Ecology and COVID #4: Leveraging the liabilities of virtual collaboration

by Benjamin S. Halpern1,2, Julien Brun1, Amber Budden1, Marty Downs1, Carrie V. Kappel1, and Julia S. Stewart Lowndes1

1National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA
2Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA

Virtual collaboration with coffee. Photo by Chris Montgomery.

When the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) started shutting down its research labs on March 12 in response to the growing risk of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, we faced a different set of challenges than many academics. Our  Center – the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), based at UCSB – supports both a resident community and also up to 1000 visitors a year who come to the Center to meet in small teams (10–20 people at a time) to work on dozens of different synthesis science projects. How could we help these working groups and our community of resident scientists maintain momentum? And is there anything we could do differently to help them thrive under this adversity?

The pandemic has shifted virtual collaboration from being something practiced by some people to being the primary mode of interaction for everyone for the foreseeable future. A lot of resources have been produced and shared to help people adapt to the challenges and liabilities of virtual collaboration. At NCEAS, we wanted to see if there were additional ways we could  “leverage the liabilities” of virtual collaboration, to find things that virtual collaboration actually does better. Here are some things we have been experimenting with and the insights they are producing.

Increasing inclusiveness

Virtual collaboration sacrifices many positives of in-person meetings, but it also provides an opportunity to democratize access and thus enable a more diverse and inclusive community. For those who lack travel support to attend a meeting, have non-negotiable caregiving commitments, or face a host of other possible reasons that limit their ability to meet in person, virtual participation liberates access.

NCEAS is home to the Network Office of the Long Term Ecological Research program. The Network’s annual Science Council meeting is typically limited to two individuals per site for budget reasons. This year’s online version of the meeting was open to graduate students, postdocs, information managers and education staff. Attendance nearly tripled compared to normal years and a quarter of the questions asked came from people who would not otherwise have attended.

Leveraging different thinking/working styles

We have all been in meetings that just aren’t working. Someone is dominating the discussion, the brainstorming activity isn’t structured the way you like to generate ideas, you’re a visual rather than a verbal thinker, or the fundamental purpose just isn’t clear.

Well-curated virtual collaboration benefits from lessons learned from good meeting facilitation. Technological and social tools and best practices can enhance engagement by making space for different modes of thinking and contribution, ideas we recently brought to our community through focused trainings (see here and here for blog posts on these trainings). For example, group brainstorming activities can enlist traditional discussion plus shared notes documents and visual mind-mapping to allow for dynamic and multi-modal review of others’ ideas. Many virtual collaboration tools have features and best practices that enable these diverse modes of interaction, but many scientists are unfamiliar with them. We have been developing a host of how-to documents and training opportunities (see our website here) that share these lessons.

Embracing time zone differences

Virtual meetings can often introduce time zone challenges, especially for international collaborations. A two-hour meeting in the morning in California is in the middle of the night in Asia and supper time in Europe. But this liability can be turned into an asset.  As part of a working group, we ran a ‘marathon manuscript relay’ to advance a draft paper. In this ‘relay’, working group members spread across the globe each worked within geographic teams (Team Europe, Team America and Team Australia), but only during their normal work hours. At the end of their workday, they handed off their draft to the next team, who were just at the start of their day, to continue the writing process. Collectively, this working group could make progress 24 hours a day for several days straight without anyone having to work outside normal hours. The team was able to go from a basic outline to full text with near-final figures in an academic blink of an eye.

Building community

One of the greatest challenges with virtual collaboration, compared to in-person meetings, is the loss of serendipitous, ad hoc interactions that help build relationships and thus a sense of community (as well as generate new ideas).  We lose the chance to meet at the proverbial water cooler, grab a coffee together, or get seated next to someone different at a meal during a meeting.

At NCEAS we have a weekly coffee klatch for residents and visitors where we come together to share news and catch up. With the closure of our physical offices, we moved coffee klatch online, but with a twist.  After opening announcements, we break into small groups, randomly assigning people to breakout rooms. Initially, we worried the experience would feel stilted or impersonal, but people loved it! They got to meet and get to know folks who weren’t part of their usual circles, and people who already work remotely—and are therefore unable to attend normally—can now join the klatch. Each week we “spin the breakout roulette wheel” and get a new group to connect with.

We’re confident there are many other ways that virtual collaboration is not just a back-up plan for in-person meetings but an asset to be leveraged. The pandemic is challenging us in many ways, but in doing so it has helped push us to not just deal with the challenges of virtual collaboration but to use them to do better science now and in the future.