Houston expert: Telework in research might be here to stay
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.
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 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."
"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.
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.