houston voices

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

 
 

As of this week, Lara Cottingham is the chief of staff at Greentown Labs. Photo via LinkedIn

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

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