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Virtual Teams and Clinical Data Management

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Earlier this week, Patti Arsenault, Cytel’s Global Head of Clinical Data Management, sat on an SCDM panel with members of Gilead and Westat. The panel partook in an interactive discussion on both the opportunities and challenges which arise from managing virtual teams.

As teams become more global in nature – optimizing delivery by around the clock work hours –many have weighed in on the best way to manage virtual teams. Unfortunately, there seems to be very little agreement on such best practices. The panel provided insights from industry leaders in clinical data management, and then invited audience members to share their experiences.

The lack of agreement on best practices for virtual team leaders is not so much a reflection of disagreement, as the number of potential challenges that can arise and the choice of where to focus. For example, both Forbes and the Harvard Business Review have top 10 lists of integral virtual management skills, and (at least in our experience), when taken together the lists appear to offer 20 amazing ways to deliver as a virtual leader. However, there is only one top management technique on which they agree: Investment in some non-virtual face-to-face communication so that employees feel neither isolated nor uncomfortable with their team members (Forbes Tip 1 and Tip 4, HBR Point 1).

The Forbes list offers four appealing strategies for virtual socialization including virtual reward ceremonies for improved team bonding Tip 5 and the importance of encouraging informal conversations Tip 3By contrast the HBR list names only one socialization strategy (7: Create a Virtual Water Cooler) which suggests having virtual team building exercises to keep task-centered meetings more fun.    

The Top 10 list from the Harvard Business Review focuses five of its ten strategies for effective virtual management, on ways in which communication can go awry when working with virtual teams. These include the underspecification of tasks leading to poor coordination (HBR Tips 2 and 8), the absence of a precise language for words and phrases that are key to project success (HBR 5), the distractions from background noise and other sources which might raise the need for a communcation charter (HBR Point 3), and the need for quality communication technology (HBR Point 4)

As mentioned above, all of these strategies are instrumental for solid leadership, virtual or otherwise. However, the approach taken by the SCDM panel was slightly different.

Firstly, the panel focused on potential challenges arising within data management. By focusing within one sector, it also had the opportunity to assess whether benefits might arise from having a virtual team instead of a localized one. Are there problems we confront in data management, which a virtual team might be better equipped to handle?  

Secondly, teams coalesce best by being given the best chance to do so. Cytel for example, prides itself on having a very low turnover rate, ensuring that our teams have experience working together (as a team) for extended periods of time. The bonding, the socialization, the language all fall into place over time and through repeated efforts at collaboration. Needless to say, coordination often normalizes after team members work on multiple projects together over the course of several years. 

Finally, the panel also spent time discussing the pros and cons of virtual management, from the perspective of an employee. How do managers ensure that team members want to be a part of the team and stay a part of the team? Are these the same reasons  that a manager might have for wanting his or her team to work in a particular way? The employee-centered focus helps reconceptualize what a manager's task and style ought to be, and how to approach a range of problems that might arise. 


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