View from the Top | Managing Expectations and Perceptions During a Pandemic

By SRAI News posted 04-19-2020 15:18


Managing Expectations and Perceptions During a Pandemic

I live in New York City aka COVID-19 epicenter in the USA. To be precise, I live in a middle-class neighborhood in Queens about 20 miles from Manhattan. Under “normal” circumstances I ride the subway to work each day for about 45 minutes one-way. I have not done that since Friday, March 13th. As of this writing I am finishing four weeks of working from my bedroom on a small laptop on a foldable snack tray.

My staff will tell you that I am one of those people who hate working from home and I do not allow my staff to have set days for doing so either – I know, I’m old fashioned in that regard, but we are only 8 people and I prefer us all on site so that we can learn from one another, run to deal with compliance emergencies in our labs, and have live face-to-face meetings. Stay-at-home orders have changed all that… and it will be interesting to see what happens when we are released back into the world of commuting, coffee carts, restaurants, theater, sports, and social gatherings.

Having never truly managed a stay-at-home workforce, I did not know what to expect. I wanted to establish boundaries and work hours and routines with consistency. We started meeting virtually through Microsoft Teams every Monday morning at 10 AM. Luckily my three-year old laptop has a built-in camera and a microphone – so we can video chat without using up the battery in my cell phone. We can chat as a team, or one-on-one. We have gotten into the routine of “saying” good morning when we sign on each day, and good night at the end of the day. It’s interesting to see that I think we chat more virtually than we ever did in person.

It is so easy to get sucked into cyber world and never get up to take breaks. Let’s face it, there is nowhere to go – we have been scared into submission by the media and our government officials, so much so, that even a short walk for essential groceries is filled with dread. There is no more going out for lunch or dinner. I’m sure my Fitbit thinks I am in a coma – apartment living is not conducive to getting in your daily quota of 10,000 steps.

My staff have become Zoom experts – our monthly IACUC and IBC meetings are done through Zoom now. It is fascinating to see people in their personal space doing Institutional business. I think it is a more efficient way to run the meetings. In person, we tend to socialize, eat cookies, and have side conversations, which prolong the meetings. In the virtual space, there is no chit chat, we stick to the agenda and are done way ahead of schedule. My budget is saving quite a bit by not having to provide refreshments.

I was slated to write the April “View from the Top” article as a teaser for the SRAI training programs that were supposed to happen in Seattle in May. I was going to write about Leadership insights to get you all excited about registering for the Research Leadership Intensive that I normally present with my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Mark Hochman of Tasmania. Oh, how things have changed…

One by one, all my trips to conferences were canceled or postponed. Early on, my institution banned all travel, foreign and domestic and admonished strongly against taking any personal trips as well. Slowly, the regulators started issuing travel bans and warnings, and then the conference cancellations started mounting. Not just SRAI, but all our sister organizations were forced to make some very harsh decisions. Some meetings have been postponed, some canceled altogether, and some have been reformatted for virtual learning.

Between March and the end of June, I will have missed traveling to Savannah, Philadelphia, Seattle, Tokyo and Hiroshima, and sadly Louisville where I was supposed to spend a glorious long weekend with SRAI pals tasting Bourbon and seeing the Rolling Stones in concert. Instead, I am preparing slide decks for the new and upcoming iSRAI virtual meeting. This is truly exciting and a bit daunting. I love speaking in public (no surprise to those who know me) but it is a bit trickier when you can’t see your audience. How will I know if they are rolling their eyes or falling asleep? How can I tell if I’m hitting my marks and imparting wisdom? What happens if my equipment fails? – no trusty AV squad to call for help!

So, here’s my plea – join us April 20-22 for iSRAI and tell us what you think. Nothing will ever truly replace being physically together in some wonderful city, meeting for drinks and trivia games in the hospitality suite, or exploring the local cuisine with a dinner group, but we can still support one another and learn and grow together. At a time when there is so much suffering and despair, I hope you all realize how lucky we are to be research administration professionals with a whole global Society of friends to lean on.

To end, my expectations and perceptions have certainly been challenged by this crisis. I am alternately, sad (I limit my news intake), guilt-ridden (because I get to stay home and receive my full pay while others are on the front lines or out of work completely), grateful (that my loved ones are not sick), tired (sleep is more elusive than ever), excited (every time I master a new technology tool), bored (how much TV can you watch), and then ultimately hopeful. Hopeful that the madness will end, we will find our way out, those who survive will be stronger and more dedicated than ever to helping people and being kind. Heroes have emerged and I believe that as research administrators we will be among them. We will be needed more than ever when our labs reopen and science flourishes once again.

Stay strong my friends – looking forward to continuing the conversation… virtually, via email, in person or any combination of them all!

Authored by Debra Schaller-Demers
SRAI President Elect
Senior Director, Research Outreach and Compliance
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
Adjunct Lecturer, CUNY, School of Professional Studies





04-21-2020 08:38

Debbie thank you so much for your insight. While the virtual conference is appealing, my institution has put a ban on all spending including professional development. The cost of the conference is too prohibitive to pay out of pocket right now given these trying times. I wish you the best of luck in presenting on zoom. I get the pleasure of doing that today and it's daunting even to think about it!

04-20-2020 16:49

Debbie, what a wonderful, personal, honest article.  There are good things that will come of this awful time, and perhaps one will be that you allow your staff to telecommute from time to time when things are back to normal.  And they will get back to normal, eventually.