Creating a virtual research centre ecosystem using Microsoft Teams

To the busy academic, it may seem like yet another system to learn. But Amy Conley Wright and Betty Luu explain how a team-working platform can aid communication long after the pandemic

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University of Sydney
6 Oct 2021
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Microsoft Teams can be a useful tool for the modern university academic
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How to create an engaging online experience using Microsoft Teams

over 1 year ago
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In the past 18 months, many people who work in offices have upskilled in virtual meeting etiquette with the occasional apologetic “Oh, you’re muted…” and become well acquainted with the benefits and pitfalls of remote working. A recent study by Google found that “emotional intelligence” surpassed technical expertise or other characteristics in terms of promoting successful adaptation to working from home.

Australia has had minimal rates of infection, but low vaccination rates earlier this year meant that the threat of outbreaks was ever present and governments could call a lockdown at any time. New South Wales resumed stay-at-home orders in August after a new outbreak. So, once again, our research team and many others were relying on virtual strategies for collaboration.

Academic research can be lonely (sometimes)

Social isolation remains a real threat. We all know that less social interaction can trigger depression, and indeed that isolation can feed on itself, so people become more withdrawn. Connection is an anecdote, and we have been all working out ways to connect, particularly via video, whether to celebrate a birthday, play Dungeons & Dragons or invite overseas relatives to a wedding.

The University of Sydney’s Research Centre for Children and Families builds local, national and global multidisciplinary collaborations between researchers in fields including social work, education, economics, sociology, law, public health and psychology.

While research collaborations are favourably looked upon and are critical to the work we do, the reading, writing and thinking aspects of research remain largely independent and can create distance, which is exacerbated without regular interactions with peers and colleagues. How can we recreate the casual conversations that once took place in hallways and during lunch breaks? Is it possible to draw closer together remotely those who are geographically distant?

Using online tools to build and maintain team connection

We found Microsoft Teams – and other online collaboration and conferencing platforms – created new opportunities for connection that we have retained even after returning to work in shared spaces. We use it as an additional communication strategy to keep us connected and minimise isolation when we’re not in the office.

We have created a number of specific chat “channels” for our team, each with a different function or focus, and these enable targeted communication that draws in everyone, from office-based full-time researchers to part-timers and research students who might be distanced from the physical offices of a research centre.

For anyone who is not familiar with the workings of Teams or other similar platforms, you start by creating a “team” and inviting collaborators, internal or external to your organisation. Within a team, you create “channels” to reflect specific projects, interests and initiatives, and invite relevant members of the team to view certain channels.

In each channel, you can create or reply to posts, “tag” people to draw their attention to the post (as with Facebook), store relevant files, and enable multiple people to view and make changes to documents together in real time, as with Google Docs. Instant messaging allows you to chat and call others in your organisation, and the interface integrates with your Outlook calendar for online meetings.

The online platform approximates a physical research environment. You can choose to show whether you are “online”, “away” or “busy” and “do not disturb”: the equivalent of being available on campus, away from your desk or closing your office door respectively. It can make the usual workdays, or late evenings, less lonely knowing that your colleagues are online, even if you don’t need to directly interact with them. It also serves as a bulletin board for people to quickly obtain information, share updates or provide feedback without the formality of emails.

Tips to enhance remote teamwork

Here are 11 ways a group-working platform can enhance your research team’s connection, communication and collaboration, whether in the office or at home:

  • Post project updates in relevant channels, seek extra support for tasks and notify colleagues when they need to “action” a specific task. This includes resolving queries so decisions can be seen by the whole project team. 
  • Brainstorm a new project or discuss how to approach data analysis. This is useful for projects where team members are analysing qualitative data together. The platform is used to log and discuss memos, reflections and emerging findings during the coding process.
  • Send a chat message to say hello when a member is online or to clarify things that don’t need to be in a formal email. A quick voice or video call and sharing of screens sometimes resolves queries faster than multiple emails clogging up the inbox.
  • Informal chats and posts between structured meetings should include threads of pet photos, self-care tips, non-academic book recommendations and a wide selection of gifs and emojis to convey the perfect reaction. It may seem trivial but this is especially important for building connection between senior and junior researchers. For instance, students recognise that academics are human too and have a life outside research.
  • Create a “celebrations” channel to recognise those large and small victories that accumulate to make an academic career. From finishing an article draft, getting ethics approval or conducting an interview to receiving an accolade, our members share milestones with others who can relate and celebrate.
  • Share webinars, presentations, articles, links and resources that might be relevant to colleagues’ projects and interests in a “resources” channel. These are little ways to recognise each other, to make sure we each feel seen.
  • In a “research translation” channel, we record external signs that our research has influenced knowledge, attitudes and practices, through storing email communications, links and other evidence. Measuring our mark on the world is elusive but necessary for the higher education impact agenda.
  • Create a channel for new students and other new team members with introductory information and onboarding steps to get on to university IT and service systems. Providing students with up-to-date information on key project tasks to work on helps them feel like part of the research community while off campus.
  • Post agenda items that colleagues wish to discuss at the next meeting in a “team meetings” channel so everyone has a say.
  • Easy upload of files and documents that can be accessed by all or select team members in a central location makes it easy to work collaboratively on documents and keep track of how colleagues are progressing.
  • Open and jointly edit documents during online or face-to-face meetings, so everyone has instant access to the finalised copy by the end of the meeting.

To the busy academic, it may seem like yet another system to learn. But it has allowed us to communicate smoothly throughout each stage of the pandemic. In some ways, bonds within our research centre have strengthened because we have a clearer idea of what others are working on, which makes interactions seamless and exciting when we do have opportunities to get together in person. A research centre ultimately functions through relationships and shared interest; it is an ecosystem that can be fostered through technology-enabled communication.

Amy Conley Wright is director and Betty Luu is research fellow with the Research Centre for Children and Families at the University of Sydney.

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