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Houston expert: Telework in research might be here to stay

The telework paradigm may be here to stay in research long after the COVID pandemic tapers off. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

How many of the research administrator's duties can be done from home? COVID-19 is showing us emphatically that the answer is many.

There are some aspects that take a little bit of inventive scheduling to make happen, but overall, the telework paradigm may be here to stay in research long after the COVID pandemic tapers off.

Meetings and more meetings

Research professionals know that there are always meetings to attend – with faculty colleagues, research coordinators and institutional review boards. These can be accessed easily over the internet. Back-to-back meetings are much easier to jump on these days.

Sign away

The Society of Research Administrators International blog reminds us that contracts can be sent electronically for signatures: "Sponsors large and small have implemented electronic portals for proposal submissions. Is there a need to be at the office on campus? That is so pre-COVID."

Transportation

Transportation difficulties are all but eliminated in between meetings, and we spend little to no time commuting (as an aside, check out work-from-home discounts for work-from-home car insurance). "More than 30 minutes of daily one-way commuting is associated with increased levels of stress and anxiety," states flexjobs.com. So the telework environment helps to offset that stress. And that doesn't even take into account the environmental impact of fewer cars on the road!

The kids are alright

Childcare. When schools went virtual while some of us worked from home, a crisis was averted. Except for the danger of easy distraction that multi-tasking presented, families often grew closer in the home while working side by side. But essential personnel had a different tale to tell. For instance, Kelly Heath, the director of University of Nebraska – Lincoln Institutional Animal Care Program, said: "Organizing child care is particularly complicated for essential employees and it's added stress to the situation." His team has implemented a three-day consecutive schedule, alternating two teams. This schedule has helped, he said. "Staff are working the same number of hours, but the division provides protection so that if someone on Team A gets sick, Team B has not been exposed."

David Brammer, executive director of Animal Care Operations (ACO) at the University of Houston, developed a similar plan, segregating teams according to geographic location and limiting interaction between the teams. "UH also limited investigators' access to the animal facility until the ACO staff could complete their duties within the facility. The major concern for ACO was to have staff available to care for the animals in the event that a team was either ill or in quarantine due to contract tracing."

Saving money

"People who work from home half time can save around $4,000 per year," states flexjobs.com. "Car maintenance, transportation, parking fees, a professional wardrobe, lunches bought out, and more can all be reduced or eliminated from your spending entirely."

A word on animal care operations

Animal care in the research enterprise poses a significant hurdle. The veterinary care personnel have always been considered "essential." Creative scheduling, like the aforementioned three-day on, three-day off, two-team model has helped to offset the difficulty of having animals fed, watered and cared for.

For University of Nebraska – Lincoln, winter break and blizzards had always required this model to be the plan, but the duration of COVID has simply required this to go on longer than before. The animal care operation, "slowed down its work when possible and delayed taking on any new research projects …Those deemed mission critical or related to addressing COVID-19 got top priority," said a communicator.

The big idea...

Are we better off working at home? The argument can certainly be made that we are. There are aspects that aren't ideal – "Zoom Fatigue" comes to mind – but, overall, telework may be the new normal for many universities.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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