University of Southampton

Today marks a return to normality for eNews in that we are returning to Facutly Leadership blogs to replace the weekly covid update from the Dean (and the occasional substitute) that we have become accustomed to in the last seven months.  I am writing this on my 201st day of working from home and hasn’t life changed?

There are things I am enjoying about this enforced change in working, not least the opportunity to replace my morning commute with a bike ride around the Waterside and New Forest. It is also a pleasure to be able to join meetings virtually rather than hopping backwards and forward between UHS and Highfield, although after a solid day on Teams or [insert your favourite video conferencing tool here…], I sometimes wish I could decline an invitation or two with the excuse of not having time to travel between campuses, or at the very least being able to ask for a meeting to finish at 15 minutes to the hour give time to move between meeting rooms!  Other positives have included spending more time with family, even 15 mins for a shared bite to eat for lunch or a walk together at the end of the day to help mark the finish of the working day does wonders. Although at other times we are scattered around the house staring at separate screens and wondering who is using all the bandwidth!

The past seven months have however, brought significant challenges for most of us both personally and professionally, not least the social interaction that is absent from most of our professional lives these days. For many of us, research still means operating remotely, and even if back in the lab, it usually means working alone without the usual company. We no longer have those chance interactions at seminars or in the coffee room. Scientific meetings also seem to be things of the past. In the last month I gave my first “live” presentation to a virtual congress at the European Respiratory Society meeting. Virtual meetings have undoubted advantages such as reduction in travel and increased accessibility and inclusivity (1), and even though it was relatively painless to do this from the comfort of my own home, it just wasn’t the same as attending a big congress. There was no dropping into random talks, bumping into colleagues and collaborators and having dinner together. It was harder to switch off from everything else, with Teams pinging in the background and emails flooding in and no convenient “I’m out of the country” excuse. The temptation was to try to switch between the congress, Teams meetings and emails and not do justice to any of them. Next week we have our first Virtual Faculty Research conference (register to attend using Eventbrite). I would encourage you to all to register, switch off those extra distractions and listen to the amazing research being presented by our technicians, PhD students and Postdocs. Take the time to visit the virtual posters, to listen to a topic you know nothing about and ask questions. Be inspired.

Nothing has reminded me more of the value of face to face interaction than catching up will colleagues on the Faculty Executive Board for a (socially distant) strategic away day last week. The joy on everyone’s faces at seeing each other after such a long time just reinforced the power that human contact has to promote creativity, inspire and energise teams, and improve our mental well-being.  Somehow, we must learn to transfer that to our enforced online interaction. So take the time to arrange a virtual coffee with a colleague, check eNews for the next e-coffee session, arrange a fun activity to start your next research group meeting, take the opportunity to discuss something other than work and remind yourselves about how important interaction is.

Now I must start preparing my talk for tomorrow, where instead of presenting to the RHINESSA consortium annual meeting with a view of Bjørnefjorden near Bergen as planned after a breakfast meeting in the outdoor pool, I will be beaming into the meeting from the comfort of my front room. Let’s hope the meeting organisers still include the coffee break aerobics sessions that are traditional at these meetings!

(1) Viglione G. A year without conferences? How the coronavirus pandemic could change research. Giuliana Nature 579, 327-328 (2020). https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00786-y

The value of personal interaction in research by Professor John Holloway

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