Tips for Remote Teamwork

Remote teamwork presents unique challenges and exciting opportunities for Bass Connections project teams. Drawing on best practices for effective remote teamwork, here we suggest creative approaches to building community and organizing teams for success.

Team Building for Remote Teams

In order to operate effectively, teams must cultivate a community of support, accountability and trust. Building this culture of collaboration can be particularly challenging in virtual settings. Team leaders should set aside time for team building activities that can help team members get to know one another, learn each other’s strengths and develop a shared sense of the team’s goals, norms and workflow. (Virtual teambuilding activities can be particularly helpful at a project’s outset but can also be useful when teams need to pivot to remote work in the middle of an established project.)

Consider these strategies and activities for virtual team building:

Use a project team charter to set clear project goals

  • Team charters are useful tools for making sure all team members understand and commit to the project goals and key principles of team operation. Working through the questions in the team charter template will give your team focus and direction and will help clarify the team’s goals, the roles of individual team members and the expectations of team leaders.

Discuss and set team norms

  • Norms guide and clarify how a team will operate, so it is best to develop a shared set of team norms during the first or second meeting. Remember to consider norms around virtual communication, since this may be the primary way team members will interact. Once norms are established, consider displaying them during virtual meetings so people will be regularly reminded of their shared expectations and commitments.

Get to know one another

  • Quick icebreaker questions at the beginning of each meeting might feel silly at first, but they can help ease nerves and get team members talking. Fun virtual icebreakers include exciting sponge or rose/thorn. Consider using the poll function in Zoom to share questions and results or ask students to respond to a question in the chat. Google “virtual icebreakers” to find hundreds of questions to get people talking. You can also ask team members to rotate responsibility for the ice breaker at each meeting.
  • Encourage team members to learn more about each other’s work styles and strengths. Consider having team members take the Myers-Briggs personality test and use test results to frame discussion around work styles, motivation, approaches to conflict resolution, etc. (See this free, abbreviated version of the Myers-Briggs assessment.)

Create space for social connections

There are many fun ways your team can cultivate community in virtual spaces. Consider asking your students for recommendations or try one of the suggestions below: 

  • Host a group movie night.
  • Check out these free online board games or see if a team member already has a virtual game pack such as Jackbox (or purchase one for short-term use).
  • Create a virtual scavenger hunt - you can design your own scavenger hunt using regular household items or design a scavenger hunt using online resources or other materials related to your team project. One Bass Connections team designed a virtual scavenger hunt using their team data files to help students learn more about the project's history.
  • Organize a virtual escape room, online game show, or mystery game (we have linked to a few examples, but there are various vendors you can find online, typically for a fee). 
  • Play virtual bingo
  • Create a DIY crafting challenge with readily available materials.  

Communication for Remote Teams

Effective communication helps team members build strong and efficient working relationships, understand their roles and responsibilities, and feel comfortable expressing new ideas and addressing conflict. It is especially important to implement effective communication strategies in remote team settings to ensure team member engagement and avoid confusion.

Consider these strategies for clear and effective communication with your team:

Meet regularly and record meetings for asynchronous engagement

  • Regular, synchronous meetings help teams establish a productive workflow and set a consistent timeline for tracking and reporting on progress and troubleshooting challenges. Regular meetings also help team members get to know one other more quickly and become comfortable operating as a group.
  • Set expectations early for team members to actively engage in meetings via Zoom. This can include: telling participants to enable their video (unless there are connectivity issues), asking questions frequently and embracing silence until others engage, using the Zoom breakout room feature, and giving team members a role to play during the meeting.
  • Consider how to include team members who may need to engage asynchronously. Consider recording your meetings for asynchronous engagement or archival purposes or alternating between two regular meeting times if you need to accommodate subteams or team members in different time zones. You might also consider pairing asynchronous team members with a buddy so they can get updates directly from another team member.
  • Create and distribute meeting agendas ahead of time so all team members know what to expect and will be prepared to contribute. You might also consider requiring team members to submit short updates or reflections the day before each team meeting so you can incorporate feedback and questions into the agenda.
  • After meetings conclude, distribute a list of action items and responsibilities so individuals know what they should be doing before the next meeting. Consider asking student team members to take the lead on circulating personal or subteam action items to encourage ownership of tasks and empower them to speak up if they are confused about their role.

