Working on cross-disciplinary projects can be challenging at the best of times. But when those projects also span various continents and time zones, have no predefined structure, and involve almost exclusively virtual teamwork, things can really get complicated. This was also the experience for collaborators on the Village Teams Project, before they called in the assistance of Black Gazelle. Four of the eleven team members kindly shared their experiences with us.

The Village Team’s Project is a research collaboration between the Medical University of Innsbruck and the Ludwig Boltzmann Gesellschaft that investigates the effects of mental illness in children who have a parent with a mental illness. This unusual project was conceived in workshop-style by the various stakeholders and researchers involved. While this way of working allows for a healthy dose of out-of-the-box thinking, it also brought along its own challenges, as project lead Dr Jean Paul explained.

“Because of the nature of the project, there wasn’t a clearly-defined roadmap from the start. There were some high-level deadlines, but a lot of the project content was developed as we went along. This meant that a lot of flexibility was required from everyone. On top of that, we were working across time zones, with collaborators as far away as Australia, the UK, Austria and Pakistan. Everyone came with their own cultural background, expectations and work styles.”

Jean had foreseen some of the challenges that came with this setup, but as it was her first time leading a project of this level of complexity, she also ran into some unexpected issues. “Being a dominant leader is not my style, so I tried to take a more gentle, supportive approach at first. However, due to the decentralised nature of the project and the different personalities involved, this created an at times tricky power dynamic.”

Ludwig Boltzmann Gesellschaft offered to invest in outside support to help improve the team dynamics and allow Jean to develop her leadership role. While some team members were hesitant about the need for outside intervention, most were willing to give it a try with an open mind. In the end, Black Gazelle brought support through an initial one-on-one conversation with Jean and several other team members, followed by two workshops as well as an observation some months later.


Finding common ground

The workshops were designed to help virtual teams define the issues they are facing in order to find solutions together. While these solutions are practical in nature, they address deeper interpersonal dynamics that play within a team and that can be exacerbated by the fact that all communication is virtual. “I underestimated beforehand how big of a role interpersonal dynamics play in the virtual space”, explained project coordinator Philipp Schöch. “Especially when everyone has different characters and work styles, it can be difficult to interpret each other’s expectations.”

The workshops helped the team to see that they are working towards a common goal. “Before, it was a bit difficult for me to feel like a real part of the team, because my role was not well defined”, research assistant Selcan Basli attested. “I felt a bit alone and left out. During the workshop I realised that actually, everyone had more or less the same worries and issues – we just had different ways of expressing them and of getting to the solution.” Co-investigator Dr Ingrid Zechmeister-Koss agreed: “The workshops were so helpful to learn together and to find some common ground.”


Finding solutions together

Once the team had shared their experiences and pinpointed their issues, they agreed on solutions that were condensed into a team charter, which served as the basis for all communication going forward. “This charter was very helpful, because now we have something that actually underpins the way we work”, Jean explained. “It has also been very useful when onboarding new team members.”

Some of the solutions suggested by Black Gazelle came as a surprise to the participants, like the idea to turn off video cameras during meetings. “It’s almost shocking to work with audio alone when you’re so used to having video on, but once you learn how to really listen, it actually becomes easier to focus”, explained Selcan. Ingrid agreed: “It’s very unusual, but when you all agree, it really works. This shows that coming up with agreements together is more effective than having them imposed from outside.”

Another solution the team implemented was to have predefined roles in meetings that are rotated each time, like a meeting leader, a facilitator, and someone who takes minutes. As expected, not everyone has the same preferences: Ingrid and Selcan both like taking notes, while Philipp finds it very challenging. Ingrid and Selcan, in turn, struggle with the facilitator role. However, they all agree that rotating position helps to level the playing field. It decentralizes the power and allows for equity within the team. 

Some of the other tools suggested by Black Gazelle are also still in use within the team. Philipp felt that the focus exercise before meetings really helps him to be more present in the conversation, while Selcan found the distinction between thinking, feeling and sensing very useful. “I didn’t expect to learn so much about listening to myself as well as others.”


Lasting effects

The team all agree that the workshops had a deep impact on the way they work together. “Having Ghislaine come back to observe us in action a few months later was really helpful”, said Ingrid. “That way we had time to make these new habits our own, but we also had some accountability to keep using our charter.” Sticking to this charter is not always easy. “You have to be willing to be very open about everything you are doing, which can be tricky”, explained Selcan. “But it really helps to achieve trust and transparency when you can put it into practice.”

Team leader Jean was also very pleased with the results. “The Black Gazelle workshops offered a balance of practical solutions and deep dynamic work around power, interpersonal relationships and different personalities”, she concluded. “These differences can be more challenging in the virtual space, but the workshops taught us how to present ourselves within a virtual context to communicate with more clarity, and to listen out for what is not being said. Today we are always still learning, and our teamwork has improved dramatically with this intervention.”