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Virtual meetings need G&T as well as Q&A


Europe’s association for research managers is working hard to preserve community spirit, says Esther Philips

Earlier this year, the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators was set to host its largest annual conference ever. Programmes for senior, mid-career and early-stage staff were booking up fast. We had even come up with ways to have fun and interactive meetings of the Earma board and standing committees. 

Truly, we were over the moon with how things were shaping up. Then came Covid-19. 

At first, we hoped it wouldn’t affect our activities too much. Maybe some participants would have difficulty travelling to Oslo, but we would find a way to deal with that. However, the situation didn’t improve. It got worse and we found ourselves in uncharted territory.

Tough decisions 

There were conversations at board meetings, at bilateral meetings, at spontaneous gatherings and throughout working life. When should we decide? What should we do? More countries went into lockdown, borders closed and large gatherings were forbidden. 

Earma’s managing director had a nearly full-time job negotiating options on how to move forward. In March, we postponed our conference from April to October but kept it as an in-the-flesh meeting. 

Meanwhile, we were discussing how best to serve the Earma community and help it stay connected. One answer came in the first Earma Digital Sessions, launched around the time of the originally planned conference and covering topics that we knew our community would find interesting. We gave thanks that our new communications manager had been appointed just in time.

Creative solutions

As spring turned to summer, the number of infections started to fall but safety measures stayed in place. The Earma board discussed how to proceed. Would a 1,000-person meeting be allowed at the end of September? Would Earma members’ organisations allow them to fly across Europe? 

With many questions and few answers, we took the difficult decision that an in-person conference—along with other live events—could not take place in 2020. For Earma as an organisation, all of this created a lot of work and negotiations and we did not know when the world would ‘normalise’. 

We then decided on an online event but with a different format. Our colleagues and friends were spending long hours working from home in a virtual world, so we searched for a creative solution that wouldn’t place too much of a burden on our membership. 

A dedicated taskforce was formed and it created, together with Earma’s managing director and communications manager, a concept for the first Earma digital conference, which will take place between 1 and 6 October. 

All registrants can watch prerecorded presentations beforehand to gain some background information. During the event over four afternoons, the presented topics will be discussed and attendees can participate through a Q&A. 

Emotional impact

So much for the practical arrangements—but, of course, the pandemic has also had an emotional impact. 

For Earma, not being able to come together is like having the heart removed from our organisation. Our association exists so we can meet, exchange, be recognised, have a moan and a drink together, have serious talks and have fun. We miss all that deeply. 

Board meetings are easy to hold online, but brainstorming and in-depth discussions are much more difficult. Discussing our implementation plan while all looking at a screen showing a schedule that’s too small to read is frustrating compared with gathering to work together, create and collaborate. 

It feels like we have been trying to keep all the usual balls in the air without the time to step back and reflect. There’s hardly time to meet colleagues, be it to exchange knowledge and experiences or just for a coffee and a chat. A lot of Earma members really miss this.

So for Research Administrator Day on 25 September, the Earma board made a last-minute decision to host a half-hour coffee meeting on Zoom. 

On the day, 30 participants from around 20 countries joined us. We chatted about our situation, the EU Research and Innovation Days conference that a lot of us took part in, our favourite gin and tonics, and the role of Earma as a European Commission stakeholder. 

It was so successful that the suggestion to have a coffee break on a regular basis didn’t take long to be put forward. The get-together showed not only that there is an appetite to fill the social void but that keeping connected is a necessity. We must all give this type of interaction the priority it deserves. 

Esther Philips is a research manager at the Institute of Environmental Sciences, Leiden University, and chair of the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators

This article also appeared in Research Europe