10 Tips for Succeeding in Virtual Teams

March 27, 2014

Almost all of the online courses I teach involve group work of some kind. Some groups thrive in their virtual teams and others fail miserably. After observing what works and what does not, here are ten tips to those who are new to online collaborative projects:

  1. Give one another the benefit of the doubt.
  2. Be kind to each other. Point out one another’s strengths.
  3. Refrain from commenting on each other’s weaknesses.
  4. When in doubt, assume good intentions. Tone is very difficult to “hear” in online communications. If you find yourself miffed or offended, take a step back. Are you sure that you are not making an assumption about the other person’s intention? Then ask yourself, “Is this really the hill I want to die on?” Forgiveness is important in virtual teams.
  5. Focus on supporting each other through the process.  No one gets left behind and if there’s an assigned leader, that person doesn’t forge too far ahead. Instead, keep the group together and moving forward.It’s a journey and your job is to make it up the mountain together.
  6. Be flexible with one another. Scheduling can be especially challenging in an online context. Change up the meeting times to accommodate people from different time zones. Don’t expect the same person to always get up at 2:00 a.m. for a meeting.
  7. Ask what you can do to help or what others need most from you. Don’t assume that your virtual team mates know your strengths.
  8. Avoid writing frustrations down and sharing them. If you need to work out issues, find a way to talk about it (e.g. Skype or phone).
  9. Sometimes you are right and sometimes you are wrong. It’s not about being right or wrong. It’s about working together.
  10. Everyone is responsible for making back-ups of the work along the way. If one person’s system crashes, they get a virus or their laptop is stolen, the other members of the team all have copies of the back-ups. Using online storage such as Dropbox or Google drive is a great idea, but it’s not the only idea. Back everything up.

Working in virtual teams can be challenging, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. With a bit of patience, common sense and a good sense of humour, you’ll be surprised how much you can achieve in a virtual team.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Inspiring: Schools in Australia join forces to rescue languages

February 9, 2012

Sarah Eaton, speaker, keynote, second languages, literacy, Canada, foreign languagesIs the language program at your school gasping for its last breath? If so, you are not alone. Language programs across the globe are suffering from decreased enrollments, diminished interest from students and perhaps most frustrating, lack of money to keep the program going.

Schools in Victoria, Australia, have banded together to turn all that around after enrollment in language programs plummeted in the area. The stats look something like this:

Primary students taking languages in Victoria, Australia

1999 – 89%

2010 – 69%

Secondary students taking languages in Victoria, Australia

1999 – 54%

2010 – 41%

That is an alarming drop in enrollment. The new program, Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), is slated to change all that. The initiative is so innovative, it made the local paper. The new program takes a content-based language teaching (CBLT) approach to second languages, teaching core subjects such as math, science and humanities in a second language. Schools will share resources and even share teachers, to ensure that children have access to the best quality learning experience possible.

The article reports that:

The government so far has funded 14 language clusters involving 102 primary and secondary schools across the state to trial the system over 18 months until the end of this year.

The languages chosen are Italian, Indonesian, German, Japanese, French, Chinese and Auslan, with schools offering one to three of those. Each cluster has a lead school that works to ensure standards are met and to co-ordinate the distribution of resources.

The government is also chipping in for 25 annual professional development scholarships for language teachers who want to upgrade their skills, and 45 scholarships for undergraduate students studying to become language teachers.

This is a brand new program, so there is no way to tell yet if it will be successful. What is inspiring though, is the collective commitment on the part of the schools and supported by the government, to make language learning a priority. The fact that they are also offering scholarships to teachers-in-training shows that they are not only thinking about today, but they are also thinking about tomorrow by investing in the education of aspiring language teachers.

Kudos to you, our friends in Victoria, Australia. You are finding creative ways to collaborate and turn a dismal and down-spiraling situation into inspired education for the 21st century.

Check out the original article, by Amanda Dunn, published in The Age.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

The effectiveness of enthusiastic fundraising

June 11, 2011

Pink RibbonA few weeks ago, a dear friend asked me if we’d like to attend a fundraising event being put on by her brother. He’s a super guy and is the manager of a local pharmacy. All the staff at his store decided to join in the Weekend to End Women’s Cancers. To raise money for the event, they held a fundraising dinner at a local pub. We bought tickets to the event and my friend, who has just started a business producing her own all natural beauty products donated items to their silent auction. I followed suit, and donated a coaching session on social media marketing for small business.

The event was brilliant! Over 80 people attended, over 30 silent auction items were donated (including one each from my friend and I) and there were over 25 door prizes. The energy in the room was incredible.

What struck me was that people were there mostly to have a good time and to socialize. Every single person there seemed to have someone else that they were cheering for. Good work is important, but it take good people, with good intentions to do that work.

It takes many hours to put together a fundraising event, especially when the people doing it aren’t fundraisers. But they were organized, energized, dedicated and sincerely committed to their work. Their passion was both effervescent and contagious. They use their personal leadership skills and collaborative teamwork to reach their goal. Personally, I much prefer fundraisers like that, where people are driven by their desire to come to together and fill a room with sincere enthusiasm, rather than those events where you stand around awkwardly with a glass of no-name chardonnay in one hand while you try to avoid noticing the cubes of cheese that are silently sweating on the plate in your other hand.

You don’t have to put on a big gala to raise money. A small group of people who are wildly enthusiastic, mobilized and organized can work wonders in garnering support of all kinds for their work.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

The 3 C’s of 21st Century Learning and Leading: Creativity, Collaboration and Capacity-Building

April 13, 2011

What are the skills needed for 21st century leaders? I’d argue that they’re the same skills needed for 21st century students and learners. Why? Because the students and learners of today are not only the leaders of tomorrow, but also the leaders of today. Notions of leadership are changing. The component of leadership that involves wisdom gained through life experience will always rest with those who have more of that experience. But young people are pushing the boundaries of technology and social change. Here are the three skills leaders of today – and tomorrow – need.

Sarah Eaton - blog - iStock photo


Leadership today need to be creative problem solvers. The issues that are arising challenge all that we know about the world and how to make it right. Authoritarian or cookie-cutter approaches to problem solving simply won’t work in the 21st century. Even the ability to “think outside the box” won’t be enough. Instead, learners and leaders will need to be able to say, “‘Box? There is no box.”

If you’ve seen the movie, The Matrix, you may remember a scene with the small boy who bends a spoon with nothing more than his mind. When Keanu Reeves’ character, Neo, asks him how he bent the spoon, the boy replies, “There is no spoon”. A similar idea of thinking beyond what we currently know to be possible will be a common characteristic of 21st century leaders. A creative and open mind will drive that ability.

Sarah Eaton - blog - group of children


Young learners and senior leaders alike need to know how to play well with others. We accomplish more when we work together. There needs to be trust, appreciation and a willingness to join forces and collaborate. Phrases such as, “Trust me… just do it my way.” or “Because I’m the boss and I say so!” just won’t cut it in this century.

In this century, everyone has the ability and capacity to be both a follower and a leader. Those who try to exert authority over others without their consent will not only be questioned, they’re likely to be shunned. Learning to appreciate others’ strengths won’t be enough… Learning how to leverage each other’s strengths will be a key to working together, creating new work, solving problems and achieving new goals.

Geographical boundaries have been almost completely transcended in the first decade of this century. In a few more decades, people won’t think twice about working with someone at a distance on a collaborative project. Those who don’t partner and collaborate effectively will be left behind. In a century driven by technology, people skills are – and will continue to be – more important than ever.


Twenty-first century leaders will have the ability to look at those around them and help them build their capacity in order to help them grown personally. That growth will add to the organizational growth. In addition to leveraging one’s current strengths, there will be a drive to explore and learn by doing.

This century, more than any other period in history is passionate about – even addicted to – creating new knowledge using technology, to inventing new and visionary projects and making things happen on a large – even global – scale. To do so, a dedication to lifelong learning not only for ourselves, but also for our colleagues, partners and team members will become the norm. Learning in a traditional classroom has already been extended to the Web, to podcasts, to television… Learning, professional development and continuous self-creation will happen almost any place, any time.

Each of us is both a learner and a leader in the 21st century. I, for one, believe in our collective potential and look forward to what we can create together.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Cold-Handed Collaboration: Why it Worked

January 17, 2011

When I talk about “cold-handed collaboration”, I mean it literally, not metaphorically. I live in a condominium townhouse in Calgary, Alberta. I’ve been on the board of directors for our condo association for three years now. I love working with other owners who live in our community on projects to improve the complex.

