I haven’t sat in a conference room chair since March. I haven’t had to rush to schedule the "good" meeting room. I haven’t had the pleasure of walking into a 2-hour brainstorming session and finding hot coffee, doughnuts, and muffins on the table. It’s been months since I last sat in a physical space with my colleagues, with an agenda projected on a screen in front of us, working through a problem together on a whiteboard. It’s been so long, I think I’m starting to miss it. Only a little. Just a little. But still…

I know how to do a face-to-face meeting. Virtually? I’m still awkward. Maybe you can relate?

Have you ever joined a virtual meeting first thing in the morning only to have the program automatically join you with your video and audio on? Do your kids decide to show off their construction skills when you unmute yourself? Has someone asked you to share your screen and you immediately break out in a sweat because you don’t have the first idea how to do that?

GIF of a teacher standing in front of the chalkboard asking the class "Anyone?"

It’s true. Virtual meetings can make you long for the days of in-person, face-to-face connections. It’s easy to think this new style of connecting isn’t as effective as the good ol’ conference room. While virtual teams experience their own set of challenges, research shows us our remote work might be more efficient than we think.

In 2014, Radostina Purvanova combed through eight meta-analyses comparing face-to-face teams with virtual teams to find out if one way of meeting is truly better than the other.1 We’re talking 126 experimental studies, 26 case studies, and 31 field studies measuring every team’s performance- and climate-related outcomes. Depending on the type of study she read – experimental or field/case study – she noticed the research could support either face-to-face or virtual teams as the better way to collaborate. Experimental studies favor face-to-face teams. Field/case studies favor virtual teams. So, she dug a little deeper to figure out the reason for these two opposite findings. 

It turns out, the experimental studies didn’t do a great job of simulating real-life scenarios. In one study, participants had to discuss the ramifications of growing an extra thumb…you know, your standard Tuesday-type meeting. By their very nature, the field and case studies surveyed real virtual teams to find out their real experiences. Basically, in simulated team environments, virtual teams don’t fare well. In real life, they’ve proved successful.

Purvanova’s analyses determined virtual teams work because team members care about the outcomes they’re trying to achieve. In practice, virtual teams aren’t established for the short term. They last at least a year, maybe two, so everyone has a chance to get used to the new context and figure out how to best work together. They also use a lot of email, which (for better or worse), gives people time to process an idea before communicating their response. 

Not every aspect of virtual teams was dreamy. There were two aspects which consistently scored lower in both the field and case studies: trust and communication media. Team members never felt they were able to establish a deep sense of trust in their fellow team members…and they really didn’t like their options for communicating with each other. You see, the most current field and case study included in her analysis happened in 2010. At that time, videoconferencing was still really expensive and unlikely to be adopted by many businesses. Virtual teams had to rely on chat, phone, and email. (Yeah, I’d hate that, too.) Fortunately, in 2020, videoconferencing technology is so much more accessible. We’re all Zoom’ing, Google Meet’ing, and Microsoft Team’ing every day. Sometimes multiple times a day. According to another study, being able to see each other helps build trust faster. 

Researchers wanted to know what makes a virtual team most effective.2 In the end, it boils down to trust and knowledge sharing. Teams work best when people feel free to share the information they have. To do that requires trust. Face-to-face meetings afford us the opportunity to share space and pick up on all those non-verbal cues happening around the room all the time. Not only do we hear the words people say, we see when Tina leans forward to listen a little closer; we feel when Marcus is about to chime in; and we all know how Shawn feels about an idea by the way he tilts his head and raises his eyebrows.

GIF of a man sitting down, tilting his head to the left, and lifting his eyebrows conveying the question "Say that again?"

These non-verbal cues help us get to know each other better. I don’t know about you, but for me, even though I have the added benefit of seeing team members in a Zoom meeting, I still don’t know how to read the room the way I could when we were all face-to-face. When team members can’t share physical space, they have to rely on other factors to build trust. This same group of researchers found “knowledge sharing becomes a significant behavior which virtual team members can observe, measure, and rely upon to build cognition-based trust.” 

