise across organisations to support better decision making on the design and implementation of programmes. Initially, this may be a shock for those who have gotten used to owning digital as a discipline, but it should be seen as a measure of growth that a previously specialist subject is now so central in a rapidly digitising age. I’ve long said a measure of success for Caribou Digital will be when the ‘Digital’ in our name becomes superfluous, as people realise we’re not really talking about ‘digital economies’ and ‘digital societies’ but increasingly just what modern economies and societies look like.
  • Understand the lived digital experience better. The digital experience is not a universal one, and digital technologies and services function differently for different populations around the world based on huge varieties in access, representation, economy, and power. No single digital platform can be rolled out across entire countries, and there isn’t a single technological silver bullet. Also, during the COVID-19 crisis, a tremendous amount of bottom-up innovation and development will be barely understood in remote, locked-down US and EU headquarters. Listen to populations and local staff in countries, get as near to real-time data on what’s going on, factor this into programme design, and iterate. Everyone says they’re data-led and responsive, but the general opinion amongst the people I spoke to was that this isn’t yet universally true across organisations.
  • Build a digital policy dashboard now — and make sure everyone understands it. I promise you we’ll spend years unpicking data privacy issues alone across the many tech responses to COVID-19. Not just within the mess that is the global track-and-trace app situation, but across how digital identifications are being used to fast-track social payments to replace lost livelihoods. We need global policies and principles for these now. Fortunately many organisations have developed these already.

We’ll see even more change in the development sector in the coming months, in both how we work and the methodologies we use to work, and, although the sample of my peers who kindly responded to my survey and interviews are not a representative panel, there was enough similarity in what they described for me to feel confident in laying out the ideas and recommendations above. Overall I suspect we’re in for a significant, sometimes brutal, reconfiguring of the International Development and Aid sector. But this is not without opportunities for us to build a better, more efficient, more representative and inclusive approach to our work, which may have the added benefit of decreasing our climate impact. But rather than just replacing international flights with video calls, we need to properly rethink how we work and how we use digital technology in every aspect of what we do.

If you’ve read this far, thanks! Also, if you’re thinking about how to act on these ideas, then here’s the plug: Firstly, drop us a line! But also, there are fantastic specialist firms who can help in organisational transformation as well as the other areas mentioned above. Here are just a few, all of whom will do a better job than the massively expensive digital transformation programme a big global consultancy will sell you, I promise:

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