Remote working has given research offices the opportunity to deliver more, says Dipti Pandya
For my research office, and probably every other, the Covid-19 lockdown began with a barrage of funding calls seeking responses to the pandemic at national and international levels. Supporting researchers in responding to these calls has proved to be extremely beneficial for transitioning our team to working remotely.
The funding opportunities were an immediate call to arms for every member of our global research community to put personal working arrangements aside and concentrate fully on being part of the solution. Helping to win funding for research that had the potential to save lives and mitigate the awful impacts of the pandemic meant that the work of the research office was more motivated and had more meaning than ever before. Deadlines were short, but the clock speed of the effort was immense.
We learned how to work remotely by jumping in at the deep end, leaving little time for acclimatising to the new arrangements. But since the initial gut-busting efforts, there has been some time to reflect and consider whether there have been changes in how we work that we need to hold on to and build in to our processes—pandemic or no pandemic.
Getting to the source
One piece of feedback I have received from my team members is that they are constantly on Zoom calls with researchers, funders and potential partners. But these interactions are different from before the lockdown: instead of one-to-one meetings with lead researchers, they are engaging in calls with the wider proposal team. And these calls are meetings, rather than phone calls, so there is an expectation of preparedness and decision-making.
A crucial role of the research office is to provide intelligence on funding calls to our researchers, and the new arrangements have in several ways improved the quality of information provided to research teams.
As a research manager, I can facilitate more of our team to attend local and international briefings from funders and wider stakeholders—from their home office of course—since all of these briefings have moved to virtual locations. This allows direct access to the source of the information for research support professionals, whereas before they would have only received briefings of briefings.
A bigger role
The new working arrangements have also allowed for a better transfer of this information to researchers. Research support professionals can provide information directly to entire research teams, including international partners. This form of engagement provides a significant opportunity for our team to deliver more impact, and this might just be the opportunity we have been waiting for.
The development of proposals tends to follow a common trajectory. First, the principal investigator develops the initial concept for the research with one or two other researchers. Second, the wider consortium comes together, sometimes in a ‘big bang’ meeting where concentrated effort is invested in the full proposal development.
While previously a research support professional may only have had the scope to provide one-to-one support to the principal investigator, in our new working arrangements they can properly support the development of the research at each stage of the process. They can engage with the whole team behind the initial concept, and the ‘big bang’ meeting approach can be revised to an iterative process, with staged meetings for developing the proposal. The research support team can participate at every step.
Supporting the supporters
While I have seen much opportunity in the new working arrangements, I also have to be cognisant that our team is not working at home out of choice. Remote work is, by definition, an isolated way of working. We are also doing this work in the midst of a pandemic, raising fears for our own health and the health of those around us. Regular check-ins, team meetings and wellbeing chats have been essential.
Our activity is also suffering from the loss of serendipitous and personal interactions. While we have been able to easily deliver information more efficiently to wider groups of researchers than ever before, virtual seminars don’t allow for those conversations that take place as we leave the room and that often lead to significant and unexpected outcomes.
We must also be cognisant of the huge pressures on academics from moving teaching and assessment online, all done without time for preparation. While some academics may find that they have more time than ever to apply for research funding, others will have less, and this is strongly gendered.
A return to workplaces will dissolve some of these challenges. However, we also need to reflect on the ways of working that have improved how we interact with our researchers and that we can retain. There is much to be proud of in what has been achieved; we just need to make sure we bottle it.
Dipti Pandya is senior manager for research programmes at University College Dublin.