Working Across Space, Time, and Generations

Collaboration as a new normal

Imagine you’ve just launched your first collection for your new fashion label. And the digital designer in Ukraine that you found on Upwork has completed the website.

A famous celebrity did a capsule collection for you so there is a launch coming up. An outsourced event company is planning it while your human virtual assistant in the Philippines is coordinating the invites.

Meanwhile, your algorithmic assistant is emailing clients to schedule fittings for the new line.

The New Face of Work

This is the new face of work for many companies. With global connections ever more efficient, you can find extraordinary talent at an often lower cost. The person who can develop the savvy to pull these diverse and distributed talents together is the linchpin, a person who figures out what to do when there’s no rule book. “An individual who can walk into chaos and create order. Someone who can invent, connect, create, and make things happen.”[1]

How can you be a linchpin in the new world of work? In part, by understanding how to pull people together across space, time, cultural, and generational divides.

Trust and Communication

The success factor of a virtual, global team comes down to trust and communication. For example, the board of a multilateral organization in Asia I have had the privilege to work with over the years has a diverse board comprised of regional or country representatives that would make your usual homogeneous corporate board green with envy. While working together to enhance their effectiveness, we discovered an amazing thing about the different aspects of trust.

Transparency and Directness?

Despite their differences, most of the board had a background that lent them to define trust as transparency and directness. However, many of the staff in the executive ranks performed best when they had a sense of safety, which gave them the trust to try and fail (which incidentally mirrors the research on corporate technology innovation). They were not willing to be transparent until they felt the board had their best interests in mind.

Most staff also had a cultural predisposition towards indirect communication. The board did exercises around communication—direct, expressive, and indirect. For example, Americans are often seen as direct, and Asians are often assumed to be indirect, so as not to cause someone to lose face. I expected these stereotypes to play out during these exercises.

However, when talking to this diverse group and asking them to go through some of the exercises, the board again showed up in almost exactly the same way—very direct and less expressive. It showed us that communication styles can change over time. They had all been in the same career to a large extent and that had shaped their communications and preferences.

Even their attitudes of direct communication had shifted to realize direct is often good, if delivered in sensible ways. It was enlightening for them to realize that this norming did not extend to all members of the executive team.

More Examples

Schneider Electric is an example of a company that’s pushing to make collaboration happen across their organization. In their case, actual structural changes drove a change in trust and communications. Reviewing their organization’s diversity, they found that 90 percent of top management was based at their Paris headquarters and that 90 percent of those positions were held largely by French males.

They looked at elements preventing them from being a more diverse organization.  And decided to establish three main hubs, in Hong Kong, Paris, and the US. This system gave more opportunity for people who had excelled in their own cultural setting to reach the top. They also didn’t have to move their families to Paris, which some people couldn’t do or didn’t want to do. This transformed the sense of advancement in the organization.

One result is that they now have more women in higher positions. It was a nod from the very top of the company that they value contributions from everyone.[2]

Infiniti, the car company, also has this model, with a headquarters in Hong Kong, even though they’re a Japanese company. They base manufacturing and design in Japan, and their biggest market is the US. They’ve created a global company that leverages the benefits of each culture but collaborates for the best outcome.[3]

These are all examples of companies who are going to more distributed teams across the globe. Why? In order to find the best talent, working productively and closer to the market.

A Note on Collaboration Across Generations

In keeping with this importance in attracting diverse, talented people to work together, we see the rise of inter-generational collaboration. In the film The Intern, a small fashion e-commerce company hires an older guy who just wants to work. He tries to retire but decides to take a shot at something totally different. You can see the generational factor at play: a company full of young people, and someone older shows up without any technical experience. The result is a charming culture clash, but the movie is a bellwether for work of the future.

Mentoring of senior execs has turned into reverse mentoring as young leaders bring their colleagues up to speed on new ways to work. There is a rise of new companies that engage people interested in working in their later years. These companies allow the “elders of the tribe” to continue contributing their intelligence and experience without having to work full-time, and without the risk (to both sides) of a full commitment. There are also technology platforms that offer opportunities to do project work that fits better around offramps and onramps for parents or those caring for elderly relatives.

Yes, it’s a New Normal

Global talent at all ages and stages, working part-time or flexible hours, often collaborating via some technologically sophisticated platform in constant change is set to be a new normal. It feels like someone has taken the nice puzzle we put together on the dining table and flipped it up in the air!

Putting the Pieces Back Together

Collaboration is the way of the future. You may not have consciously chosen a path into a large organization but may now be much more comfortable in the prescribed structure. Human beings like routine and most of us have come up the ranks in a way—even through our education—that has rewarded us for managing within those systems.

Perhaps you have a certain amount of trepidation about taking the leap into a less structured environment but knowing how to find the right partners will serve you well no matter what role you play.

Entrepreneurs may be the early adopters of collaboration because they were never particularly interested in the structure of a corporation, to begin with, but anybody can get better at it. This will require learning people’s differences and considering how to set up an environment that allows you to excel, outwit your competitive sets, solve important problems, progress, and learn. Opportunities abound for those willing to authentically traverse different spheres.

If you find this topic interesting and would like to make your team more collaborative, trustful, efficient – contact me to know about my training and retreats.

Adapted from Future Proof.


[1] Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (New York: Penguin, 2010).

[2] Olivier Blum, 2nd Edition HeForShe conference, March 6, 2018.

[3] Roland Krueger, American Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong luncheon, May 25, 2016.