My bags are packed and I’m ready to go – back to work

Hybrid working may suit some disciplines, but Gary Macfarlane fears that the convenience will come at the cost of creativity and collegiality

June 6, 2021
A man leaves home with a suitcase and a surgical mask
Source: iStock

As Covid infection rates decline in some countries, the prospect of returning to campus will no doubt elicit the full range of emotions among university staff, from delight to outright horror.

The experience of working from home during lockdowns has varied according to the work people do and their personal circumstances. While some have welcomed the absence of a commute and the opportunity to spend more time with their families, others have struggled with unsuitable home set-ups and a sense of isolation.

We have learned from lots of “research” over the past year (although often by companies with a vested interest in “new ways of working”) that people generally like the flexibility of homeworking, and many report having been more productive – although, in the academy, productivity is notoriously difficult to measure.

Overall, professional staff seem keen to continue with hybrid working – and universities look likely to grant it. Yes, the IT systems to support remote working come with a cost, but this will be more than compensated for by reduced estate and maintenance costs; those who only occasionally visit do not need their own exclusive offices, for instance. Reduced commuting will also make it easier to meet climate change targets.

Moreover, if there is an opportunity to work predominantly remotely, this could widen the pool of research staff available to universities, particularly those located further from major population centres – even if, by the same token, digital mobility may also make staff retention harder.

But, clearly, hybrid working will not work for every research discipline. While mathematicians may be able to work well remotely, that will not be true of laboratory-based scientists or some in the arts and humanities.

Moreover, for those disciplines where hybrid working does become a permanent arrangement, maintaining the cohesion and vibrancy of the research group and the wider department or division will become a major headache. As a principal investigator and a dean of research, this is what is foremost in my thinking about how we should proceed.

For instance, while attending the department’s weekly seminar might on occasion have felt like an irksome obligation, such institutional set pieces do help to maintain a sense of group identity, as well as integrate new and junior researchers into the department. Those working remotely will have a greatly increased choice of seminars, nationally and internationally, many of which will be more directly relevant to their work. This might make departments more outward looking by facilitating the formation of distributed, topic-focused groupings, but it also risks the loosening of links with neighbouring researchers and departments.

Local links, of course, go well beyond the academic. And with the increasing recognition of the importance of place in relation to universities’ activities, we need to ensure we remain connected to stakeholders in our locality (face to face or remotely), continuing to address their priorities even if our staff are less often there in person.

It will be particularly challenging for deans and heads of department to manage situations in which some research group members are in the office while others are at home. Many of us will have experienced how much more difficult it is to influence a meeting when you are on a computer screen rather than physically there. You miss out on the non-verbal communication and find it difficult to “read a room”. You also miss out on the pre- and post-meeting catch-ups with colleagues.

Routine departmental meetings will probably work well enough remotely, but face-to-face meetings will still be required, in my view, for work that depends on a more involved form of interaction, such as strategy and ideas generation. Indeed, physical proximity is often hailed for facilitating the chance encounters that are key to successful research. We will need to re-imagine the space available to people when they are on campus to maximise the opportunity for such “water-cooler moments”.

Moreover, I also predict that more meetings will return to a face-to-face format than we might imagine. After all, as remote conferences have also shown, while remote interaction is better than no interaction at all, it really is no substitute for the real thing.

So, personally, my bags are packed in anticipation that the Scottish government will soon withdraw its advice to work at home “where possible”. I am looking forward to returning to campus and doing all I can to facilitate the face-to-face interactions from which research ideas most effectively emerge.

Gary J. Macfarlane is dean of interdisciplinary research and research impact and professor of epidemiology at the University of Aberdeen. He is also an honorary consultant (public health) with NHS Grampian.

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