This particular study relied upon responses to a 40-question survey sent to 193 people to come to these conclusions. I reviewed the survey questions and found many of them match up nicely with the Team Initiated Problem Solving (TIPS) framework – in particular, 15 of the questions relate to what TIPS refers to as meeting foundations. Maybe, when it comes to sharing knowledge and building trust, these foundational elements make a difference.

TIPS offers teams a predictable routine for organizing and using data to make informed decisions. The routine starts by establishing a set of meeting foundations. These seven items set the ground rules. They establish the team’s purpose and how it will conduct its business. Every team meeting needs:
  • A shared purpose
  • Team agreements
  • Member roles
  • An agreed upon meeting time and schedule
  • An agenda
  • Accessible meeting minutes
  • A way to monitor the team’s effectiveness and hold each other accountable
 


In the same way your school-wide expectations help everyone spend less time managing behavior, team meeting foundations help teams spend less time figuring out how to conduct their meetings so they can spend more time solving problems.
 
If your team will meet virtually for any part of this school year, it’s important to come back to these foundations to see if they’ll work in this new context or if they need to be adapted. Here are some ways you might adapt your meeting foundations based on your new, remote reality.

Set Virtual Meeting Room Norms

GIF of a man looking at the camera saying "Everyone mute yourself."
In our office, we have standard ways of conducting most meetings. Some include:
  • We project the agenda during the meeting.
  • If you get a phone call, you take it outside.
  • When the group is large, raise your hand to let everyone know you have something to add.
  • Use decision cards to gain consensus.
These would be considered our meeting norms. They’re part of the logistical dance of getting everyone to conduct themselves in the same way during those 45 minutes. We might be able to continue doing some of these things when we meet virtually. We may also need to tweak them a little and add some more guidance. For example, these four norms may become:
  • Email the agenda before the meeting starts.
  • Mute your microphone until you have something to share.
  • Use the ‘raise hand’ feature to let everyone know you have something add.
  • Conduct a poll or use the chat to gain consensus.
Revisit your group norms and revise them to meet your remote context. It may feel obvious how to conduct yourself in a virtual team meeting, but in my experience, everyone has their own way of doing this. It’s important your team members know the expectations up front.

Get Everyone on the Grid

GIF of a videoconference grid of faces all talking at the same time
Representation on your school decision-making teams is important. In order to ensure every stakeholder’s voice is included, you need to ask yourself if everyone is represented at your virtual meeting table. Can you look at the grid of faces on your screen and know everyone who needs to be there is there? 

Typically, teams include:
  • An administrator
  • Teacher representation
  • Family representation
  • Student representation (typically in middle/high school teams)
With schools conducting distance learning, the days of walking through common areas or running into people in the break room are gone. It’s more challenging to get a sense of how things are going because we’re all scattered experiencing school at the same time but from from totally unique spaces. If your team can manage it, consider getting teacher representation from every grade level. Reach out to families and see if anyone else would be interested in attending as another representative. Do the same for students. It might surprise you how many people are able to make a virtual meeting who otherwise could not have attended when school was in-person.

Some other folks to consider attending your meetings:
  • District-level representation
  • School psychologist or counselor
  • Community members

Find a New Start Time

GIF of a woman slowly entering the screen from the left saying "What about now?"

How’s your schedule looking these days? Mine is real different. I still work the same number of hours, but my busy times have switched. Mornings used to be pretty open and afternoons full of meetings. I now live in a bizarro world where my mornings are full of work and kid logistics and my afternoons are quiet. Some of you might be looking at that 7:00 AM team meeting wondering if there’s a better time for it. So, ask. If you’re finished with your synchronous sessions by 1:00, maybe your team meeting can happen at 2:00. No one said just because you always met at a certain day and time you must continue to meet at that certain day and time. Now is a good time to make adjustments that accommodate your new virtual schedule. 

