Many of you are asked to take a leadership role in leading a team, whether it’s for research, administration, or even clinical. It is easy to feel unprepared for these roles, and there are many pitfalls waiting to sabotage your team’s productivity. The ALiEM Faculty Incubator has created a series of 10 case-based teaming problems to provide you with evidence-based advice and solutions for tackling some of the more common problems encountered in our professional team experiences.
Team collaboration is a critical element of academic medicine. Unfortunately, hectic schedules and geographic distance often interfere with a group’s ability to come together. This is particularly true in emergency medicine, a specialty in which members have highly variable clinical schedules. Digital collaboration is an excellent solution for optimizing communication among team members distributed over time and/or distance,1 but it has a unique set of challenges, specifically related to communication and team relationship building. Addressing these specific challenges will enhance team members effectiveness and engagement.
Meet Face To Face
Regardless of plans for future virtual collaboration, any team project should start with a face-to-face (FTF) meeting. The opportunity for teammates to gather in person, especially early in a team’s life, allows the team leader to define goals and expectations, set timelines, assign roles, define rules for communication. Perhaps most importantly, FTF meetings provide time for team members to establish personal relationships and develop team camaraderie.2
Effective virtual collaboration requires teams to develop a shared mental model (SMM) founded in shared knowledge among team members and an understanding of how an individual’s work contributes to the group’s overall mission. A team’s ability to develop a robust SMM is even more valuable for virtual teams compared to co-located teams.3 To create an effective SMM, leaders must foster a common identity and a common understanding of the goals of the team and the roles of its members. Face-to-face meetings are key to meeting these objectives.
Set Communication Ground Rules
Virtual teams result in more electronic communication via email and messaging services. There are a number of tools available for this purpose, many of which offer the benefit of archiving conversations for shared reference. Pitfalls in virtual communication often result from misinterpretation and incomplete knowledge transfer.2,4 A significant amount of communication occurs via non-verbal cues, which may not be available in many forms of digital communication. However, a formal communication charter can define appropriate standards across the group and limit misinterpretation.4
While email may be appropriate for gathering information, instances that require more complex communication, like problem solving or brainstorming should employ FTF or video conferencing to allow for more nuanced communication.2 Given that virtual collaboration rarely offers the opportunity for immediate clarification, individual communications should be comprehensive, including all necessary information for other team members to make informed decisions.
Schedule Regular Meetings
Creating supportive relationships is critical for maintaining success5 but is often challenging for virtual groups as geography limits opportunities for socializing. While the initial FTF meeting is a good first step to overcoming this hurdle, teams should also generate a schedule for regular, frequent video conferences. Some sources recommend that these calls occur at least once a month on a regular schedule, and that calls begin with unstructured time to allow discussion among team members, creating a “virtual water cooler” to nurture team dynamics and strengthen culture.5–7
With an upcoming national meeting, the group decides to grab coffee one afternoon. This allows the team to establish relationships, brainstorm, and get everyone on the same page. The team leader is able to get a verbal commitment from the group on a date for a video conference. During this subsequent meeting, the team leader works to develop a shared mental model, define a communication plan and platform, and follow-up with advanced scheduling of future meetings. Team members can now proactively protect their time and ensure availability for future meetings.