Making the best of the pandemic-era “new normal”

Disruptions are opportunities. They change things, and as a result, we often get to choose the new normal. The difficulty, however, lies in choosing wisely, because the new normal might become permanent.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we have had to adjust our ways of working to fit this new normal. In that period of adjustment, we settled on three ways of doing academic research that have been particularly beneficial, ones that I feel contain elements of greater truths. They thus warrant advertising to a larger audience.

Our first innovation, proposed by professor Paavo Alku, is remote research visits. Clearly, onsite visits have not been possible, so we thought we could simply do them remotely, like all other work. I have had one visitor on my team now for almost six months, and it has gone so effortlessly that it has been hard to distinguish between those working from Finland and those abroad. We are all on video conferences anyway, so location generally does not matter.

What is much more exciting to me though is the potential of this approach in post-pandemic times. When comparing to onsite visits, think about the commitment that, say, a six-month visit requires. Can you really commit to such a visit if you are a single parent, a divorcee with shared custody of children or if you and your partner both have active careers? Is it then not clear that having a family is a disadvantage to your career? Is academic research only for single workaholics without lives outside work? Remote research visits clearly offer a resolution for such issues and enable a more sustainable career.

We have named our second innovation the “How do you feel today?” approach. Before the pandemic, we followed the Scrum/Agile project management philosophy: a very short daily meeting in which everyone reports what they did the previous day and what they plan to do today. The benefits include a sense of accomplishment, setting of short-term goals and the ability to detect and resolve roadblocks early on.

During the pandemic, this felt much too formal. We did get an impression of how work was progressing but not how people themselves were doing. So we introduced a new segment to the daily meeting during which everyone answers the question, “How do you feel today?” However, “I’m fine” is not allowed; rather, one must express feelings of ups and downs, such as: “I’m frustrated because my bike was stolen” or “I’m really psyched – my article was accepted”.

The effect has been magical. Emotional expression is not something we typically do, and it has helped us understand each other much better. We are now like a family, much more so than before the pandemic. I highly recommend this to everyone!

Finally, I have experimented with remote networking. Networking has been one of the primary reasons we go to conferences, so something obviously needed to replace that. I have a love-hate relationship with conferences anyway – can we really justify the economic burden and environmental impact of flying around the world all the time?

My solution has been trivially simple: whenever I find some interesting research, I send a short email to the author saying, “Hey, what’s up, I read your paper, nice work, want to talk?” Most of the time, these are people I have never contacted before, but the recipients are almost always excited to connect. In the worst case, if I don’t receive an answer, I’ve already forgotten about it.

At conferences, I’ve always had trouble meeting the “interesting people”, so I end up engaging (uncomfortably) in small-talk with random strangers. In comparison, sending these emails means that we communicate based on a shared interest, so we don’t need to waste time with small-talk and can go straight to the meaningful “big” talk. Because it feels meaningful for both parties right from the start, there is value throughout the interaction.

The pandemic-induced disruption has forced us to be creative, and we should make the best of it. All three of the above approaches are good for sustainability, both from the perspective of the environment and, importantly, in terms of supporting worklife balance. In fact, career-sustainability is a topic I would like to see discussed much more often.

Tom Bäckström
Associate professor, Aalto University

A full-length version of this text appeared previously on https://tbackstr.medium.com.

Lähetä kirjoituksesi osoitteeseen tuomo.tamminen@acatiimi.fi. Toimitus lyhentää ja muokkaa kirjoituksia tarvittaessa.

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