6 Qualities that Allow Virtual Teams to Thrive

Communication, motivation and purpose fuel work of Keep Exploring team

Four people in a Zoom meeting.
Clockwise from top left, Susan Gordon, Linda Zhang, Sue Wasiolek and Rachel Coleman take part in a virtual meeting to help plan parts of the Keep Exploring initiative. Photo courtesy of Linda Zhang.

In mid-April, Duke Vice President for Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon approached Susan Gordon and Sue Wasiolek with a project.

With COVID-19 erasing students’ summer plans, Duke wanted to fill the void. McMahon laid out the plan for Keep Exploring, a multi-faceted enrichment program giving students real work experience and online professional development programs.

McMahon asked Wasiolek, associate vice president for Student Affairs, and Gordon, senior director for career and professional development for Duke Alumni Affairs, to create a network of Duke alumni and parents who could facilitate internships, serve as mentors or provide virtual hands-on experiences in students’ areas of interest.

Before long, 425 students were taking advantage of roughly 266 internships and projects and around 234 mentorship opportunities. While others shaped this portion of the Keep Exploring initiative, the team of Gordon, Wasiolek, Duke Career Center Associate Director Rachel Coleman and Duke student Linda Zhang played a central role.

White writing on a background.“Although we’ve been humbled by our efforts, we have a pretty significant sense of accomplishment for what we were able to get done in such a short period of time,” Wasiolek said.

In “Going Virtual: A Deeper Dive into Managing a High Performing Team at a Distance,” an online course taught this summer by Duke Learning and Organization Development (L&OD), Joy Birmingham highlighted six qualities high-performing virtual teams use. Each quality shows up in the experience of the Keep Exploring team.

“It’s like a dance,” Birmingham, assistant director of L&OD, said of the shared purpose of a strong team. “If we know where we’re going, and we know the steps, we can bring each other along.”

Much like the Keep Exploring team, these qualities can be the foundation to your team’s success:

Clear Purposes and Roles

A Zoom meeting with four people.The team of Coleman, Gordon, Wasiolek and Zhang benefitted from their unique perspectives and defined roles.

Wasiolek has 40 years of experience in Duke Student Affairs, while Gordon knew how to engage Duke’s alumni. Coleman was the point person for harnessing the Duke Career Center’s infrastructure for uniting students with external learning opportunities while Zhang provided a student perspective and an energetic and versatile presence to the team.

“I really just saw myself as doing whatever it took to push Keep Exploring forward,” Zhang said. “One day that might be cleaning out an Excel sheet with 500 entries. On another day, that might be designing a training program for volunteers.”

Constant Communication

For several weeks this spring and summer, the four core members of the team – and other colleagues at different points – had a daily Zoom teleconference meeting to discuss the project’s formation. As the work moved forward, these meetings proved vital as the compressed timeframe meant each day brought new developments.

“Those were helpful because of the scope of the project and how quickly it needed to move,” said Coleman, the Career Center associate director. “We needed to stay as organized as possible. Sometimes email can be challenging when you’re trying to move things along and decisions need to be made. Those daily check-ins allowed for constructive conversations to happen.”

Healthy Collaboration

Linda ZhangWhile the Zoom meetings allowed people to speak their mind, the amount of listening in the sessions proved equally important.

Zhang said she was amazed at how her opinions as a student carried weight among other team members with lofty titles and decades of experience.

It’s that ability to listen to other perspectives and work together that team members point to as a key part of their success.

“We were creating something out of nothing,” said Gordon of Alumni Affairs. “We each had our own areas of expertise. It wouldn’t have worked if we were not taking into consideration the student view, or the Career Center view or the Alumni Affairs view.”

Strong Interpersonal Relationships

Beyond a few passing interactions, none of the four members of the team knew each other prior to this spring. But during the weeks of Zoom meetings, they grew close.

“There was a genuine trust within the group,” Coleman said. “There was openness and honesty. There was a willingness to accept feedback and give feedback.”

L&OD’s Birmingham said this often happens when team members demonstrate that they can be relied on to do what they say they will do. This happens whether working together in person or remotely.

“Every successful milestone builds trust and builds respect,” Birmingham said.

Shared Mission

Sue WasiolekAs COVID-19 altered students’ plans, many wanted help any way they could. For the Keep Exploring team, organizing meaningful summer experiences for students was a way to do just that.

Zhang, who graduated in May, felt immense sympathy for students who lost their internships and summer work opportunities.

“These students were just like me, they were my friends,” Zhang said.

Emotionally invested in the cause, the team moved quickly, and by mid-June, students had internships and alumni mentors.

“This was as hard working a group as I’ve been a part of at Duke,” Wasiolek said. “People were enormously responsive and dedicated and devoted.”

Many Forms of Leadership

Birmingham pointed out that leadership isn’t always a top-down relationship. Instead, on high-performing teams, leadership is often shared among team members.

Team members said the vision laid out by Vice President for Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon helped them move forward. But the amount of responsibility given to the team, and each member, created an atmosphere of accountability and individual leadership.

“There was a high level of independent agency that people just sort of felt,” Wasiolek said.  “We knew we had to do our best to make this happen as quickly as possible, and with the help and participation of hundreds of colleagues, alumni, parents and students, it did.”

Sharpen Your Skills: Duke Learning and Organization Development is offering 11 online courses this fall aimed at building technical, managerial and efficiency skills.

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