Rachel Bevan on virtual partnership working

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Sep 27, 2022

Rachel Bevan, Senior Consultant at NECS Consultancy, shares her thoughts on building partnership working in a (mostly) virtual environment.

For many years now partnerships have sprung up across all levels of health and social care, both in response to locally determined need and as a result of national policy and direction. The latest developments have come about through the implementation of the Health and Care Act 2022, which has seen systems across the country continuing to strengthen existing collaborative arrangements whilst also establishing new partnerships over the last 18 months.

Across that time, much business continued (necessarily) to be carried out virtually, but as we continue to ‘live with Covid’, does this approach best support partnership working?

From June 2021 to July 2022, I led a place-based partnership development programme for a client. Across those 13 months I attended just three meetings in person, in part due to Covid guidance but also because there was agreement across the programme that much of the business could be done just as well virtually. However, as we reflected on the year’s achievements and looked ahead to what was next for the partnership, we explored the benefits of continuing to work virtually, versus doing some more of the work in person.

Let’s consider the advantages of staying virtual. Gone are the days where a system meeting meant having to book a room with some partners inevitably drawing the short straw on travel. No, the world of MS Teams and Zoom negates that need for travel, therefore saving valuable time, and better supports the assembling of urgent partnership meetings when required. Similarly, the partnership board meeting is no longer a grand day out away from the ‘normal’ day to day: it may now sit snuggly between operational meetings, firmly a part of business as usual. Admittedly, virtual life can feel less real, less human, but it can also bring a different type of humanity as we glimpse our colleagues’ other lives through their children and pets, reminding us we are all real people after all.

There are disadvantages too, however. It can be difficult to gauge reactions over a camera and connection issues can lead to stilted discussions. It is easy to be distracted by emails and other messages – being there, but not really being present – and there is limited opportunity for more informal conversations. Developing meaningful relationships can become harder, which in turn means those difficult discussions, the ones that really define the maturity of a partnership, may be challenging.

So, what did we conclude from our programme? Firstly, we were really proud of how far the partnership had come whilst working virtually – we achieved what we had planned and more, which really was a testament to the partners’ commitment. But at the same time, there was a desire from partners to take forward more activities in person. This move felt right for that particular group, though we had demonstrated how successfully the partnership could mature through virtual working.

Finally, from a consultancy perspective, the programme was a great example of the tailored support we provide, demonstrating NECS Consultancy’s ability to fully deliver complex programmes in the way that provides the most value to each customer.

The challenge for all partnerships – and for all of us working within them – is to find the ways of working that best suit their needs. Striking that balance between pragmatism and inclusivity within the ‘forever-winter’ levels of operational pressure, and ensuring convenience does not replace the development of deep and meaningful relationships between colleagues will be critical.

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