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Research Team Leadership goes virtual

02 Apr 2020 | Shirley Wardell In light of the current COVID-19 (Coronavirus) outbreak, our Research Team Leadership programme has been redesigned as an online programme, specifically exploring the challenges of leading a research team in changing times. Programme Director Shirley Wardell shares how team leaders might navigate virtual meetings successfully.

How do we recreate the valuable leadership functions of supporting individuals and building teams in a virtual space? How do we share, care and stimulate our colleagues when we cannot meet? I love it when I walk out of a team meeting with so much energy and motivation that getting the actions done is easier. Helping a diverse team to communicate well and feel connected has always been an important function of a Research Team Leader. Right now, it seems we need to do it with our hands tied behind our backs - virtually.

We are rethinking how to deliver the aims of Research Team Leadership (RTL) with physical distance in mind. In meetings we solve problems, generate ideas and put in place plans to fulfil the purpose of our teams. We know teams perform better when they feel connected, so we really need to be great at our online meetings.

John Adair’s functions of Team Leaders and Nancy Kline’s principles and actions for transforming meetings have been demonstrated on the RTL programme since 2006. Here are my first thoughts about what a virtual meeting needs juxtaposed with what we would do face to face.


Principle and Function - Face-to-face vs. Virtual team leadership actions
Principle and FUNCTION Action: Face to Face Action: Virtual
An accurate view of reality includes what is going well. MOTIVATE. Go around the group to your left or right ask; ‘What is going well for you?’ End the meeting with the question, ‘What went well in the meeting?’ Ask; ‘What is going well for you?’ Ask each person in turn in the order of their arrival at the meeting. At the end of the meeting ask; ‘What went well in the meeting?’ Go around in the opposite direction.
Everyone matters. SUPPORT. Going around the group several times gives everyone a chance to speak. Same as face to face.
Interruption demotivates and prevents good ideas the opportunity to be honed. CONTROL. Let people finish their thought. Participants need to be looking at the speaker so they can see when they are finished. Speakers can tell the group when they have finished speaking because this is not as easy to read in a virtual environment.
The depth of one’s ideas is important. Thinking deeply allows ideas to be explored, and the best ideas to rise to the surface. INSPIRE. Teach your team to really listen and give people time to think in pairs for around 5 minutes each way. Arrange for pairs to meet in break out rooms or to phone each other to think aloud for 5 minutes each way.
Agenda items work better if they are in the form of a positively phrased question that is actionable; this facilitates solution focused thinking. ORGANISE AND PLAN. For example, change the agenda item: ‘Publications’ to: ‘How can we support the team to publish?’ Send the agenda questions out in advance. The same as face to face.
Unexamined assumptions can limit ideas. REVIEW. Occasionally ask questions such as: “What might we be assuming that could be limiting our thinking?” “If we assumed something more liberating, what might we achieve?” The same as face to face.

Leadership is very necessary now and we need more leaders. We may need to lead in smaller groups, and to support good mental health and valuable research we need to imagine new ways of being together.

I hope you will join David, me and Advance HE to refine what we may need to make our world work, perhaps even better than before.


Find out more about our Research Team Leadership programme, now redesigned as a two-day online course.

Find out more about Shirley Wardell


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