Can international research collaborations function effectively and efficiently when face-to-face meetings are constrained by a pandemic? Our recent experience launching a five-year collaborative project between the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) and the University of Maryland, College Park offers some useful lessons on opportunities and limitations.
When we wrote our funding proposal for a project investigating how marriage and kinship interact to impact child health in slum communities, the US-based team was expecting to travel to Kenya to hold meetings, conduct training sessions, and participate in data collection. When the project – Kinship, Marriage and Child Health Outcomes in Low Income Contexts – received funding from the National Institutes of Health in September 2020, the ‘New Normal’ tempered our excitement. COVID-19 prevention measures have resulted in movement restrictions for both teams.
How do we proceed with a project that had taken years of hard work to become a reality?
Virtual meetings to the rescue? Not entirely.
ZOOM has become a household name during the COVID-19 pandemic as it functions as the platform of choice for teaching, learning and collaboration. While we draw on our experience from an international collaboration, planning for and implementing data collection, many of the issues we raise are applicable to using ZOOM (or other virtual meeting spaces) for any purpose. We focus on three issues that are particularly critical for forming, facilitating and maintaining strong collaboration.
“Meeting” people virtually
In general, and not surprisingly, established relationships can transition more easily to virtual spaces compared to first-time meetings. In our experience, it was a little challenging trying to establish a rapport among people who were not familiar with each other. Moreover, differences in “cultural norms” around communication added another dimension to navigate. For example, when the US researchers “met” the field interviewers for the first time, the conversations were stilted it and questions hard in coming. Though this might also have happened even if the interaction had been in person but the virtual space perhaps exacerbated it.
Additionally, the virtual world presents challenges for presentation of self. Although this was not experienced among our team members, we tend to become careless about our appearance, our virtual background, habits and even gestures on ZOOM in ways that would be deemed inappropriate if meeting in person. This includes eating, drinking, and even dressing. The informality that has become so characteristic of virtual communication can be, at best, a distraction and at worst, unprofessional and embarrassing. It is incumbent upon the host to be more vigilant to ensure that everyone is participating and acting appropriately.
We held bi-weekly team meetings for ninety minutes that included anywhere from eight to 15 people, along with additional meetings for training interviewers that took place over a five-day continuous stretch. While all these meetings were most certainly necessary and were, for the most part productive, we were sensitive to ZOOM fatigue. Not unlike never ending in-person meetings, the frequency and length of ZOOM meetings should be considered carefully in order to maintain engagement and efficient use of time. We found that circulating an agenda with a limited number of issues ahead of time with links to relevant documents is critical.
While our meetings were “democratic” in the sense of open discussion, someone usually held the technological control in terms of sharing screens, admitting participants into meetings and muting as needed. We certainly learned the hard way that some of us are clearly more savvy with the technology than others. To avoid such problems, we recommend having at least two meeting hosts, which would also allow for less interruption of discussions should one host need to step away for a few minutes.
And what happens when microphones are and are not muted? The consequences of this scenario range from being cringe-worthy to outright embarrassing. We are in the process of cementing existing collaborations in this project thus comments made ‘behind one’s back’ may lead to the relationship becoming frosty with the immediate and lasting consequences of not meeting the objectives of the collaboration. The lesson here is that we need to exercise the same discipline that we would for in-person meetings.
The last issue in managing a ZOOM meeting successfully is connectivity. “Can you hear me?” “Can you see the shared screen?” “Is anybody there?” “We can’t hear you!” “Please unmute yourself!” These are common questions and statements that we hear resulting in disruption of meetings. Some of these are outside of our control particularly when people are located in areas with unreliable internet. However, there are two ways to address this: 1) switching to the chat function; and 2) switching off the video. Moreover, the chat function proved to be critical in conveying messages to the host while discussion is going on.
Managing Time and Time-Difference
Virtual meetings seem to take longer than face-to-face meetings. It’s either people joining late due to challenges like finding the link, connectivity issues or worse, forgetting about the meeting. Other reasons could be the need to explain a concept more clearly than needed if it was in- person. For example explaining the link between kinship support and kinship structure seemingly took longer than if this was explained face to face through interactions with one another or drawing of structures on the “blackboard”. Without planning well, virtual meetings risk running out of time, especially on platforms like Zoom that are time bound.
The lesson here is to plan more time for virtual meetings to avoid running out of time .
One unique aspect of international collaborations is the need to manage time differences across locales. In our case, it ranged from 6-7 hours with the training designed such that the APHRC team would conduct a set of activities that did not require the US researchers in the morning. This included going over informed consent, COVID protocols, identifying respondents, discussing Kiswahili translation issues and doing mock interviews. The US collaborators would then join the training via ZOOM for the second half (US morning/Nairobi afternoon).
While we managed this quite successfully for the most part, there were times when people missed the correct time leading to unnecessary delays and the loss of needed perspectives. Meeting organizers should clearly state the times in both zones in all communication and all participants should set the correct time zone on their ZOOM links.
There is no doubt that we could not have gotten as far as we have amidst this pandemic without virtual meetings. While the learning curve was steep – more for some than others – we have all learned a lot about research collaboration and the advantages and limits of doing so virtually. While we certainly look forward to meeting one another in person, we will continue to collaborate in the virtual space and share our experiences with the larger research community.
Prof. Sangeetha Madhavan from the University of Maryland’s Department of African American Studies is acknowledged as the main author of this article.