Personal experiences on smart working in Academia

Authors: Albachiara Boffelli and Alexandra Lagorio

In these months, due to the pandemic, we have had to change many habits related to our everyday life. Without any doubt, the most affected was work. In Italy, unlike other countries in the world, smart working was not yet widespread. In the academic field, where there are no obligations of time and attendance, it could sometimes happen to work from home. Maybe when it is necessary to read or write a paper and the environment of the laboratories, the PhD students’ rooms and open space offices do not offer the right context to foster concentration. However, the work of a researcher, especially a young researcher, is not just writing papers.

Alexandra‘s perspective: Most of the ideas that I have had in these years and that have been at the basis of some of my researches were born talking to people: with other colleagues, with operators in the logistics sector at various levels, with entrepreneurs, with voluntary associations and ordinary people who, for some reasons, had to do with urban logistics and with my research. Of all these relationships, it was the one with colleagues and students that I particularly missed. With colleagues because they are a unique source of moral support and provide continuous peer-review, even when they do not notice it, between a coffee at the vending machine and a lunch break. I believe, however, that the students were among the most penalised by smart working in Academia. It is difficult to recreate the same relationship of trust and even out any misunderstandings at a distance. There are many tools to communicate, carry out lessons and theses in the right way also through online teaching, but indeed the screen is a barrier for the human relationship. Finally, based on my experience of smart working, I believe that these difficulties can only be overcome by increasing interactions and communication with colleagues and students. By making greater use of tools that allow online meetings (such as Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams) and tools that help work organisation and collaboration (such as Google Drive, Trello or Slack), it is possible to make remote working effective.

Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

Albachiara‘s perspective: Even if our work is somewhat flexible and allows to do smart working periodically, or as I prefer to call it “work from home”, I was not used to do it. I love going to the office, exchanging ideas and discussing things face to face. I am a rather shy person, and I am not good at expressing my feelings and ideas through words. The screen gives me a further excuse to hide my thoughts. Instead, when talking face to face, I am an open book. At the beginning of the quarantine, I really enjoyed having a lot of time to dedicate to my research and, in the first weeks, I was able to finish many things that have been in a “work in progress” status for too much time. Although, after a while, I started to miss human relationships and external inputs to further stimulate my creativity and motivation. I believe that the human brain is built for “open innovation”, it cannot be creative by its own, it needs to spill in and spill out ideas to work at its best. Even with the small research group I am working with, that involve four people, things started to become slower and even what was working well enough at the beginning, namely the online meetings, started to become less effective. In the end, I believe working from home can be useful for a limited period, for some days per week, but not as a permanent solution. You miss a wide array of opportunities while sitting at your home desk. You miss the chance to inspire and get inspired by others.

Of course, everyone is different and has different needs and preferences when it comes to ways of working. Although, what seems to be common learning in Academia, and it may apply to other fields too, is that people need to find the right balance not only between life and work but also between smart working and working at the office. And more importantly, the ability to flexibly switch the way of working according to the evolving circumstances is what employers and employees need in these uncertain times.

And what about you? Which was and is your experience with smart working?

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