Lessons learnt managing a remote research community

26 March 2019:

By Prof Mark Hutchinson and Dr Kathy Nicholson

As we move into week two of voluntary self-isolation, remote workplaces have become the new normal.

Within the CNBP network, we find ourselves drawing on the past six years of managing a community of over 200 researchers who work and collaborate on our research program across the globe.

The lessons we have learnt in building the successful CNBP culture of collaboration and mateship are influencing our local and national processes in this new COVID19 modified work environment.

Importantly, our previous successes – AND failures, are informing how we intentionally approach our communication, collaboration and ultimately succeed as an interconnected research community in the foreseeable future. 

Appreciate uniqueness

We are all different – and we all communicate differently.  

Taking time to get to know our colleagues and collaborators goes a long way in developing strong relationships.  And it is these relationships that ensure collaborative projects thrive during times of challenge.  

It is important to understand the communication and learning needs of both ourselves and others.  And never forget the importance of listening to understand – not listening to talk.

Schedule regular touchpoints 

As relationships are the linchpin of successful remote collaboration – it is important to create time to build and nurture relationships. In the absence of face to face interactions, there is a huge scope for miscommunication or misrepresentation.  

Depending on the complexity and timelines of a given project we schedule weekly / monthly touchpoints.  Phone or video calls to touch base – say hello – discuss upcoming deadlines, bottlenecks and/or celebrate the wins. 

This means it is ok to spend the first couple of minutes chatting to your colleagues about life before everyone is on the call. But be disciplined to let this wrap up so that your calendar doesn’t end up with endless video meetings.

CNBP RMIT Node Leader Brant Gibson chatting with his team and discovering the joys of custom backgrounds.

Transparency and trust

We need to be open and transparent about what and when we need specifics from the relationship and partnership.  Sometimes we have to say “no” to our collaborators’ ideas; decline funding events or projects that don’t fit within the current budget and business plan.  

Transparency about goals and strategy are critical. Trust grows out of a relationship. It is built from past behaviours and experience. 

Where trust is lacking, “busy work” can be created with outcomes like excessive progress reporting. 

Establishing a trusting work relationship could have been considered part of the “nice to have” soft skills. In this remote working environment, our intentional cultivation of these talents will be critical. 

Within the CNBP we have enabled this by providing opportunities for people to fail whilst supported in a nurturing environment.  This helps individuals feel safe coming to us when there is a problem and when they need help.

Other useful strategies include: Following up in a timely fashion when the work was promised; if there is a delay give a heads up; and ensure expectations are aligned and clear.

Anticipate challenges

Sometimes despite the best-laid plans technology fails.  WIFI drops out; software needs updating; hardware breaks.

Mutual respect and willingness to work around challenges goes a long way in working through these hurdles. Even in a remote working landscape, there are workarounds and solutions at our fingertips. For example, if the video meeting is struggling, then turn off the video. If all of that is failing, then dial in using the systems call-in feature. 

However, there is still no excuse for not backing up your data even when working from home!

Use technology wisely

We are fortunate to live in the technology age – where the diversity and capacity of technological tools available for free or at low cost are astounding.  

Find tools that work for your needs and be creative with how you use these tools. 

Create webinar appropriate sign language to wave; request clarification; and agree/disagree on items.

Use project management tools and collaborative workspaces to share documents, timelines and outcomes. 

And don’t forget to provide opportunities for the team’s introverts / junior members to contribute.

Wrap up

In the short term, it is clear many of us will be working in isolation. As we look to an uncertain future it is likely that the way we work will have changed for a long time. 

Therefore, if this style of work is uncommon for you and your team it really is worth investing in establishing the skills, expectations and trust amongst your colleagues to make this remote work situation a successful experience.

Feel free to reach out to Kathy or Mark with questions about building a remote culture and/or comments about how it is working for you.

Kathy on Twitter, LinkedIn

Mark on Twitter, LinkedIn