'Dumbbell' Virtual Team Management

When do virtual meeting suffice and when are in-person meetings essential. The answer looks something like the shape of a dumbbell.

Graduate students and health professionals enrolled in our course in bioentrepreneurship at the Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado are required to break up into project teams the first week of class. The group project team assignment is to pick a biomedical or clinical innovation opportunity, and on the last day of class, give a 20-minute presentation describing 1) their proposed solution, 2) a commercial or rollout feasibility assessment, 3) a risk evaluation and mitigation strategy, and 4) whether they want to kill the idea and why or further develop it and move to next steps. Over the next 15 weeks, we provide them with information they will need to apply to completing the assignment.

Generally, half of the students are “biomedical science and engineering geeks” and other half are business students. Most are working adults so, for the most part, teams have to function virtually. Many seem to struggle not only with overcoming the dysfunctions of creative teams, but also tele-working.

The productivity of workers who work from home versus those who work face-to-face in a traditional office setting seems to depend on the tasks. More rote or “robotic” work lends itself to a tele-setting. More creative, collaborative, or problem-solving work requires face time.

Students frequently comment that they could not have met the deadlines if they did not meet face to face, particularly in the early planning, creative, and decision-making phases, and at the end when they needed to tie up the loose ends and package the deliverable. I call it the “dumbbell model.”

We are challenging students to not only internalize the knowledge, skills and attitudes they will need to get an idea to patients, but also the soft skills, like virtual team-building, that employers tell us they want from our graduates. Whether they use this training once they get a job remains to be seen. When it comes to telecommuting, employers tell us one thing but do another.