Insight: Successful remote team working mirrors challenges of transdisciplinary working

Remote working is hard, and most of us are only now realising just how hard
Insight: Successful remote team working mirrors challenges of transdisciplinary working
UKCRIC Executive Manager (University of Birmingham)

I’ve worked remotely for the last decade and I thought I was pretty good at it. I work in research teams exploring how to make UK cities more sustainable and liveable. These teams have always spanned universities, relying on a mix of home, lab and office-based working. Now that we are all exclusively working from home we are coming across unexpected difficulties. We are finding that tasks take longer to accomplish, activities are harder to organise, and meetings can prove more frustrating.

The truth is, remote working requires a different way of working. It’s about more than digital connectivity and collaboration platforms or an individual’s working habits. It encompasses how we frame our work, the scope and scale of our activities, our skill sets and those of our colleagues, the methods we apply to what we are doing, how our organisation is structured, and what processes we follow. In other words, it is about the same things that underpin successful collaborative working.

Jahn, Bergman and Keil describe successful collaborative working as the team not only accomplishing what it intends to, but reflecting on what it does and learns as it goes along, incorporating broader perspectives, that it has societal relevance, and, finally, that it seeks novelty and ingenuity throughout. In other words, the team aspires to be transdisciplinary.

There’s currently a transdisciplinarity experiment going on within UK infrastructure and cities research. UKCRIC is the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities. It is a dispersed set of research facilities that include engineering laboratories, data centres, and urban observatories. There are 15 sites across the UK and hundreds of researchers for different disciplinary backgrounds working together from different locations on some of the most pressing infrastructure challenges. UKCRIC aspires to work in a transdisciplinary way, believing this to be the best way for its geographically dispersed research capacity to secure the UK’s sustainable future. The problem is that transdisciplinary working doesn’t have a playbook, so UKCRIC set about writing its own. What it discovered has the potential to help everyone as we adjust to new ways of working.

The first thing UKCRIC learnt was that there is no one answer. Successful transdisciplinary work can take many forms. Those forms change for many reasons, such as the personalities of those involved, the type of issue being addressed, and even how mature a sector or discipline is. What works one day for one team may not work for a different team, or even for the same team in three months’ time. What UKCRIC developed, therefore, was not a process, but a framework for ensuring barriers to transdisciplinary working are minimised and opportunities for transdisciplinary thinking are maximised. The framework has four groupings.

Group 1: Approaches to collaboration

Collaboration doesn’t happen on its own. It requires care and attention and it is multifaceted. Perhaps the most important consideration is the scope and scale of the collaboration. Within research, for example, this incorporates whether the research question can be answered through the efforts of a single researcher, or if it requires a team or even a programme of research. This sets the scene for the number of collaborations. There is rarely just one collaboration occurring at any one time. Collaborations happen between individuals, groups, teams, and beyond, and are determined by numerous factors, including geographic location – people identify with where they are working as well as what they are working on. COVID-19 has interrupted our geographic ties and with them our associated collaborations, but it has also encouraged us to form new collaborations and be explicit about why those collaborations are needed.

Do they have to be located in the same building, on the same site, in the same country, in the same time zone and what is the impact if they can’t be? Do they have sufficient avenues for communication available to them (face-to-face and otherwise) and are they able to communicate frequently, both formally and informally? The COVID-19 pandemic has brought these aspects of collaborative working to the fore with a vengeance. The research teams with which I’m currently involved have gone from a combination of home, lab and office working to solely working from home. Before COVID-19, we moved around, working from different locations as needed. Now, we don’t have that option and what is needed has changed quite dramatically. Understanding this is helping us to adjust.

For transdisciplinarity to work, collaborations need to transcend business as usual and support imaginative and creative thinking. Diversity plays a part here. For example, if the collaborating disciplines are quite closely aligned (i.e., conceptually and methodologically) then harmony may result but transcendence is harder to achieve. Civil engineers working with urban designers are less likely to think outside the box than if they are working with social psychologists, for example. Differences promote creativity and should be built into transdisciplinary teams.

Creativity is also affected by quality standards, which are embedded into disciplines and sectors. Think of the standards governing drinking water, energy transmission, healthcare, landfill, emissions, noise and so on. These standards protect us, but they can also become barriers to high quality, innovative, cross-disciplinary collaborations. Quality standards and controls pre-determine how an issue is addressed and this leads to convergence on approaches and, inevitably, on outcomes. Teams shouldn’t be afraid of being innovative in their approaches to existing quality standards or of creating new, novel quality standards that support transdisciplinary work.

The UK’s Research Excellence Framework, a nationwide assessment of the quality of UK research, is a case in point. It has struggled with handling cross-disciplinary research, largely because there are no quality criteria for such work. Because REF outcomes are tied to University incomes, the REF directly impacts the careers of researchers and rewards them for narrow and deep, single disciplinary work. The REF is working to overcome this by assessing ‘impact case studies’. Here, accountability to and impacts upon society are put on a par with those to academia.

Group 2: Investing in the right people

Diversity is, perhaps, the most important element. Transdisciplinary teamwork requires the seeking out and harnessing of diversity: diverse perspectives, opinions, expertise, knowledge, experience and skills. But diversity can result in discord if differences aren’t respected and can’t be brought together in a meaningful way.

Diversity is often represented through groupings such as academic disciplines, industry sectors, personal attributes and skill sets. Although these can serve as markers, diversity is everywhere and being sensitive to it is part of what makes a good transdisciplinary worker and a good transdisciplinary team. There is a lot of existing literature about team working that can be harnessed. For successful transdisciplinary working, team members must be open and willing to work in a transdisciplinary way and be trusting, they must recognise the value of working to benefit society (a particular challenge in some research disciplines and industry sectors), and they must understand that there will be benefits and disbenefits to working in a transdisciplinary way.

Group 3: Framing and approaching the problem

This grouping incorporates the framing of and approaches to the team’s objectives. For those of us doing research, the problem framing is the research question. If the objectives address wicked problems and complex issues that mean we must ‘advance by learning’ (as opposed to a simple or complicated problem, for example) and have the ambition for real change to be effected, then the good news is that transdisciplinarity is more achievable. Simplicity doesn’t lend itself to transdisciplinary work. The bad news is that it will likely take longer, it will require close attention to working processes, and you may see blood, sweat and tears along the way. In other words, it won’t be easy, but it will be rewarding.

Vital considerations include being clear about why the objectives require a transdisciplinary approach and what that might look like, how entrenched existing perspectives on the objectives are, and how inflexible previous approaches have been. The trick to success is realising that the team has the power to frame its work in the context of a common understanding of the problem, the existing knowledge base and the nature of what it is doing – and revisiting this when the context changes. The team also has the power to be creative and experimental in its choice of approaches to the problem. By being explicit about problem framing and approaches, a research team can set itself up for success.

A couple of years ago I became involved with a research team that fell foul of not properly thinking through how it framed and approached its research questions. There were several technical aspects to the research and each framed its research question in the context of previous work within the field rather in in the context of the other technical questions. Each then embarked upon disciplinary-led methods for answering the questions. It soon became apparent that the outcomes could not easily be brought together as they addressed different scopes and scales. It may seem obvious, but this was a highly experienced group of collaborative researchers and it shows how easily these aspects of collaborative working can be overlooked.

Group 4: Supportive governance, structures and processes

Successful, collaborative, transdisciplinary team working needs supportive governance, structures and processes. Digital technologies continue to impact ways of working, organisational structures and practices, with transdisciplinary working having its own set of considerations.

COVID-19 has seen an explosion of process-led advice for remote and home working. However, collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Slack can be unnecessarily constraining when a team is trying to work in a transdisciplinary way. For example, they presume a rigidity of ‘channels’ of communication that aren’t always conducive to flexible working practices. Teams should not be afraid to harness the power of multiple tools and to adjust them to fit their changing needs.

Processes can’t function as intended if they are at odds with wider organisational structures. Most of us have probably had to find work-arounds for activities where structures that should be supporting collaboration and team working actually hinder them.

Influencing all these elements is governance. Just as team leaders should lead from the front, an organisation’s governance should support transdisciplinarity by promoting sharing, democratic practices, and acceptance of diversity. Governance is, of course, influenced by the nature of the underpinning business models, financing and funding and whether these align with and support transdisciplinary practices.

Earlier, I used the example of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework to demonstrate how quality standards can negatively impact transdisciplinary team working. This example also demonstrates how, by linking rigid quality criteria with funding, creativity in research is discouraged as too risky. What if the assessment panel can’t see the value in a new way of doing something, or a new perspective on a problem? The potential loss of funding is seen by some as too great to risk doing anything truly transformative.

As we move from weeks to months to, potentially, years of uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a growing realisation that the world we left when we entered ‘lock down’ won’t be the same world to which we return. Governments and organisations are already starting to scope what their ‘new normal’ might look like – and they are realising that they can actually make it better then what they had before. When London burnt in 1666, an opportunity arose to make the city better, with spacious avenues and improved infrastructure. But, in the end, the opportunity was squandered and London was rebuilt in its own chaotic and claustrophobic image by people who didn’t recognise the opportunity. Let us be the generation that seized the opportunity to improve our working ecosystem – not just where we work, but how and why.

Authors: Joanne Leach, Katherine Adams, Chris Rogers

This piece is based on research conducted by PLEXUS and published in the journal Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – Smart Infrastructure and Construction: Embedding transdisciplinarity in engineering approaches to infrastructure and cities.

Image credit: Charles Deluvio via Unsplash