5 Tips for Being an Effective Member of a Virtual Community

by Randi Doyle, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at Minerva Schools | Mar 24, 2017

When I was eight years old, on a family trip to Disney’s Epcot Center, I vividly remember watching two animatronic children, one sitting in front of a computer in the United States and one in front of a computer in China. The voice-over explained, “One day, we will use computers and the internet to easily communicate with people all around the world.” At the time, this was unfathomable to me. Little did I know that the technology described there would one day completely shape my career as an academic.

During my last year of graduate study, where I trained as both a researcher and an educator, a fateful dinner at a conference led me to apply for a full-time faculty position at Minerva, a new university program with a mission to transform higher education. Minerva perfectly aligned with my own ideas about university education, so I accepted the teaching position and have never looked back. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about being part of a (mostly) virtual community. It’s taken some trial and error to figure out how to make the most of my experience as a remote employee, so in the interest of helping others, I want to share five of my key learnings.

1. Create a Dedicated Workspace

You have probably heard the phrase “your bedroom is a sanctuary,” but if you’re a remote employee, chances are your workspace is, too. During my time at Minerva, I have found it is incredibly important to define a consistent place for work. While sofas and overstuffed chairs are cozy, they are not great for long periods of focused work, especially on a computer. I find a desk to be more ergonomically sound and more practical: my class notes, readings, and notepads are all within arm’s reach. (It also doesn’t hurt that I look and feel more professorial when sitting at a desk.) More importantly, working in a home office instead of on the couch means I can close the door behind me, after a long day, and get that “leaving work” feeling.

2. Take Time to Regularly Connect with Colleagues

I worried that working remotely would be lonely. However, by regularly video conferencing with students, research assistants, other faculty members, and staff, I’ve developed many deep and meaningful relationships. Mandatory work meetings are undoubtedly useful, but I’ve found that our open, non-mandatory meeting at the end of each week — that faculty have taken to calling “The Lounge” — has proven to be every bit as important. Faculty can pop in and out of an existing meeting and stay for as long as they want. With no set agenda, the conversation can include anything from the weather in Budapest and Boston, lesson planning ideas, summer travel plans, or home renovations. On some occasions, kids or pets even make cameos.

It is hard to talk about life outside of work, as work is what connects us. But we try to take time to learn more about one another beyond our teaching positions. I consider myself lucky to work with such a talented and diverse group of scholars, and I’ve come to realize that they are also a down-to-earth, caring, understanding, open, and funny group; so funny. I think I have broken out in laughter, at least once, in every Lounge I have attended over the past two years. Taking time to get to know your colleagues, as much as possible, using video conferencing makes meeting in person all the more meaningful. Which brings me to my next tip…

3. Make the Most of Onsite Meetings

I am fortunate to meet with my colleagues twice per year and these gatherings have been invaluable. When you have an opportunity to meet with your colleagues in-person, take full advantage of it. During our gatherings, we take time to brainstorm about curriculum, participate in important training sessions, exchange research ideas, and explore opportunities for collaboration. However, I also jam-pack my schedule with informal breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. When walking around the city, I try to travel in groups or pairs; my goal is to avoid eating or walking alone during the entire on-site visit. Conversations with colleagues, while waiting at a crosswalk, eating burritos, or sipping wine are when the magic happens. We can relax, laugh, become engrossed in deep conversations, share our experiences teaching, researching, working remotely, balancing work and family, you name it. These informal connections are also where inside jokes are born, the ones that live on in our virtual meetings throughout the year.

If you’re lucky enough to travel through a colleague’s hometown for business or leisure, I highly recommend planning a dinner. I love meeting my colleagues’ wonderful families and friends because I learn more about them by seeing their life outside of work. As we continue to work together, I find it gets easier and easier to pick up where we left off the last time we were together in person.

4. Balance Your Work with the Rest of Life

I certainly recognize the importance of fostering meaningful relationships with my colleagues (see tips #2 and #3 above), but achieving a healthy work-life balance is also important to me — perhaps even more so because I work remotely. Now that I live and work in the same small town as my family and close friends, I am learning when I need to turn down an invitation to meet a looming deadline and when it is necessary to put my work away to make time for my husband, family, and close friends.

One thing I have found incredibly helpful is not checking my work email when I’m out of the house. Admittedly, this started by accident. I didn’t set up my work email account properly on my phone, so I could only receive emails when connected to wifi, which is typically when I’m at home. However, the blunder made me realize how nice it is not to have constant access to my inbox. I can go grocery shopping without standing in the frozen food section for 15 minutes emailing a student about proper APA formatting! Try it out for yourself. You may find that having those unconnected moments away allows you to better connect with your work when you’re back at it.

5. Look for Ways to Advance Your Career

Finding ways to pursue research while working remotely was very important to me. In fact, it was the only concern I had about my faculty position, prior to accepting it. When I was presented with the opportunity to apply for a research grant from Templeton World Charity Foundation, I had to consider what research I would conduct and how I would create my own independent lab, while teaching remotely. My final tip for remote workers is to explore all of the resources available on the internet. Maybe you can access relevant databases online that will help improve your work, or join communities through social media to connect you with others in your field. There are so many opportunities to be discovered!

In the end, the “remote by default” mindset at Minerva truly inspired my research proposal; if there exists technology to allow me to teach at a world-class institution, while living and traveling anywhere in the world, I knew it could help me conduct research, too. Using online data collection tools, like Amazon’s MTurk and online psychological tests, such as the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT), I was able to design an entire research program, studying gender differences in emotional intelligence, that can be conducted online. I am now in the process of hiring a research assistant and associate to join my lab (shameless plug: www.doylelab.ca), preparing for initial data collection, and designing new and inspiring studies I can conduct online.

It is astonishing to consider the technological advancements that made my career possible. (I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to thank Minerva’s outstanding Product team, which makes life in this virtual community so much easier!) I consider myself fortunate to have a fulfilling academic career while living in a small town on the East Coast of Canada. Now, more than ever, I am confident I am just scratching the surface of all the opportunities my virtual community has to offer.