As the Lab continues to work in a hybrid environment, many are wondering how other groups are collaborating and working together.
In fact, some teams at the Lab have been virtual, remote, or hybrid for many years, because they have to be to meet the needs of the science. The Energy Sciences Network (ESnet), the Energy Technologies Area’s Electricity Markets and Policy (EMP) Department, and the Phenix software team in the Biosciences Area’s Molecular Biophysics and Integrated Bioimaging (MBIB) Division are some examples. ESnet has had remote workers for decades; today they have more than 100 team members, 50 percent of whom are remote. The EMP Department has integrated onsite and offsite remote employees for over 15 years. The Phenix (short for Python-based Hierarchical Environment for Integrated Xtallography) software development team comprises members from six institutions—Berkeley Lab, Cambridge University, New Mexico Consortium, Los Alamos National Laboratory, University of Texas Health Science Center and Duke University—who have been collaborating since the early 2000s.
The teams shared their experiences with virtual teams – their advantages, challenges, and strategies to ensure sustained effectiveness and productivity.
First of all, ESnet, the EMP Department, and the Phenix team agreed that there are real advantages to virtual teams.
Dorothee Liebschner, a research scientist with the Phenix team, pointed to the diversity of skills and perspectives. “With a remote or hybrid team, you’re less likely to be in a bubble. You get a variety of approaches to solving a problem and can take advantage of different ways of thinking. For example, we work with researchers at Duke University who have unique expertise in the validation of biological structures, which has been very valuable in the development of the software.”
EMP leader Pete Larsen agreed, “Sometimes, being outside California can bring a different perspective on what is happening in the rest of the country. I live in Montana and the policy discussions here are significantly different than in California. I think that my experience living here helps inform how I think about policy issues in other parts of the country.”
Contrary to what some may fear, growth and virtual teams are compatible. In fact, ESnet’s staff grew by 30 people since the beginning of 2021, when the pandemic constraints began.
The Phenix team also grew their reach during COVID. Dorothee said, “We used to host in-person user workshops for 20 to 30 people. When COVID hit, we moved to a virtual format, hosting more than a 100 people per workshop, and posted the content to YouTube, making it even more widely available. One of our videos has already reached 1,700 people. While we can’t provide one-on-one support as easily in this way, we are certainly reaching a bigger audience.”
Working in virtual teams, of course, has its challenges. Long days on Zoom is one. “It’s important to be cognizant of online meeting fatigue,” said Pete. “Give staff the ‘option’ to participate—don’t always include them as required attendees. I also tell staff that they should always agree to present at online conferences, but maybe think twice about sitting through an all-day virtual conference.” EMP senior advisor Peter Cappers added, “It’s easy to get distracted and lose focus during virtual meetings, and leave feeling like little actually got accomplished. So if you are leading one, keep them short and focused by making sure everyone knows going in what the purpose is and what needs to be discussed or decided upon. If you are attending one, request an agenda and make sure you show up prepared.”
Onboarding new staff is one that virtual teams often face, especially in a team science environment such as the Lab’s. “We had a postdoc who joined us during COVID, so it was important that we provided as much support as possible,” explained Dorothee. “One of the things that helped is our weekly office hours. There’s no agenda, just an opportunity for people to ask questions, as well as to catch up socially. It’s a useful complement to our regular monthly meetings, which are more structured.”
The EMP Department had a similar strategy. Some employees were hired during the pandemic and have never been to campus or met their colleagues in person. To help integrate them into the department research and culture, they started an Early Career Cohort (ECC) that is co-led by two more junior staff who coordinate monthly meetings. The meeting agendas are split between having younger research staff present their work, and hosting more senior research staff who present on a topic of the group’s choosing. Additionally, the ECC hosts social events—mostly virtual, but sometimes in person—and fosters community-building.
Said Inder Monga, division director of Scientific Networking and executive director of ESnet, “We want to make sure our full time remote staff are as comfortable working with and integrated with the team as possible, so we’ve thought about our processes for interviewing, hiring, onboarding, and ensuring continued productivity.”
Brainstorming or idea generation is another challenge that people often cite as a challenge for virtual teams. Says EMP Department Senior Advisor Lisa Schwartz, “I prefer brainstorming in small groups. I haven’t experienced any disadvantages doing that by phone and Zoom.” Pete agreed, noting that tools can also help. “Jamboards or other online collaborative environments have worked well for our team brainstorms,” he said.
The ESnet, Phenix, and EMP teams all have periodic in-person meetings to help build relationships within their distributed teams. Pre-pandemic, the EMP Department hosted an in-person retreat that mixed strategic planning activities with fun, “get to know your coworker” events. Likewise, the Phenix team, before COVID, held weeklong in-person meetings twice a year. They spent the days in workshops and then engaged in social time at the end of the day. “It was an intense week, but it was helpful for building strong working relationships.”
ESnet welcomes remote workers to spend a week onsite every so often. “Occasional face-to-face time helps build a foundation of trust, so that the rest of the year, team members can be remote while still feeling connected,” said Inder.
Staying Together when Apart
Even when teams are not physically in the same location, there are ways to stay in touch and build a team environment.
The Phenix team has continued to host their bi-annual developer workshops for the entire team, now in a virtual format. There can be a large number of participants in these meetings, which can be intimidating for some. “We have found that breakout rooms are very helpful in encouraging engagement,” said Dorothee.
ESnet has designated a standing Zoom channel as a virtual water cooler. Interested team members log on, sometimes for hours at a time. They can be on mute while working, and unmute themselves when they have a question for a colleague or the group. It’s like swinging by a colleague’s desk or chatting at the water cooler back at the office. “We were looking for ways to reduce the barriers to communication. The virtual water cooler does that by simulating people working together at the same site,” said Inder. “We also had a three-hour, all-hands, virtual retreat during the pandemic and try to include a 10-minute social breakout session, with random assignments, at the end of every monthly staff meeting.”
ESnet has also taken group chat to a new level. The group now has 209 Slack chat channels, mostly for asynchronous work-related coordination, but with some covering social topics from home networking technology to family pictures. Inder subscribes to the channels on espresso, pets, and photography, to name a few.
Communicating is Key
The importance of communication was a common theme. Inder said, “To ensure that team members don’t feel isolated, we try to communicate more than we think we need to.” ESnet hosts monthly Policy, Innovation, Practices, and Engineering talks (“PIPE talks”) which are designed to facilitate knowledge transfer across the ESnet organization through short, impactful, and easily consumable talks, in the style of TED Talks. The range of topics is broad, and are curated for non-expert audiences.
Project management in virtual teams also requires more deliberate communication. “One-on-one conversations are important to ensure that tasks and deliverables are clear,” said Inder. Dorothee offered, “Communication modes should also be thought through. For example, email is not always an efficient way to get a project started. Often we have a discussion on Zoom first, then move to emails to keep going.”
Sometimes, however, communication with faraway colleagues is simple. Said Andy Satchwell, a deputy leader in the EMP Department, “Don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call your colleagues directly. Not every conversation needs to be pre-arranged and scheduled.”
Ultimately, there are many paths to a strong virtual team. “Circumstances are different for each team or organization and require different solutions, but in all cases, it’s important that each person involved is open to the journey,” said Inder.