Teamwork in the Time of COVID-19: How to Lead Virtual Meetings

April 14, 2020

By Kristine Glauber, PhD

Zoom meeting

In the period of “social distancing” and “flattening the curve”, many of us are finding ourselves needing to conduct scientific meetings and teamwork across the boundaries of geographic distance and time zones.

This need to transcend the boundaries experienced by distributed teams is not limited to the COVID-19 emergency—it’s a growing trend for the modern workplace and academic science. However, despite the explosion of communication and coordination technologies available to researchers, geographic dispersion remains a challenge for teams needing to align their efforts, some of which we will outline below.

The Science of Team Science (SciTS) is an emerging field of study that draws on a variety of disciplines and sectors to enhance the fundamental understanding of how to collaborate in a knowledge-production setting and build the evidence-base to support team-based research on highly complex problems (National Academies, Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science, 2015).

To help teams ensure a smooth transition to virtual meetings, we’ve collected findings from the SciTS literature on distributed teams, as well as some anecdotes from our own experiences in the Team Science Core as research facilitators. We’ll focus on best practices for meeting operations and then turn to leadership considerations for virtual collaboration in a research setting, and what lessons can be learned from research on distributed teams. 

Considerations for Meeting Operations

Conference Call BingoCommon meeting pitfalls (either in person or virtual) that many of us can identify from personal experience include meeting mismanagement, vague or non-existent agendas, poorly defined meeting outcomes and lack of accountability for next steps. Then there’s the technological hurdles of web-based conferencing, (for a bit of levity, see “Conference Call Bingo.") We’ve included some technical considerations for virtual conference calls at the end of this post, or check out the official guidance from Duke at keepworking.duke.edu.

Pitfall #1: Not Having an Agenda

An agenda is the most important aspect to running a successful meeting, virtual or in person.  To avoid wasting time and money (try doing a quick calculation of the cost of running your meeting by summing the estimate of the per hour salary of each person in the meeting), you’ll want an outline for how the meeting will flow ahead of time, even if the meeting is to plan or discuss an aspect of the project.

Meetings should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. To plan your agenda, begin with the end in mind. What is the purpose and deliverable(s) of the meeting? By clearly defining your meeting purpose and deliverable(s), you can identify the steps needed to get you to the end and avoid discussion that is unrelated to your deliverable. For example, if you are meeting to determine roles and responsibilities for an upcoming project, a deliverable of your meeting could be a RASI (Responsible, Authorizes, Supports, Informed) Chart.

Pitfall #2: Missing Social Cues

Virtual meetings also present a particular challenge due to the lack of positional and non-verbal cues that help us collectively understand who would like to speak next. You may consider developing a “hand-raising” or turn taking system for meetings larger than 3 people. Systems, like WebEx and Zoom, have built-in hand-raising functions, or circulating a predetermined “seating chart” can help participants navigate the awkwardness of a virtual meeting.

Pitfall #3: Vague Roles

Assigning roles to meeting participants can help ensure that the meeting proceeds smoothly and that the group stays on task. Some roles that we’ve found to be particularly useful include that of:

  • note-taker,
  • time-keeper,
  • and “keeper of the question queue."

By encouraging participants to use the chat function, your “keeper of the question queue” can ensure that everyone’s contributions, questions, and concerns are heard and addressed, all without disrupting the speaker and flow of the meeting.

Considerations for Leaders

For those organizing and leading distributed teamwork and team meetings, there are a few key skills and practices that can improve cohesion and keep distributed team members engaged.

Consideration #1 - Leadership approaches

First, and not uniquely specific to distributed teams, it is important to acknowledge the diversity of knowledge-production, and task-based processes in which science teams engage. Therefore, effective leadership of science teams requires an understanding of the contextual constraints of these activities. Engaging in a “contingency approach”, in which more traditional and hierarchical leadership styles (e.g. transactional or relational leadership) is employed, in conjunction with more participatory leadership styles (e.g. transformational or emergent leadership), is particularly important for complex tasks, as in a scientific setting (Dust and Zeigert, 2012).

For example, using transformational strategies or behaviors to motivate a follower to transcend their own interests for the greater good of the team, may be more effective in a knowledge-production and innovation setting. Pieterse and colleagues (2010) showed a positive correlation between creativity and leader behaviors that imparted followers with a sense of purpose, and made them feel that they have the freedom and agency to control their work-related actions and environment. However, using transactional strategies or behaviors may be more effective when the work to be done is task-based or rote.

Consideration #2 - Regular check-ins

Research on distributed teams has identified challenges which include decreased visibility of the efforts of team members (Bell and Kozlowski, 2002), working across time zones (Cummings, Espinosa and Pickering, 2009), and differences in institutions and cultures (Fussell and Setlock, 2012). Collaboration requires regular touch points with team members, and face-to-face communication is the most valuable contributor to team performance (Pentland, 2012).

For geographically distributed teams, especially where the majority of the team is co-located and individual or small group satellites exist, it is important to identify technological solutions to create formal and regular check ins. In the absence of such touch points, collaborators become invisible and blind to the actions and detailed context of others’ work (Bell and Kozlowski, 2002 and Martins, Gilson and Maynard, 2004). These checkpoints also make collaborators feel engaged and that their contributions are valued by team members.

Consideration #3: Working across time zones

When collaborating across time zones, it is important to maintain awareness that some individual members may need to dial in early in the morning or late in the evening, and that these compromises and schedule shifts are often made by team members that are not co-located with the rest of the group. As the team lead, you may consider distributing the inconvenience of meeting times to accommodate different time zones, or if that is not possible, acknowledging and expressing gratitude for those that have to meet outside of normal work hours (National Academies, Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science 2015).

Homer Simpson crisitunityWhat to do now? Create a Team Charter

While the COVID-19 pandemic has seen the closure of many academic labs and forced many science teams to hit the “pause” button, this may be a great time to remember the wisdom of Homer Simpson, and embrace this ‘crisitunity’ (a portmanteau of ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity’). Consider using this time to collectively develop a team charter. Team charters and collaboration plans help teams identify strengths and potential challenges of, as well as strategies for, working together (Collaboration and Team Science: A Field Guide, 2nd Ed 2018).

Our colleagues at the University of Alaska created a collaboration plan to outline the processes and methods that their group will use to ensure open and collaborative atmosphere over the life of their project (You can view their collaboration plan at this link https://www.alaska.edu/epscor/awards/collaboration-plan/). These documents will help your team develop shared mental models and mindsets, facilitate coordination and information exchange within the team, and likely improve feelings of attachment to research unit, and satisfaction with the overall group climate, all of which have been shown to be connected to team effectiveness (National Academies, Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science 2015).


We encourage you to reach out to the Team Science Core of the Clinical & Translational Science Institute if you have specific questions about virtual meetings or collaborating across boundaries, including geographic, disciplinary, sectoral, and cultural. Please email Core Program Director Kristine Glauber (kristine.glauber@duke.edu).