In Calgary there is a municipal recycling program, which means that the City will collect recycling from homes, just as it picks up garbage. The problem is that right now, that program does not extend to condominiums. We pay for private garbage pick-up in our complex, just as all condominiums in the city do.

Last year, we decided to bring recycling to our condo complex. We started with a pilot project. Four of the board members (including me) tested out the services of Harvest Recycling for a couple of months. At our regular board meetings we reported back with feedback. We were pleased with the results and decided to extend the program to the entire complex.

We arranged with Harvest Recycling to deliver bins to our complex, which would be paid for by the condominium corporation. Our plan was to deliver one bin to each house hold. Since the bins were paid for out of the “common pot” so to speak, one board member had the idea of writing the unit number of each house on the bins. We agreed this was a good idea.

We sent letters to every unit, with details of the new program and how to participate.

We arranged with the company to purchase and drop off the bins for us. We agreed to make time in our schedules to deliver the bins to each unit, writing the house number on each bin as we went along. One board member bought markers to tag the bins.

The bins arrived on Saturday. For those of you who don’t live in Calgary, we’ve been having a bit of a cold snap lately. On Saturday, the temperature was -23 C (that’s -9 Farenheit). Once you factored in the wind chill, it felt like -30C (that’s -22 Farenheit).

Jan 15 2011 weather

The truck arrived with the big blue bins. Not only did they need to be delivered, they needed to be assembled. The lids came separately from the bins. We had to snap a lid on to each bin, deliver it to a unit and tag the bin with the unit number.

Five board members and one other volunteer all bundled up and went outside into the frigid temperatures to tackle the project. As I reflect on this, I can see some reasons why it worked so well:

We made a commitment

We had previously agreed to work together on the day the bins were delivered. We had no idea that it would be so cold on Saturday, but we had all said we would be there.

We kept our word

Despite the cold, no one reneged on their commitment. I don’t think any of us particularly wanted to be doing our volunteer work outside that day, but we did it anyway. We had an agreement and we kept it.

We had a purpose

We were committed not only to our date and time, but also to our recycling project. We had been talking about it for months at our board meetings, working on our pilot project for several weeks and we knew that we wanted this.

We worked together

When you’re outside in -30 Celcius windchill, there isn’t much point in standing around. You stay much warmer if you keep moving. We hustled. We collaborated. We figured out what had to be done and we did it.

We grumbled, but not about each other

Really, how could you not complain about the cold? We commiserated about the weather and fantasized about summer coming. There’s a difference between being a complainer and commiserating. The complainer stands out by being grouchy when no one else is. Commiserating, on the other hand, actually means “to be miserable together”. We bonded through a shared (and thankfully, temporary) experience. We were in it together, by choice – and that didn’t change the fact that it was freezing outside.

We socialized

All work and no play makes for miserable working conditions. We took the opportunity to chat as we worked, catching up with one another. It made the time pass faster and gave us a chance to bond on a personal level, too. We laughed. We smiled. We joked about our eyelashes freezing. We had a good time. A few of the neighbors who saw us working said hello and we chatted about the recyling program that will start next week.

We took breaks

There was no one cracking a whip out there in the cold. As directors of the board, we all have leadership positions and we’re all adults. When one person said, “I’m going to go inside and put on some long underwear”, we saw the good sense in that. Someone else chimed in and said, “Why don’t we all go inside for a few minutes and warm up?” Heads in hoods, toques and other hats nodded in agreement. Within a few minutes, three of us sat in my kitchen drinking warm chai lattes and hot chocolate. We reconvened after our break, during which many of us had donned additional clothing.

We acknowledged a job well done

At the end of it all, we acknowledged the efforts of the others by saying things like “Good job, guys!” or “Nice work, team!” The acknowledgment was brief and sincere. That’s all it needed to be. Then we all returned to our respective homes to warm up and carry on with our day.

To do the job alone would have been utter misery. To collaborate and have six of us working together was effective and efficient. By the end of it all, we had cold-hands, but warm hearts, as they say.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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