How can we organise team building and brainstorming online in times of corona?

How can we organise team building and brainstorming online in times of corona?

The CWTS solution to this question: organise an online retreat. Last year, CWTS organised its research retreat off-site in Noord-Brabant. This year, due to the pandemic, we organised an alternative. This even brought us to Thailand - virtually, of course. In this post, we share our experiences.

Online or offline?

Where to begin? In the spring of this year – right as Europe’s “first wave” hit – we started thinking about how to organise our second-ever research retreat. We considered several options. The preference was to once again organise the research retreat on the location of a beautiful repurposed monastery in the province of Noord-Brabant, like it was last year, this time keeping the 1.5 metres distance rule in mind.

By the time summer came around, it was clear that this idea was no longer feasible, the Netherlands now very much in the shadow of a rising infection rate. This meant that it was time for plan B: organising the retreat in a combination of so-called city hubs and online hubs. In cities where multiple colleagues live (or: live close by) colleagues could come together for the retreat. For the ones who wouldn’t feel comfortable meeting in-person, online hubs would be created.

At the end of summer, it turned out that meeting in city hubs wouldn’t be possible either, this time with rising infection rates accompanied by a partial nationwide lockdown. That’s when we, at the last possible moment, decided to go for plan C: organising the retreat completely online. This online retreat was divided over two days: on Thursday afternoon we organised an informal session where all our colleagues could join in on the fun. The next morning researchers of CWTS came together for an online Quackathon organised by Vincent Traag and Wolfgang Kaltenbrunner, allowing researchers to collaborate with colleagues outside of their usual circles and develop mixed methods approaches to a particular issue, in this case open science. Fortunately, this was experienced as a good alternative by at least one of our colleagues:

“We spent last year’s retreat near the border with Belgium. This year we went fully online, and while I did miss having all colleagues in one place, it worked quite well. Thanks in large part to a great organizing team! One thing I loved is how the Quackathon enabled us to work with others in CWTS we don’t normally get a chance to engage with in a joint project because of time constraints. Though last year we were more flexible in moving around between groups, tables and flip-overs, we also made it work online and I truly enjoyed it.”

Offline travelling: to colleagues’ living rooms and Thailand

For the informal part of the retreat we asked participants beforehand to send a picture of their living room to one of the organisers. The first part of the retreat consisted of a quiz in which participants were asked to match the pictures of the living room to the right colleague. Spending much more time at home than usual, this seemed a nice way to get to know our colleagues better. This was easier said than done, of course, with some colleagues having more instantaneously recognizable surroundings than others.

Figure 1. Concentration during the quiz “Which living room belongs to whom?”

After this quiz, we moved on to an online escape room that we played in smaller groups. In this game, a private school’s employee went missing and we had to find out where he was. He turned out to be in Thailand! The pictures of Thailand made some colleagues long for a holiday far away. One of our groups was incredibly quick and even achieved an all-time high score. The online escape room was received differently by our colleagues. Sometimes it was a challenge to connect to each other online and solve a puzzle together. After each group finished the escape room, the informal part of the retreat finished. From the feedback round it appeared that it would have been nice to have an online drink together as well, so that’s something we should definitely do next time! Still, being able to attend such an event in-person would have been the preferred option, especially because of the difficulty of one-on-one social interactions and getting to know (new) colleagues in digital formats. As one of our colleagues summarises:

“The online retreat was a great way for getting this community feeling again – and you could really feel how everyone was excited about this experience. But it was also a bit disappointing when the session was over and one had to face the actual distance again.”

Quackathon: the best of several (research) worlds

Friday was the day of the Quackathon! A favourite from the previous year, most researchers looked forward to trying it again, this time online. A Quackathon is a sort of online pressure cooker where no information is provided beforehand, which can be especially challenging for research tasks which necessitate extensive reading in order to gather relevant information. However, putting together colleagues who either do more quantitative or more qualitative research also offered learning opportunities. For instance, one of our colleagues learned how to do qualitative coding in a very short time amount. As the next blogposts about the research retreat will show, this is exactly why we spend time on events like the Quackathon, designed to push us beyond our intellectual comfort zones. As an institute where so many different types of research come together, we must take the time to learn something from each other.


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