What Office Space? Who Wants It? Who Needs It? Can We Live Without It? Yes and…
Research administration and improvising go hand in hand.
If we have learned anything this past year, it is that “we” need to give ourselves some grace. We have to be flexible and realize that we can pretend to be in control but life can happen in an instant and that instant can render our plans useless. The collective “we” is implied here but it can be the one you define within your context, e.g., the family, co-workers, the business, the institution, humankind, etc.
Being in Control. At a certain level, being in control removes uncertainty and we can plan better when we are certain something will or will not happen. Could this be a myth we tell ourselves? We control our destiny! Sounds like a plan. To many people, the past year (and counting) has brought personal, professional, and social uncertainty, misery and opportunity, loss and joy, uncontrolled anger and hopeful resolve, failure and innovation, and all feelings in between. The world has been affected in a way not seen for over 100 years and two World Wars. It can feel overwhelming if you think about it in too much detail.
We long to be in control again, be the masters of our destiny, and return to the new normal. What is that? What is the new normal? What is business as usual? Will we know it when we see it and we are back in our offices and our institutions and our old lives?
We Know What it Looks Like and Clichés. At its core, the research enterprise, to include research development and research administration, is a people business. The research enterprise is necessarily a high contact, high engagement, team sport. Even a lone author or investigator, needs the institutional structures, supports, and team work to make the dreams happen. Even a lone scientist in a lab toiling away creating new inventions or lifesaving vaccines needs someone to buy the pipettes, petri dishes, microscopes, and reagents. The scientist needs multiple colleagues and editors to read a paper before it’s submitted, and needs the help of grad students, and grant writers to submit the proposals. This work, grant writing, proposal submissions, etc., has all happened this past year during the pandemic, despite social distancing and the digital and remote space. Since we know what it looks like why can’t parts of the remote work continue? Why can’t remote work be part of the new normal or the way of doing business?
The clichés are real. Have you said these things (or similar) in the past year? The only thing certain is uncertainty; it could be worse; it could be better; appreciate what you have; material things don’t matter; live in the moment; tomorrow is not promised; and so on. The clichés are certainly real. Perhaps here are some new ones for the times: I’ll take a Zoom meeting over no meeting; people can be productive at home; connection is a click away; freezing can also happen when it’s not cold; people need community; research can save lives.
Learn to Improvise and Telework if You Please. Perhaps the biggest lesson of the past year is that we (again you define) need to be more flexible, more adapting, more forgiving, more empathetic, and more willing to change our plans, go with the flow, and make it work in any way we can, no matter how challenging. This level of flexibility and adaptability reminds me of jazz, or the art of improv, where the group or partners have to be ready, listen to each other, respond and adapt to each other and the environment, and produce some meaningful, collective, and engaging work. We need to be ready to mix it up and cope with what is given to us, much like people around the world have done in the past year and continue to do. “Yes, and…” should be our motto. Improvisation should be our tool de rigueur.
As agents of research, we have improvised this past year to say the least and because we know what working from home looks like some may be inclined to want to continue to work from home. And because we know what and how this past year has looked, we can say that some things have worked well and some have not in the digital space. For some parents it may have been beneficial to be at home during the pandemic to take care of their kids, for others not so much. For some it may have been beneficial to be at home to put a load in the laundry between grant meetings, for others the distractions at home may be too much. For some it may have worked out not to commute forty-five minutes plus fifteen minutes parking into the office on campus. For some the long commute is a time for decompression, alone time, and podcast listening. Some people may have felt more productive not having distractions from the colleagues at the office or around the water cooler. For some, the office provides structure and purpose, and the ever-productive hallway or stairwell meeting.
Are people really going back to the office? That is the big question as vaccination rates increase and the pandemic and infection rates are decreasing and held at bay. Some indication may be building from current studies and articles that teleworking in a significant way may be here to stay. As institutions of research decide what to do with physical office space that has not been used in more than a year and counting, some aspect of telework are sure to remain. Data and results from a recent survey of 30,000 Americans states that full workdays provided from home are expected to increase to 20% after the pandemic ends compared to only 5% percent before the pandemic (Barrero, et al, 2021). That’s a lot of work hours at home! Be sure to check the laundry in between your Zoom meetings. Also, mind the quiche in the oven before you submit that grant for review. That remote work is here to stay has real implications for universities as expectations and demands for teleworking continue as the norm and not the exception (Ellis, 2021). Not surprisingly, the idea that teleworking in research administration is here to stay was expressed in the Catalyst last year (Alcaine, 2020).
So it seems that accommodation, flexibility, and the ability to improvise as we continue to work will be the norm not the exception. I suggest, when asked, the answer to the questions “will you go back to the office?” or “will you be working from home?” should be an emphatic “Yes, and…”
Alcaine, J.G. (2020, May 14). Out of the Office: Teleworking in Research Administration is Here to Stay. SRAI Catalyst. https://www.srainternational.org/blogs/srai-news/2020/05/14/out-of-the-office-teleworking-in-research-administ
Barrero, J.M., Bloom, N., Davis, S.J. (2021). Why Working from Home Will Stick. [Working Paper]. National Bureau of Economic Research. https://www.nber.org/papers/w28731
Ellis, L. (2021, May 5). At Some Colleges, Remote Work Could Be Here to Stay. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/at-some-colleges-remote-work-could-be-here-to-stay
Authored by Dr. Jose Alcaine, Director of Research Services, Affiliate Faculty Foundations of Education, School of Education
Virginia Commonwealth University