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National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis

Accelerating discovery beyond the office

Resources to improve virtual collaboration

At NCEAS we work to accelerate the process of discovery for others while also building and supporting diverse communities to engage in that process.  From our flagship approach of small-team working groups, to engaging and growing communities of practice, to supporting our resident community, we are committed to making the research experience effective, efficient, and inclusive.

Even before the advent of the COVID19 pandemic we were active in supporting remote participation and collaboration; the need for this support and the opportunity for creative solutions to virtual collaboration are all the more pressing now. Our aim with the list of resources below is to summarize and provide access to a variety of resources, lessons learned, and planned activities that help make virtual collaboration better, primarily within the working model and context of NCEAS and in particular when teams are spread across many institutions with different cultures, practices and available tools. Many of these activities and resources offer guidance that is relevant to all types of collaboration. Most of them additionally help create more diverse and inclusive environments. This is a living document and we will continue to add resources as we find and develop them.

Resources to improve virtual collaboration

Virtual participation comes in many flavors, from a single person calling in to an otherwise in-person meeting, to hybrid meetings that have a mix of in-person and remote participation, to fully virtual meetings. There is often a combination of these modes at different points within the timeline of a project. Most of the resources and practices below are relevant to any of these situations.

A lot has been written on how to run effective virtual conferences; a great starter resource is here from the Association for Computing Machinery. At the bottom of this page we provide links to some of our other favorite resources. 

We have catalogued a host of best practices for virtual meetings and associated advice and resources to implement those best practices here. They include topics such as:

  • Addressing low bandwidth or connectivity issues
  • Accommodating time zone differences
  • Universal design for accommodating differing abilities (low vision, closed captioning, etc.)
  • Creating effective virtual meeting agendas
  • Collaborative note taking
  • Document sharing
  • Increasing interactivity for all thinking modes
  • Technology primers (Zoom, Slack, Google Drive)

Resources NCEAS offers for working groups

The working group model of research is intentionally designed to be punctuated with in-person meetings over the 1-2 year span of the project. To further accelerate this creative process of discovery, we aim to support teams before, between, and after their in person meetings.

Since participants joining our cross-sectoral and multidisciplinary working groups are coming from various institutions and often use different collaborative tools, we aim to support the teams and create a virtual collaborative environment that works for all participants to share and centralize information for their project. These resources include:

  • Running an effective working group: with 25 years of experience hosting working groups, we’ve compiled a set of advice and resources for how to make a group run as effectively as possible in our Guidance for Collaborative Synthesis Science Working Groups.
  • Welcome call: when your project is first funded, we will give the PIs a call to talk through expectations for how the process works, provide some advice, and answer any questions.
  • Facilitation support: we have trained facilitators available to support virtual, in-person, and hybrid meetings when needed and included in a working group’s budget.
  • Project Management: we offer software and guidance to enable you to track tasks and progress as a collaborative team. NCEAS can set up (private) Github repositories to help centralize communication and management of code and tasks.
  • Meeting rooms: NCEAS’s facilities are well equipped for virtual participation
  • Document sharing: we provide cloud storage solutions to quickly share documents and collaboratively create and edit notes during meetings. NCEAS uses Google Drive for these types of collaborations and can set up a shared drive for your group. See our NCEAS Google Drive Cheat Sheet here. 
  • Computing: we are able to provide groups with access to our analytical servers which can accelerate research that is difficult or impossible on personal computers. 
  • Analytical support: NCEAS has a dedicated data science support team that can assist working groups between meetings with tasks such as data harmonization (organizing and assembling heterogeneous and messy data sets), support with specific data analysis (text mining, web scraping, etc.) and modeling, and scaling your analysis (multiprocessing, code optimization, etc.). Read more about our programming support.
  • Collaborative code development: We can provide your team with the platforms and guidance to systematically record changes to your code using version control and share your code using cloud development platforms. Depending on your team needs, NCEAS can get you set up with or GitHub Enterprise repositories and can help get you started using these tools.
  • Internal communication: NCEAS can set up mailing lists, chat rooms, and video conferencing capabilities for regular team check ins and virtual meetings.
  • External communication: NCEAS Communication team can help you promote and communicate products and results from research.
  • Data life cycle: we are leaders in developing processes to best assist scientists with data collection, harmonization, analysis, and preservation, and can help you archive your information via shared directories on NCEAS analytical servers and data repositories. 
  • Results sharing: NCEAS can help you share your results in the ways that best fit your project from spreadsheets to webpages, and interactive webtools. NCEAS can also help you with Rmarkdown websites and Shiny applications to encourage broader interaction with your results.

Leveraging the liabilities of virtual collaboration 

Some things are actually better done virtually. At NCEAS we are working to take advantage of these unique opportunities. Unique benefits of virtual collaboration include:

  • Leverage different time zones or work days for asynchronous contribution. This is already the default for most distributed teams, but this can be coordinated to allow for rapid progress.  For example, a manuscript can be drafted in a very short time. We are developing a guidance for how to run a manuscript marathon relay; stay tuned!
  • Leverage different thinking styles. Group brainstorming activities can benefit from some time to review others’ ideas and reflect on them before adding/supplementing with your own (solution development, ideation).
  • Efficiency. Without travel commitments, all time used to meet remotely is dedicated to moving the scientific process forward, and smaller time commitments can be made (hours not days) to allow for shorter bursts of productivity
  • Build community. Allows opportunities to engage people that otherwise don’t normally connect, and in new ways. 
  • Allow for more diverse and inclusive participation, including participants without travel support, or with non-negotiable caregiving commitments.

Other resources