Paul Cochrane, Ph.D., Director of Online Teaching and Learning at University of Southern Maine.
It is easy to forget how much the physical environment of the campus contributes to student learning. The rituals of learning on a campus are familiar and known to most. Services such as tutoring, library support, and advising are made visible and structurally integrated into the physical environment of the campus. Opportunities for interaction and informal learning with faculty, staff, and fellow students are generally more accessible and plentiful in person than online. The physical environments we interact with matter, and they quietly set the stage for how we engage with others.
The pandemic was the first time that many of us experienced firsthand how separation from the physical campus impacted our work lives. At least initially we may have felt a sense of isolation as we adapted to virtual work. For those of us who serve online learners, it was an opportunity to empathize with their experience. It also brought a broader awareness of the potential for virtual communities to be places where employees can connect, be productive, and feel like part of a vibrant community. The strategies we have developed to create online learning communities can also help us to become better employees and colleagues, whether in-person or virtually.
Here are four takeaways from how our experience with online learning has helped us to build a thriving virtual team:
• Virtual work changes relationships – and that is often a good thing. Faculty who teach both in the classroom and online will tell you that students who may not be comfortable speaking up in the physical classroom often find their voice online. Virtual work opened a similar opportunity to democratize employee participation. Online teams, when structured well, create new opportunities for everyone to engage and participate. These opportunities are where good ideas - and the best opportunities for communal learning - come from.
• A shared sense of purpose underpins effective collaboration. Just as students don’t learn at their best without seeing the personal relevance of that learning, employees do their best work when they understand why their work is important. As Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why, observed, “We don’t want to come to work to build a wall; we want to come to work to build a cathedral.” Shared purpose motivates us and brings us together. In the physical environment, whether an office or a classroom, reminders of our why are subtly present. Those informal conversations with colleagues in the hallway or lunch room remind us that serendipity is what makes the physical environment such a powerful contributor to our sense of community. The power of our virtual communities is different: it prompts us to be deliberate and intentional in how we create shared meaning and purpose in our work lives.
• Learning together - whether virtually or in person - builds community. Educators in the online space have long talked about the “guide from the side,” an acknowledgement that every learner brings something to the community that can help everyone learn. It is the same within virtual teams. High-functioning virtual teams build opportunities for shared learning into their structure, and they encourage every team member to share their expertise. Simple strategies such as the group silent read, encouraging team members to share out professional development takeaways, and creating opportunities to reflect and discuss how the team functions and how teamwork can be improved all create opportunities for shared learning.
• Work life is better when people feel like they can bring their authentic selves to work. In the classroom, teachers understand that the key to engaging students in active discussion is to create learning spaces that feel safe, inclusive, and supportive of a variety of ideas and perspectives. The same holds true in virtual work environments, where the more limited social cues require more shared trust and more deliberate communication. Simple strategies such as virtual team lunches, opportunities for team members to share personal successes at team meetings, and creating informal virtual communities using tools like Slack can make a big difference in connecting a team and creating an environment of psychological safety.
The shift to virtual or hybrid work was in many ways a new beginning. It forced us to examine how we engage and the tools we use to facilitate that engagement with fresh eyes. We discovered along the way that it is possible to build virtual teams characterized by strong working relationships, a deep understanding of and commitment to the University’s mission to serve students, and a shared sense of being part of an inclusive and high functioning team. Getting there takes a deliberate focus on building and maintaining personal relationships across a team. Maintaining it requires every member of the team to invest in supporting their co-workers. The payoff is a humanizing of the virtual world, bringing relationship-rich experiences into the virtual workplace.