Connecting in the Time of COVID-19. An Interview with Public Innovator Rich Harwood (Part 1)

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Social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic has literally pushed us apart. We have never been so physically distant. Does that mean we must be disconnected? Or does it mean we need to change the norms about how we relate to stay connected? I talked about that with Rich Harwood, founder of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, dedicated to transforming our public and political lives by supporting individuals, organizations and communities in their quest to create change.

Rich’s work is about helping public organizations “turn outward” and connect more meaningfully and authentically with their communities. In some ways, he believes, the virtual communications we have turned to in this time have created an entirely new kind of connection. He shared a touching story about a funeral service in a Jewish home, held by necessity over video. Over 200 people, all indifferent locations, including the family. If you were physically present, you would see the handful of people around one. But in this case, you could see the rabbi and the people grieving closely. When they spoke he felt right there with them, much more intimately than if he had actually been there.

This is one of the ways in which we have begun to pivot in how we connect with each other as a result of social distancing. He talked about a large meeting he attended by video, with 70 some people in different locations, and how it completely changed the norms of the meeting. More focused, more participation, less checking of phones, and a feeling of more closeness to whoever was speaking. On the one hand, in a live meeting, there is physical proximity but social distancing. In a virtual meeting, this can flip 180 degrees such that people feel more attuned to each other and the work they are doing.

These experiences, which most of us now share, highlight possibilities for how we can communicate differently, to be more intimate and focused, and perhaps even change the norms for how we engage with one another.

On a larger scale, the not-for-profit organization Rich works with will have to think seriously about how to engage and work with other groups in ways they never have before. The nature of the challenges we will face and the financial pressures organizations will be under will force them to take a more “shared responsibility” approach in their communities, and to pivot to an orientation more about their communities and less about themselves. Moving forward from COVID-19, we will need each other, we will have to support one another, and we will have to work together to be effective.

See excerpts from my conversation with Rich here.

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