Remote academic research
Lessons learned during the pandemic
Disruptions are opportunities. They change things, and for many of those things, we get to choose the new normal. The difficulty is that we should choose wisely, because the new normal might stay with us for a long time.
In the academic world, the Covid-19 pandemic changed things just as it changed for everyone else. Where before, international conferences and research visits had been the modus operandi, one of the highlights to which you look forward, now there was no traveling. This is no small thing. Much of progress in academic research comes directly from interaction with colleagues. Partly, yes, from the formal lectures, but a great deal comes from the meetings-after-the-meetings. You know, at the moment when you stand up after a meeting or presentation, and exchange a few words with a colleague, about your feelings about the presentation or some completely unrelated topic. Those informal encounters, where you shoot a random thought to a colleague, and see whether he catches the ball. Many of the greatest new ideas and collaborations have started this way. And now that way of operating is in hibernation.
Some say that necessity is the mother of invention and that might have been true this time. Soon after the pandemic stabilized, we looked for new ways of collaborating. Three of the things which we came to use stand out as particularly useful, as something, which I hope to keep using also after the pandemic, if we ever go back to something like the old normal;
- Remote research visits
- Remote teamwork and “How do you feel today”?
- Remote networking
Remote research visits
It is widely accepted that research visits are very important, especially for young researchers. By immersion in a different research environment, you widen your scope in research, you meet new people and importantly, you see different ways of working. Such exposure to new things often feeds creativity. The people you meet often stay as lifelong collaborators and friends. By widening your understanding of different fields, you understand better the context and importance of your own field. Due to such benefits, research visits are often also a prerequisite for advancing to a tenured position.
My colleague, professor Paavo Alku then proposed that we would introduce remote research visits during the pandemic. The idea was that since we work remotely anyway, it would be easy to immerse also physically distant visitors, without the need to travel. In our experience, this has worked excellently. Remote research visitors have worked in teams as if they would be onsite, just about as efficiently as the other researchers, who work nearby.
What really excites me though, is not how it works during the pandemic, but what benefits this approach could have also otherwise. Namely, it could have a surprising positive effect on equality and career sustainability. In other words, if you think about what an onsite-visit means; you have to commit to living away from home for, say, 6 months. That works for young, single researchers without a family, but what about single parents? Or couples where both have a career? Or divorcees with shared custody rights to children? Do you really have a choice of going away for 6 months if you have family obligations? It is thus clear that having any family is a disadvantage for the research career. Partners with careers, and especially children make research visits very difficult to manage and therefore increase resistance to such research visits. In practice that leads to questions whether to prefer a career or a family. From a sustainability perspective, I find such pressure to be destructive. It benefits people with workaholic tendencies and with no life outside work, both significant risk factors. Many female researchers also have pressure to get children as long as it is biologically feasible, thereby putting female researchers at a disadvantage.
Using research visits as a prerequisite for tenured positions is in my opinion especially damaging, since those with a stable work-life balance and female researchers are at a disadvantage. A prerequisite of research visits for tenured positions thus also makes it more difficult to resolve the existing problems of inequality, sustainability and quality in faculty positions.
Remote research visits provides a solution to these problems. For example, a single parent can keep the children in the same daycare or school as before during the visit, without any impediment. At least during remote or hybrid work, it also comes at very little penalty to the interaction with the research team. I therefore hope that we can keep the remote research visit -concept alive also after the pandemic and warmly recommend it to teams which have not yet tried it.
Remote teamwork and “How do you feel today”?
Already before the pandemic, we had taken the tradition of daily stand-up meetings, a bit like those in the SCRUM/Agile project work format. In other words, every morning, we meet for a very short meeting, where every team member explains what they have done yesterday, what they will do today, and report any possible roadblocks. The value for researchers is that they get to focus on the daily positive progress to get a feeling of accomplishment, and set short-term goals. Moreover, if someone gets stuck, it will be discovered early such that others can help to resolve the problem. The fact that the meetings are held standing helps keep the meetings short and efficient. Our team found these meetings useful and they improved team spirit and collaboration.