Provide guidelines for communication

  • Don’t assume that all team members will be immediately comfortable communicating their ideas, especially on a virtual platform that may distort the normal flow of communication and obscure non-verbal cues. Provide guidelines for discussions, emphasizing that all students should be heard in groups, and model how you would like team members to listen, interact and provide feedback. Incorporate these guidelines into your team norms.

Set achievable short- and long-term goals and assign clear roles for each team member

  • Team members can become disengaged when the team’s goals feel too abstract or they do not understand how they can contribute in meaningful ways to their achievement. Break large goals into small, achievable tasks. Each task should be assigned to an individual or a small group and have a deadline. Encourage ownership and accountability of tasks by involving student team members in the process of establishing the team’s workflow and setting reasonable timelines for achieving each of the project’s short- and long-term goals.

Make time for one-on-one check-ins

  • Student team members value opportunities to connect with team leaders (and project managers) outside the group setting. One-on-one check-ins allow space for each team member to talk through their progress and challenges and can provide more reserved team members with the chance to communicate how they feel about their own and the group’s work. Check-ins may also spark new ideas for group organization, communication and work distribution. Consider implementing short one-on-one check-ins once or twice a semester, situated around project milestones.
  • For large teams, team leaders can make this more manageable by dividing students between team leaders and/or meeting with small subteams.

Use peer evaluations to assess how things are going

  • Peer evaluations can help team leaders take the pulse of their team and learn what is going well and what needs to be improved. Peer evaluations also provide valuable feedback to team members that can help them correct their behavior and make more valuable contributions to the team’s work. TEAMMATES and CATME are two commonly used peer evaluation tools that can help team leaders form groups and distribute rubrics and questions among peers. You can also develop peer evaluations using a simple Google Form. Consider having students fill out peer evaluations twice a semester so they have a chance to implement feedback and team leaders have a chance to course correct if necessary.

Provide guidelines for clear and consistent documentation of team materials

  • Documentation plays a key role in developing efficient workflows, particularly for long-term projects with multiple team members. Make sure all team members understand how to access and handle team materials, how to name and update files (including new versions), and how to effectively describe and document their work process (when necessary). Consider engaging your team in a discussion about documentation and materials management at the project’s onset and think about creating a documentation cheat sheet detailing best practices that team members can reference when stuck.

Employ collaborative tools when appropriate

  • Virtual collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams, Duke Box, GitHub and Google Drive can help teams streamline communication, file sharing and organization, and data storage. When it comes to picking the right tool for your team, it is important to consider your team’s technical, organizational and communication needs and discuss implementation of the tool with team members prior to adoption. Consider asking team members which systems they are already familiar with and what collaboration tools have worked for them in the past. (Please note that all teams are encouraged to use products already licensed by Duke or available for free. All products requiring purchase must first be approved by Duke OIT using the following request form: IT Procurement Form)

Considerations for Large Teams

Bass Connections teams range in size and structure. While large teams can advance progress on a large-scale project quickly, they can also increase complexity and communication challenges.

Consider these strategies for managing large teams:

Use subteams

  • Subteams can be divided in any number of ways – by focus area, geographic area, skillset, or even using practical considerations such as grouping students based on their availability.
  • Each subteam should have a clear charge. Consider having a master project plan for the entire project, with key milestones assigned by subteam. Subteams should then create their own project plan with specific tasks and timelines that align with the master plan.
  • Assign a graduate student or advanced undergraduate student to lead each subteam. This will create a reporting hierarchy, ownership and leadership and mentoring opportunities for advanced students.
  • Subteams should meet regularly (e.g., weekly) in addition to weekly meetings with the entire team. These meetings can be led by the student lead.

Ensure connections between subteams

  • Create interdependency between the tasks of separate subteams to ensure that the all team members remain connected and accountable to each other.
  • Set up a structure for teams to keep one another updated on their work, but try to avoid using whole team meetings for just reporting out. For example, each subteam might submit a brief written update to the entire team prior to each meeting that highlights issues they need input on and opportunities for feedback.