Welcome to the Virtual Team

I hope everyone has been adapting successfully to their new work environment. I’m going to go ahead and assume you’re all working from home or some iteration of non-standard work practices at the moment. We’re almost a month into fully remote work and narrowing down our best-practices and preferred technologies. Zoom has featured heavily even though MS Teams is freely available. Zoom has the added benefit of being able to see everyone at once in a meeting of over 5 people. Apparently Microsoft is working on this feature for MS Teams but has yet to implement that. (Hurry up Microsoft!) I also came across this stellar article recently: https://careynieuwhof.com/my-top-7-rules-for-leading-a-digital-team/.

However, as normal as this has started to feel, I have a new challenge coming soon, onboarding a new employee remotely. There are several unique challenges that I’m encountering with this new process. The first one being, how do I ensure this employee gets all the appropriate paperwork signed and has access to the needed equipment?

Fortunately, the organization I work for has been ahead of the game in preparing for “shelter-in-place”. Non-essential employees were sent to work from home before official orders came in from the government and support services such as IT ramped up sufficiently to make sure that systems such as the VPN didn’t crash and burn. Similarly, HR has stepped up and is doing onboarding remotely with ID cards, etc being issued later. Which is fine since we’re not supposed to be on campus anyway. OK, one thing down, numerous more to go. We’ve even figured out a way to get the employee a re-imaged and ready-to-go laptop. Whoohoo!

Working in the regulated environment of clinical trials means there is always additional paperwork that needs to be filled out prior to anyone starting work. In the case with any new employee, there are signatures required on documents for the Quality Department before training on SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) can be done and employees must be trained on the SOPs before they can be trained on the work. One would think that in an organization without a validated esignature system, this would present a rather significant hurdle. Again, smarter heads prevailed and the Quality team came up with workarounds both for signatures and for the essential paperwork needed before SOP training can begin. So, now we’ve knocked two items off the list.

Now come the really tricky parts. 1) How do you train someone virtually? I am sure that there are teams and organizations where this is second-nature but that is definitely not our experience. The first part of training will work out well. I’ve developed a reading list for all new employees that details required reading in order of priority. For my team, it’s all the SOPs first, then introductory scientific articles to HIV in general and to the research being done by our partners, then protocols and related documentation for the studies the individual will be working on. Next, any new employee can move on to a training matrix that includes both online training modules and additional reading (such as team Work Practice Guidelines covering everything from days off to Slack and Jira usage) to introductory meetings with admin staff and other teams. Obviously those meetings will all be virtual now.

When it comes down to training on the actual data management, that’s where we’re going to have to be a bit more creative. We’ve developed documentation on how to review specimen data, how to generate reports, etc but I’ve found that the best training is shadowing existing staff and getting to ask questions in real-time as the tasks are being performed. No SOP or instruction document can adequately describe the intricacies of data management or account for all the possible scenarios of why a data discrepancy was generated. When so much of the work involves problem solving, how is do you teach that virtually? The best solution I have at the moment is to try shadowing virtually. I think that the technology is up to the challenge with screen sharing and virtual whiteboarding available, so I’ll put a check in that box for now.

Speaking of all these virtual meetings, this brings me to the next challenge, 2) How do you integrate someone into a team virtually? As well as the team has been doing with virtual coffee chats and happy hours and Ted talk watching, they all had an existing relationship prior to going virtual. It’s yet to be seen how someone will be integrated into the group in a purely on-line setting. Of course I’ll try a few Zoom meeting ice breakers but I think this one is very much TBD challenge. No check marks here. One strategy I’ve been pondering for the team anyway is called silent meetings. Since I have a range of personalities on the team in terms of those willing to speak-up in meetings and those who are less so, I gravitated to this concept when it popped up in an email last week. The basic premise is that you email a question ahead of time and gather responses. The facilitator then passes out the responses (without names) at the beginning of the meeting and everyone takes time to read them. The team then identifies main ideas in the responses and the facilitator writes them on a whiteboard and the team stars the ones they identify with. This is used to focus the subsequent discussion. Here’s a link to the article: https://slab.com/blog/silent-meetings/. I’m not sure if this will help exactly with team integration but if the new member is shy about speaking up at first, this could be beneficial.

The last challenge I’ve identified so far is 3) how to assess performance and the retention of training? Now this might seem like a problem that is common to the whole team but with the other members, I’ve had a bit of time (sometimes quite a bit of time) to know and understand how they communicate, how to tell when something isn’t going well, what their usual sticking points are on the work, etc. With someone new, this is much harder. I won’t be able to tell when they are saying everything is fine when it’s not or feeling dissatisfied with the work, at least not as easily. I’m in the habit of walking around and checking in with the team when we’re in the office and the often gives me clues as to what they are doing as well as how they are doing and allows for more spontaneous updates and conversation. It’s going to be a bigger struggle building that trust and relationship with someone new while we are all working remotely. This is an aspect of the whole situation that is going to require some more research on my part. Definitely no check marks here as I don’t have anything even rattling around in my head yet about how to tackle this one. I’m open to any and all suggestions.

So, to recap, when onboarding an employee virtually:

  1. Work closely with HR, IT, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, propose creative solutions and be open to thinking differently about how this all can happen. Everyone wants to make this a smooth experience for a new employee and are often willing to help (example: our IT department is printing out some material for my employee since they didn’t have a printer at home).
  2. I didn’t actually mention this above but it’s a running theme for this whole “virtual teams” situation. Communication is key. Even though I’m not 100% sure how this onboarding is going to look, I’ve been in contact with the employee and letting this person know as much as I know about what the first day will look like. Information is always appreciated, even if it’s incomplete information.
  3. Having standard training material already developed and ready to go is a life saver. It was so nice to have one less thing to worry about and to know that this new employee was going to get the same information that the last 3 new employees got and that it was going to contain everything they needed to get started. Additionally, having a template of key meetings to set-up made that process go a lot more smoothly as well.
  4. Integrating a new employee into an existing team virtually is likely going to be a bit tricky. I’m going to have to pay special attention to make sure this new person feels included. I’ll probably try some ice breakers and will definitely try out silent meetings to even the playing field in meetings for everyone on the team.
  5. Assessing performance and training retention is truly an unknown for me at the moment. Any and all suggestions welcome.

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