Spend Time Not Talking About Work

GIF of a man walking down a movie theater aisle dressed in a Star Trek uniform saying "Hey guys, what's up?"
I miss small talk. You know, the kind that happened as the Keurig brewed. How every morning started with a “Hey, how was your night?” In our office, there was a group of us who would walk to coffee most mornings. It was a nice walk and it gave us time to talk about life. Sometimes, work even crept its way into the conversation and we found ways to collaborate on projects we’d otherwise never have known about. When we moved to working remotely, we kept those coffee chats going. Once a week, we all get in an online meeting space and check in about life. It keeps us connected. It’s nice.

Most virtual meetings don’t make time for that kind of check-in, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Back in the before-times, when we met face-to-face, the five minutes before the meeting started or the 10 minutes after it was over were always a nice way to connect with each other as human beings. So, make the time now. Set it up as a meeting norm that the facilitator will start the meeting early for anyone who wants to jump on and talk. You could also make time at the end of the meeting to do the same thing. 

Using team meeting time to discuss issues and generate solutions is important work. Making space to address each other as colleagues is critical to building trust and comradery.  

Use Data

GIF of the lead singer of Nickleback holding up a photo of a graph
When I think about sharing knowledge the way the study describes it, I think about the student behavior data we collect in schools. Specifically, office discipline referrals, Check-in, Check-Out point cards, behavior support plans; all of them give us information about what goes on during the day. When schools moved to distance learning, continuing to collect referral data didn’t always happen. Now, it’s September and your school’s teams need access to data more than ever. If you haven’t talked about what collecting referral data will look like this year, now is the time to have that conversation. As a team, you need teachers to tell you what’s going on in their virtual classrooms and how their students are handling distance learning. The most efficient way to collect that information is through referrals.

Most schools are familiar with major office discipline referrals. These are the referrals given when students are sent to the office. If your students are engaged in distance learning, you can’t send them to the office. What office? Where? Every behavior is classroom-managed. So, enter the data that way. Ask teachers to track the behaviors they see in their class during the day by entering those behaviors as minor referrals. If attendance is something your team cares a lot about right now, ask teachers to enter ‘Minor Tardy’ every time a student is late or absent from class. If you’re worried about the way students use technology, ask teachers to enter ‘Minor Technology Violation’ with a brief description of what happened every time they notice the behavior. 

Data help schools identify quickly which students need assistance, which teachers are reaching out for help, and which systems require attention so all students experience this year equitably. Discuss as a team which data you need to make the most informed decisions to improve student outcomes.

Your team meetings can still feel familiar even though your conference room looks a whole lot like your dining room and your classroom exists as a Brady Bunch grid on your computer screen. The work you do as a team will remain as effective as ever so long as you lay a strong foundation and start to build trust in your teammates. Consider the meeting norms you already have and make those minor adjustments so they remain relevant to your virtual meeting platform. Make sure everyone is included. If you need more voices added to the discussion, reach out and find that representation. Change your start time to accommodate your new schedules. Check in with each other about anything unrelated to work. Invest in building relationships with team members to create the trust you need when it’s time to make big decisions. Always root your work in data. If you stopped collecting behavior data in the spring, find a way to start again – even if it’s slow at first with a focus on a few behaviors. Behavior data are their own form of knowledge sharing, and research tells us that’s the way your virtual team will operate at its fullest potential.

1. Purvanova, R. (2014). Face-to-face versus virtual teams: What have we really learned?. The Psychologist-Manager Journal, 17(1), 2-29. doi: 10.1037/mgr0000009
2. Alsharo, M., Gregg, D., & Ramirez, R. (2017). Virtual team effectiveness: The role of knowledge sharing and trust. Information & Management, 54(4), 479-490. doi: 10.1016/j.im.2016.10.005