The transition to remote work was seamless, due to these daily meetings. We just switched to use teleconferencing, instead of face-to-face. First weeks and months worked relatively nicely. Slowly, however, we started to feel that the informal interaction was missing. We suddenly realized that those meetings in the corridor, greetings at the office door and joint lunches were not just a pleasure, but important for well-being and collaboration. We felt that we did not anymore have a connection to the others. The daily meetings reported how the formal work tasks progressed, but not how the people themselves were doing.
As a solution to this problem we introduced a second round to the daily meeting, where we ask “How do you feel today?”. We were all inexperienced in communicating emotions, but soon got the hang of it. An additional rule we learned to use is that “I’m fine” and “I’m ok” are not allowed, since they are not informative. A more qualitative approach is much better (“Somewhat bland today” or “A tickle of excitement approaching”). It is also good always to mention something challenging and something you appreciate.
According to my own feeling and to the feedback I’ve received, team members really appreciate this new component of the daily meetings. We are not just reporting what we do, but we joke and talk about our families. We are now much more like a family then we were before the pandemic. To me this is incredible! A simple “How do you feel today?” has had a great impact. I really hope that we can keep this habit also after the pandemic. I want to keep asking my colleagues “How do you feel today?” and receive informative answers, and not only small-talk and pleasantries.
This one feels a bit odd. I’ve never been good at networking. I guess it is a part of my introversion that I don’t like to talk to random strangers. Small-talk at conferences is painful to me. I am a loner by nature. During the pandemic, however, I’ve found a new way to connect with people, which relives me of all that pain.
An issue I have with approaching people is that I don’t feel like I have something meaningful to say and small-talk feels contrived and empty. If there is someone with whom I would like to talk, usually it is hard to find them at a conference. So I would have to keep a look-out for all the people with whom I have something to talk and if I meet them, still remember what I wanted to talk about. Not likely to happen.
During the pandemic, I turned all this around. It is very simple, whenever I see or read something interesting, I send an email to the author. Usually I congratulate them on their good work, tell a bit what makes it interesting to me, and ask if they would have time to discuss further. A bit of flattery goes a long way, but honestly, I think people are generally excited when someone has noticed their work (because rarely anyone does), and demonstrates genuine interest by specific questions. It has opened many new connections. Even in the worst case, it spreads a bit of goodwill around the community.
In the last two years, in my opinion, I’ve done this a lot. Like at least once or twice a month I send an email to someone I don’t know. Just short notes, “Really liked your work, we’re doing this similar thing, would you like to have a teleconference?” Usually people answer, but if they don’t, I probably have already forgotten about it. No harm done whatsoever. And through this approach, I’ve gotten into many interesting discussions. Like all networking, I don’t have any short-term goals in mind, but just putting the net out, so that when a need or opportunity rises, there would be a network of people ready to collaborate.
I guess I had been sending such mails also before the pandemic, but now the response rate has picked up considerably. Probably people crave a bit more human connections, so they are more eager to answer than before. We’ve also become more used to teleconferencing, so there is no resistance with that mode of communication.
This is also something I want to keep up also after the pandemic. In comparison to networking at a conference, sending these emails means that I am choosing to communicate based on a shared interest. We already have something in common, so we don’t need to waist time small-talking, and can go straight to the meaningful big-talk. It feels meaningful for both parties right from the start, so there is value throughout the interaction.
I’m not one to predict the future, but I want to try my best to make it good. Remote work has brought many accidental changes with it, and we’ve tried to make the best of it. We try to be really observant about what works in our habits and what doesn’t, and try to hang on to the good things, even if we’d stop remote work in the future.
I’ve certainly had a love-hate relationship with both conferences and research visits already before the pandemic, but their absence somehow underlined to me all the painful parts. Like why do we have to fly so much to conferences — isn’t it obvious that that is economically wasteful and environmentally unsustainable? Or how come we have been so blind to the sustainability problems with career requirements, even if gender equality is actively promoted in the academia? One could argue that promotion of gender equality has so far largely been a series of failures, but perhaps we could improve by taking this kind of hidden biases into account?
In any case, I’ve found these approaches helpful in my work and in my team, so I wanted to share them with anyone who is ready to listen. Let me know if you have comments or further tips!