Research intelligence: which Covid innovations should be embraced?

University staff are keen on hybrid working, but will it work long-term for researchers? Jack Grove examines which practices might outlast the pandemic

June 8, 2021
Man with a mask walks in front of wings painting on wall as a metaphor for Which Covid innovations should be embraced
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While the university campus may have its charms, there is no shortage of support for homeworking among university staff, it seems. According to a recent survey of nearly 5,000 HE professionals in the UK, only 11 per cent want to work exclusively on campus from this autumn, with 71 per cent preferring a blended approach to working in the future.

But while some universities, including Durham, Edinburgh and Liverpool, seem happy to allow administrators to work from home at least some of the time post-pandemic, should the same flexibility be extended to researchers? Lee Cronin, Regius chair of chemistry at the University of Glasgow, thinks not.

“Frankly, there is nothing I want less than people working at home,” said Professor Cronin, who compared his experience of supervising a 65-strong research team during lockdown to “walking through a mix of concrete and treacle. Everything takes so much longer when you’re working remotely.”

While some laboratories are content to allow staff to work from home at least one day a week, Professor Cronin is not so keen. “My lab has always been five days a week, with some people coming in at weekends to get machines working for experiments – anything else is unfeasible because of the complex work we do, and I can’t wait to get people interacting and solving problems together.”

So what, if anything, can research teams retain of Covid-era practices?

Smarter online communication
Despite his scepticism about homeworking, Professor Cronin conceded that the pandemic did improve digital communications. “We began to use our information and technology systems much better, and things like Slack are generally more efficient,” he said. “The challenge for administrative staff is to show that they can keep the benefits of remote working going as we move researchers back into our buildings.”

Some teaching exercises and efforts to create literature review also “worked well online”, he added, although he expected the pull of the university’s “brand new” lab to outweigh any desire to stay at home.

Lost in cyberspace
Having devised strategies for astronauts to stave off loneliness while working for Nasa, Angela Aristidou understands the harmful effects of isolation. Now a lecturer at UCL’s School of Management, Dr Aristidou contended that homeworking should not become the norm just because academics have shown that they can do it effectively.

“Having a common physical space where people interact is important because it helps scholars reaffirm their identity as academics and reminds them why they are here,” said Dr Aristidou.

Senior academics should be particularly wary about staying away from campus, even if it is convenient, she added. “It’s much harder to implement an institutional culture from home, and without it, junior academics can easily become disengaged and lost.”

Quality, not quantity, of meetings
Allowing academia’s already atomised workforce to spread even more widely was another concern, said Dr Aristidou.

“Universities were often criticised for being siloed before the pandemic, and hybrid working could exacerbate these silos – having those happy serendipitous meetings on campus is still important for the life of a university,” she said.

Equally, she continued, it was also worth asking: how many interactions do we need to keep an organisational culture alive? To this effect, she would like to see offices, buildings, shared spaces and events remodelled to encourage greater collaboration and interaction, thereby allowing staff to work at home on certain days if they wish. “When people are in the office, we should see far more community-building activities,” she suggested.

Don’t ditch the Zoom social
It wasn’t long ago that Zoom quizzes and online Friday night drinks represented a welcome chance to check in with friends and colleagues. That moment has well and truly passed, it seems. While Dr Aristidou recognised the limitations of these events, she did not think they should be discarded immediately.

“They don’t work as well for those who just joined an organisation – they don’t have those relationships already created in the office to feed off in online chats, but you can find ways around this,” she said, noting that her research team members are asked to bring recipes to these online gatherings to help break the ice and encourage sharing among the group.

In addition, such events could help to build team spirit if researchers are in different cities or countries. “Every Wednesday, we would hold community-building events in the morning, including reading groups and departmental meetings; and we were fortunate that this continued during the pandemic – it helped people understand the expectations of them and affirm that we were all in this together,” she said.

Virtual ‘ideas’ meetings are overrated
While some Covid fixtures – such as the routine departmental meeting – might work as a quick Zoom call, those meetings seeking to generate ideas will certainly return as in-person events, said Gary Macfarlane, dean of interdisciplinary research and research impact at the University of Aberdeen.

“We have experienced how much more difficult it is to influence a meeting on the end of a telephone or on a computer screen − you miss out on the non-verbal communication, pre- and post-meeting catch-ups and find it difficult to read the room,” said Professor Macfarlane. “I predict that the pendulum will swing back with time, and more face-to-face meetings will return than we might currently imagine.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

So-called 'hybrid working' has been especially challenging for staff on teaching-only contracts, who have seen increased workloads. Everything takes longer online and some Universities have required staff to teach extra classes to maintain student satisfaction. Ultimately, hybrid working will be seen by Universities as an opportunity to reduce cost through stripping out office space.

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