From the Deputy Director for Intramural Research

Working Together while Staying Apart

Best Practices for “Virtual” Interactions

michael gottesman

All of us have been experiencing the isolation, anxiety, and frustrations of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. For most of us this is a stressful period, yet we still must carry on our interactions with our colleagues, now physically separated from us, using communication tools that may be unfamiliar and at times add additional stress. It is especially important that we continue to interact with each other in a civil and respectful manner.

Most of you are now teleworking. For some of you, it is just a matter of figuring out how to do your regular job from home. For many of our bench scientists and trainees, it is a matter of finding new ways to contribute to the biomedical-research enterprise. I am impressed with the professionalism that all of you have shown in adapting to this new normal. As the Deputy Director for Intramural Research and a lab chief in the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research, I am simultaneously dealing with both sets of challenges.

In my administrative role, I have been using multiple videoconferencing platforms with varying amounts of success. That said, I have observed a few promising practices for small group meetings (less than 15 people), such as staff meetings, in which there would normally be a lot of back and forth discussion. Civility and decorum are just as important online as they are in person. In my experience, civility and respect are practiced well at the NIH in the midst of this present crisis.

If bandwidth and privacy are not an issue, appear in person on video wherever possible. Visual cues and feedback, such as perplexed looks, raising your hand, or nods of agreement, can be important for meeting flow. Avoid the temptation to be too casual in a videoconference for work. At least wear your good sweatshirt. Try to be on time for videoconferences. It is a sign that you respect the time of others and avoids embarrassing and disruptive beeps in the middle of someone speaking. Please mute your microphone (or phone) when you are not speaking. Use a headset, if available, to reduce feedback and extraneous noise. When possible, have an agenda and stick to it. There should also be a clearly designated meeting moderator.

It is especially important during videoconferences that only one person speak at a time. Some videoconferencing systems automatically shift to the loudest voice. If this is a regular meeting, you should decide, as a group, the best way to ask a question. Options might include using the text or chat feature in your videoconferencing tool (highly recommended), using the raise-hand feature, or actually raising your hand, if you are sharing your video. When speaking for an extended period, pause every few minutes to check the text and chat messages and look at the people sharing their videos to see if anyone has a question or comment. If you are building on someone else’s idea, be sure to give them credit.

Say when you have finished talking so that others know it is their turn, particularly in large groups with no visual cues. I’ve heard several people simply say “Over” like an airline pilot when finished speaking—that is pretty clear and helpful.

A wise person once told me that the difference between good people and great people is what they do during their down time. I have advised my lab staff and trainees to use this time to read scientific papers, take online courses, update their CVs, design experiments, develop research plans, and write manuscripts. If you have not recently looked at our list of Scientific Interest Groups (SIGs), or other affinity groups, now is a good time to do so. These groups are great resources for networking, information sharing, and finding out about career and collaboration opportunities. Some of them continue to host seminars and other events online. Recently created SIGs include one devoted to COVID-19 research.

In addition, teleworking time can be used to binge watch archived videocasts of lectures from the Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series, Clinical Center Grand Rounds, Demystifying Medicine, and other lectures and conferences going back to 1993. Our Office of Intramural Training and Education also continues to host online events on topics relevant to career development and wellness.

Speaking of wellness, it is important to take care of yourselves. Try to build some physical activity into each day. Have regular breaks from screen time. Also remember that social distancing does not mean social isolation. Call friends or family just to say hello and let each other know how you are doing. I know how much a call from one of my children or grandchildren means to me.

Finally, if you need help, do not suffer in silence. There are many other groups at NIH (see list below) that are available to provide help with issues that might arise. We are all in this together, even if we are physically apart.

Other groups: