Keeping in touch while keeping your distance

Research groups are normally close-knit teams, spending most of their working day together. During the current pandemic, that has had to change for most groups. We spoke to researchers from two groups at the Crick to find out how their teams have made the switch to working remotely, and how they’re maintaining their sense of being a team throughout it all.

Inside the lab and out, your research group is an important part of your career in science. But how do you keep up a sense of community and collaboration when a pandemic means that everyone’s working from home, with all the other change that come alongside that?

Maintain the team

Preserving a sense of team during quarantine is good for lots of different reasons. From a practical point of view, it’s the only way to keep up the sense of momentum and keep work going if it can. More importantly, the support network role of a group is now more important than ever. Crick groups working on coronavirus-related research and assisting with our testing effort are still coming into the building, but for the groups now based at home, they’re adjusting to a new way of doing science.

It's not easy to focus at the moment. We all have families that are in different situations and we all have different concerns. Our group leader explained that while he hoped things would carry on as much as possible, we should slowly transition to the new way of working and do what’s reasonable for each of us.

“When we could tell that we would be working from home before too long, our group leader sent an email to the group with some suggestions for things that we could be doing with this time,” says postdoc Roberta Migale from Robin Lovell-Badge’s lab at the Crick. The list included things like making time to read a few papers every week, writing up results and carrying out data analysis for data that was gathered before the lockdown. But the aim was to make the most of the situation in a way that works for everyone.

“It’s not easy to focus at moment,” says Alessia, another postdoc in the group. “We all have families that are in different situations and we all have different concerns. Our group leader explained that while he hoped things would carry on as much as possible, we should slowly transition to the new way of working and do what’s reasonable for each of us.”

Support each other

Alessia described another way the group prepared: “One of our other postdocs, Güneş, is a mental health first aider and she sent round second email.” Güneş shared advice that she had learned as part of her mental health first aid training that could be applied to working from home. “It included lots of tips for looking after ourselves – things like maintaining a healthy sleep schedule, putting on proper clothes. It mentioned keeping up your usual habits to make yourself feel a bit more normal, even if they don’t seem important, like putting on makeup if that’s your thing.”

Roberta and Alessia explained that the combination of tips for keeping up momentum in their work, clear expectations from the rest of the group, and wellbeing advice meant that they felt better prepared when the time came for the lab to make the move to homeworking. 

Stick to routines

Research scientist Eva is in Victor Tybulewicz’s lab at the Crick, and agreed that maintaining routines from the office made the transition to homeworking that much smoother: “We used to have lab meetings at the same time every week. And now we do exactly the same thing at home. We never used to have people calling in, but it works really well with 13 of us, and feels much more natural than I expected.”

We’re finding our own new routines, and we’re gradually adjusting depending on what does and doesn’t work.

Keeping up routines can help for more than meetings. Alessia used to have a regular coffee break once a week with couple of people from the lab. They’ve moved the coffee break over to Zoom and are finding that it’s useful for lots of the same reasons. They catch up about work, but also about how things are going in their homes.

Acknowledge the differences

But maintaining normal routines can be difficult when outside events like school closures affect your working day. Eva came back to work from maternity leave a couple of months before the lockdown, and she and her husband are both working from home. “We’re finding our own new routines. We’re trying alternating mornings and afternoons so that we’re both able to get some work done each day, and we’re gradually adjusting depending on what does and doesn’t work. I have two young children and my particular struggle is keeping them happy, entertained and maintaining some school structure, while keeping my project going.”

Alessia and Roberta both have family in Italy, and described what it’s like being away from them: “On one hand we’re worried about them, especially because of how quickly it escalated there. But we also have access to advice from people who are a couple of weeks ahead of the UK. It probably made us take the pandemic seriously a bit earlier that we might have done otherwise.”

Recognise the downsides

Of course, there are always going to be things that the lockdown means you miss. Leon is a PhD student in the same group as Eva, and only had a year left in his PhD when the lockdown started. “I thought that I’d be using this time to tie up loose ends,” he says. “But instead, I’m just doing writing and reading that makes me want to do more experiments.” 

Leon and the other researchers mainly mention missing the spontaneity that is easy when you’re sitting next to each other. Casual conversations and overheard comments can be difficult to replicate over Slack, Zoom or email.

The Lovell-Badge lab on a Zoom call.

A Zoom lab meeting for the Crick's Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics Lab.

… and the benefits

Despite the adjustment period and not being able to perform experiments, there have been some new opportunities that come with working from home. A few researchers have found that not having to commute means a less stressful start to the day, and think that this could encourage more people to work from home more often or live further away from big cities after the lockdown is over. 

Roberta and Leon both also found that having some distance from their work meant that they’re able to see the overall picture of their research more clearly, and spot some ‘holes’ in the story where they can do more experiments when they get back to the lab. Zoom meetings offer a different way to run a journal club, with screensharing and being able to split into smaller groups making it just as effective as running it in person. 

Remember social time

Alongside the journal clubs, lab meetings and experiment planning, both labs have also been making dedicated time for socialising. Both groups have met up for drinks over Zoom on a Friday night, and one of the teams has a WhatsApp group that they keep strictly non-work related. 

“I think I actually like socialising being booked in as a formal meeting,” said Roberta. “Our meet-up was on a day when I was really overwhelmed and didn’t particularly feel like being sociable. If I was in the office, I might have just stayed at my desk. But having specific time set aside in my diary gave me the push to take part, and by the end of it, my mood had flipped entirely!”

Between making time to talk about things other than work, having clear expectations for what work can be done, and acknowledging that working from home will be different for everyone, it’s possible for groups to maintain momentum in their research, while supporting individual members and preserving connections within the team.

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