How can virtual tools support a team of international researchers amid the Covid-19 pandemic?

The 2019 Covid-19 pandemic is forcing humanity to develop adaptive measures for communicating, and virtual platforms have become the standard mode for personal and professional communication globally. This has been the case for a team of 60 international researchers, from Europe and Africa, collaborating on the interdisciplinary project BRECcIA addressing food and water security in sub-Saharan Africa. As with many international research projects, face-to-face meetings are vital to support collaborative and innovative team working; but Covid_19 has forced BRECcIA to embrace technology more than ever and as the only option for collaboration. Due to the pandemic, a two-week’s face-to-face workshop had to be transformed into a virtual one, rapidly. Initially, most researchers were sceptical about this decision: How can a virtual interaction be as effective as an in-person meeting? Can it be sustained for 2 weeks? How can technological challenges be addressed to guarantee equitable participation from both Europe and Africa? Below, we share some lessons learned from this experience which can be useful for other for international research teams.

  1. Plan yet be flexible. Power disruptions and internet instability are a challenge for many developing countries; establishing alternative modes of communication, or back-channels, are vital to ensure participation despite technical challenges. Mix on-line group and off-line individual activities; record sessions and take minutes for participants to visit later. Allow for parallel use of alternative communication platforms (such as emails or WhatsApp).
  2. Budget to level technology disparity. Poor internet connectivity undoubtedly hinders participation. Adjusting research budgets to ensure participants have secure internet connectivity might be necessary; indicating that research investments particularly in ICT are key to success. Dedicated rooms such as boardrooms are useful for local small group online participation, whenever possible.
  3. Make sessions inclusive and diverse. Familiarise participants/audience with tools and software, including back-up channels, from the outset. Plan short and highly interactive sessions where everyone is encouraged to participate; long presentations are boring for participants online. If participants have a range of backgrounds, include diverse content i.e. introductory levels, theoretical models, technical sessions, and practical experiences – assume nothing. Make use of the many interactive online tools to encourage feedback and inclusion.
  4. Sustain participant motivation. A willingness and commitment to work online are particularly important. Whilst the nature of collaborative work requires continued communication and adaptability, participants will need to make every effort to realise tangible results online and may need to adjust their personal objectives to benefit the research and aims of the group.
  5. Actively overcome virtual fatigue. Prolonged on-line meetings can be very tiring as they usually require additional effort to focus on verbal communication only. It may be difficult to rely on body language and facial expression as an additional means of communication – exacerbated by poor connectivity. Plan for multiple breaks and activities to facilitate human and emotional contact between the participants. Fun activities as games or round of video waves will help sustain motivation and feeling connected (not only virtually).

Although the two-weeks period seemed awfully long and fatiguing to commit to from day one, some in-built personal motivation makes it worthwhile. Self-discipline, commitment to work and maintaining an open mind contributes positively. Covid_19 has clearly interrupted international research projects and presents a challenge, yet with new approaches and awareness, virtual collaborative working is not only possible – it can work!


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