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To Be (in Person) or Not To Be? Helping Faculty Rebuild Community

Last week, I was coaching four mid-career faculty in a small office suite located directly across from the railroad on West Main Street. It was the second meeting for this group of coachees, who had been strangers to one another just a few weeks prior. I was happy to see how comfortable they already felt sharing professional aspirations and challenges. 

That day, we kept returning to the concept of “sphere of control,” whether the challenge related to balancing multiple time-intensive commitments, bolstering confidence in relationships with more senior colleagues, or navigating organizational changes.

In other words, what about this situation do you have the power to change? What would it look like to focus your energy on that particular thing? 

A train roared past. “Just one more thing out of our control,” one member of our group observed, as the blaring horn receded. We all laughed, surprised by how even a small annoyance could look different with a coaching mindset.

Until recently, our session would have taken place over Zoom. No freight train would have distracted us, but there would have been other barriers to focused inquiry — technology issues, camera-loving cats, adorable toddlers. There would have been no informal conversations before or after the meeting. Relationships may have formed more slowly, contributing to fewer candid disclosures and a slightly lower level of trust. 

While I can coach effectively in a virtual format, I’ve noticed that Zoom sessions tend to feel more transactional. There’s nothing wrong with that. My role in those conversations is that of professional coach, and the role typically ends with the final session. 

Yet as a member of the Duke community and program director in the Office for Faculty Advancement, I also value my relationships with colleagues. And for some reason, the relationships I’ve formed through in-person coaching tend to have more staying power. I enjoy following up after the sessions end, sometimes over lunch or coffee. It’s a natural extension of our habit of meeting regularly in person. 

As I encounter more faculty interested in coaching in person, I realize that I am not alone in trying to reinforce practices conducive to community-building. But it is difficult. While we are all different people with different work preferences, research can help us see what our common needs might be. 

According to neuroscientist David Rock, the human brain is hard-wired to seek out rewards in five key domains, including autonomy and relatedness (read about all five here). What does that look like in the workplace? 

It means that people feel the greatest satisfaction and competence when they have autonomy over their work. Not everyone has the privilege of choosing where to work. But if you have that privilege and opt to work from home sometimes, it generates instant, short-term rewards in the domain of autonomy. Yet if we work remotely all the time, we may also start feeling a bit lonely. Following Rock’s model, we’ve neglected another set of workplace needs, under the domain of relatedness. Relationships take time to build (while the joy of working alongside your dog is instantaneous), so it may be harder to feel motivated to change habits in this area. 

One powerful strategy in changing habits is to set yourself up for success. In other words, how can you minimize the resistance you will likely encounter in trying to change a habit? 

For example, if you decide to attend a meeting in person, you will need to locate the building (possibly in an unfamiliar part of campus), figure out where to park your car, maybe pay for parking, and possibly walk a long distance from the lot or garage to the unfamiliar spot. That is a good deal of resistance, and not much in your control. How often do you have control over where meetings get called, how the campus is laid out or where you are allowed to park? 

Despite the challenges, our team in the Office for Faculty Advancement is committed to supporting your community-building habits this year. And we’ve been thoughtful about helping you overcome the usual barriers to in-person meetings.


Know that we are delighted to meet with any of you in person. We’re available for in-person consultations by appointment, and we’re also offering many more in-person events across our Faculty Advancement & Success and Leading an Academic Unit at Duke series. 

Location #1

The Office for Faculty Advancement is centrally located in Allen Building on West Campus (suite 101) — the building with the flagpoles out front. 

Location #2

Our new satellite office in Grey Building, 2020 West Main Street (adjoining East Campus) is primarily used for coaching, but you can request a meeting with anyone on our team for that location.


And what’s the advantage of the West Main Street location? Free parking, steps away from the front door. 

Also, freight trains! Come watch the trains with us, as we discuss your faculty career.

Interested in group coaching? Watch our newsletter for a registration announcement in mid-November. The theme for spring groups is “Starting Something New.” If you are a new faculty member, newly promoted or tenured faculty, or facing a new professional challenge—this program is for you!

Watch Carrboro native Elizabeth Cotten perform her classic song, “Freight Train.”

Caption for main image: Maria LaMonaca Wisdom, director of faculty coaching and mentoring programs, takes a selfie outside the Grey Building.