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December 15, 2021

ICOM VoicesHow It Started, How It’s Going: Building & Sustaining A Virtual Team

Shaikha Al Thani; Eileen Willis

Director of Digital Experience, Qatar Museums; Head of Digital Content, Qatar Museums

Keywords: Remote; Recruiting; Managing; Team-building; Work-life balance; Working conditions.

Recruiting the team

In March 2020, on the cusp of the global lockdown, Qatar Museums (QM) embarked on an ambitious plan to build a Digital Experience team to meet the growing needs of the cultural organisations under its purview, with the primary goal of increasing access to and awareness of their offerings to local and international audiences through digital channels. The new team would be tasked with articulating and implementing a cohesive digital strategy across several entities, which are recognised as leaders in the field regionally and internationally, starting with the redevelopment and relaunch of multiple websites.

Based in Doha, Qatar, QM took a two-pronged approach to building the team, with both international and local recruitment campaigns. Through networking, posting on various channels and outreach to local universities, a large portion of the team was selected within a few months and ready to start in early November 2020.


Like almost every other cultural institution in the world, Qatar Museums was plunged into remote work essentially overnight. As a digital department, we were well positioned to fulfill our duties entirely online, and working remotely has not impacted our productivity. What made the initial process unusual was the fact that the entire team was brand new and did not have a chance to meet in person. In addition, the design and user experience (UX) consultants that QM had already hired to work on the website redevelopment projects did not have the opportunity to travel to Doha to visit the museums or meet the team on site. Creating a cohesive and collaborative team required creativity, flexibility and patience: useful qualities in any situation, but especially so during a pandemic.

It was therefore important to take a step back and remember the intention behind new employees’ orientation and training, or onboarding – that is to say, helping new team members to feel comfortable and excited about the people, the place and the work.

Our onboarding plan included three elements:

  1. In the first several weeks of the new team members’ start date, we organised online introductory meetings with relevant colleagues from across Qatar Museums, who very generously provided overviews of their teams and their work.
  2. Tours of each of the museums and gallery spaces were given. Since the team could not all get together in person, this required a hybrid solution with some people attending in person and others being shown around virtually through a handheld phone screen.
  3. Finally, within the team itself, we introduced a virtual ice breaker. Using a pecha kucha format, each team member introduced themselves with a set of 15 slides (images only), and 20 seconds per slide. It was a highly effective and efficient way to get to know 13 people, and some of their pets!

The ‘new normal’ = The ‘new flexibility’

The team has now been working together for nearly a year. During that time, due to the changes in public health guidelines regarding on-site work, travel restrictions, and the opening and closing of our museums and public spaces, the team has navigated working from multiple time zones (Doha, London, Amsterdam, New York City, San Francisco) and in multiple languages: the Qatar Museums’ website content is in both English and Arabic. We have also successfully relaunched, the first of several websites in our redevelopment project.

Adjusting to the rules of the pandemic for both internal workflows and in terms of communicating to the public has enabled us to grow from the start as an agile, flexible team that is mindful of both our visitors’ needs and the importance of work-life balance for staff.

The following lessons we learned from this experience will help us to adapt to a ‘new normal’ and remain committed to creating and supporting a healthy workplace culture:

  • Be bold

Moving forward with plans to create a new digital team and develop major new projects in the middle of a global pandemic required a bold vision and a willingness to try new ways of thinking and new ways of working. This is a quality that will serve us well for years to come.

  • Be human

Boldness requires humanity. Stress caused by the pandemic was significant and fluctuated constantly, affecting each team member differently depending on their individual situation and location. In addition, numerous socio-political events in 2020, at local and international levels, affected members of the team. Being sensitive to colleagues’ everyday lives outside of work is something that leaders especially need to remember in order to build healthy, productive and collaborative teams.

  • Act now, but think long term

Even under regular circumstances, when it comes to creating and supporting teams, it is important to develop a healthy mix of action and planning. We built this team during a crisis, but not in reaction to a crisis. Our big-picture goal of articulating and implementing a cohesive digital strategy did not change. So yes, take action, but always in the direction that you want to grow.

Looking ahead

As the team is approaching the conclusion of its first year together, we have settled into a comfortable rhythm of weekly team meetings combined with one-on-one conversations on a monthly basis so everyone has a chance to communicate with each other and with their direct manager. Morning standup meetings with each member of the team help keep day-to-day operations running smoothly and ensure that there are no unresolved issues or questions left to linger. And, thanks to the lifting of travel restrictions, we will all be meeting in person as a group in late 2021. After navigating the stressful conditions of the past year, we are well prepared to meet future challenges together, as a team.

References and resources

First Qatar Museums website relaunched by the team:

Connolly, K. 2017. Qatar’s dynamic young artists showcased in major Berlin exhibition, The Guardian. Available at: