Smart working at the time of Covid-19

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

Is it today another Manic Monday? It feels manic in a very different way.

At home, after not going out during the weekend despite the sunny weather, every day starts to feel the same.

What can we do to keep working “normally” in a context that is radically distant from normal? As scientists, how can we help to improve the situation?

I know medical doctors and nurses fighting on the front line, and virology labs working non stop. But if our scientific contribution is in completely different areas, what can we do?

  • Keep yourself informed but do not obsess

It’s important to be up to date but there is the risk of constantly being distracted by new articles, posts, discussions or emails. While it’s critical to be reachable to your coworkers, especially if new solutions need to be found to keep the lab functional, we need to set slots of time when we can focus without being interrupted.

A valid source to keep an eye on the numbers across the world is the map of the coronavirus resource center of Johns Hopkins University.

  • Share correct information

We are reading a lot of alarming news, and public opinion is divided between panic and underestimating the situation. None of these two positions is going to be helpful in any way, therefore it’s important to share accurate information to avoid spreading panic but also to reflect on the seriousness of the measures to be taken. As scientists, we are used to critically check the source and content of what we read, so if you don’t know who is giving information, where they got it from and if it’s accurate, you should probably not share it. If it's news based on emotions and not on facts, it’s also probably better to avoid sharing.

  • Raise awareness in the countries that are not taking serious precautions

Health system and social security work very differently from country to country, this affects the economic burden of managing a pandemic. However, this is no excuse to take lightly the declarations from WHO:

First, prepare and be ready. Second, detect, protect and treat. Third, reduce transmission. Fourth, innovate and learn.

You can sign petitions to make a difference in your country and join groups on social media to share accurate information as a basis for political decisions.

  • Explain to your family and friends

In your circle of close friends and family, you can use your scientific knowledge and understanding of the situation to be a positive influence, putting into action the first 3 steps and explaining facts to people with different backgrounds, inviting responsibility and awareness and fighting irrational panic.

Image by @fusion_medical_animation on Unsplash

So far we only discussed what we can do as scientists in our society, but of course we need somehow to keep our projects, our lab, our research running.

On twitter, I came across the story of Isaac Newton during the plague in 1665. At that time he was a student at Trinity College in Cambridge and had to comply with the “social distancing” rules staying at home for one year. There he was able to creatively work on the theories that launched his academic career once he got back to the university. If you are curious about the details, read the interesting article of the Washington Post.

We can take inspiration from Newton and make these home office days memorable.

On the other side, I’m also reading a lot of tweets from scientists with kids that describe the struggles of home office in the company of adorable and extremely active troublemakers. In this case productivity might need to be assessed from a different point of view. On this topic, I find very inspiring the tweet from a group leader at the Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden (CRTD):


Yesterday I heard a colleague complain because a postdoc in her group is pregnant - "clearly she doesn't want to be a PI". Maybe this colleague has been reading tweets about how we can't work from home with kids. Maybe we can't, but we are developing sooo many other skills.
For one, I hope I can learn to draw so good as my daughter. That is going to help me with my graphics. And I hope I learn my son's abstraction skills, can't tell you how useful that would be for me. Oh, and my daughter's story-telling tips. Oh, and, so much more.
I hope this turns into a "back to your basics" or a "reset your adult vices" bootcamp.

This said, everyone has a different situation, both personally and professionally, so there is no recipe to make everyone happy but only suggestions that can help dealing with work and worries in the coming weeks.

Maybe it’s obvious, but we need to establish a new routine to make the best out of this forced home office:

1. Reorganise your tasks and priorities

Experimental work cannot proceed, but most likely you have some computer work that piled up when you were so busy generating new data: now is the time to analyse, catch up with your lab book, make a point in your project and why not, turn it into a story! And if your project is not ready to be published yet, now is the time to read and come up with new ideas. If you are lucky, it’s about time to write your PhD thesis and being forced away from the bench will help you focus on the writing.

2. Make a schedule and stick to it

If you are isolated at home alone, it might get difficult to maintain a healthy rhythm, leading to either wasting time or working non-stop. Making a schedule, keeping the days different from one another, dividing work time from personal time are small actions that can help to create a feeling of normality.

If you have a family, you will have to find time and energy to play with your kids and keep them entertained while creating some time and space to get work done. I have no clue if schedules have any power in this case!

3. Take some time for yourself

A good perk of forced change is the possibility of trying something new: the time you normally need to reach the workplace can now be used to take care of yourself. Reading a good book, taking up a hobby you normally don’t have time to do, starting the day with some exercise or yoga. This will give you energy to start your work on time, from your home desk, feeling like you were gifted some extra time.

4. Reinvent social interactions

Today’s world is super connected, and we clearly saw the effects on the spread of the virus. More and more people need to be preventively isolated, deeply affecting the economy and disrupting social interaction. Luckily technology comes to our rescue in this case! Many platforms can help to keep meetings going, allow communications with our coworkers and make home office possible in the first place. If it’s effective for work, we can use technology to keep in touch with people without having to meet in person. In Italy, where isolation measures are really strict, several flash mob initiatives of singing at the windows or clapping to thank health workers aim to lift the spirits and unite people, all while respecting isolation.

Everyone has a different situation, being at home alone or with your family and kids. Your boss might expect you to maintain the same level of productivity or might understand that priorities have to change. Whatever your situation is, I would like to leave you with a sparkle of hope in this difficult and strange time:

“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno that we inhabit every day, that we create being together. There are two ways to escape from it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant attention and learning: seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them last, give them space.”

― Italo Calvino, Le città invisibili

Worrying about things will not get us out of this situation, so it’s better to do our part staying at home and finding creative ways of keeping research going, focusing on the positive impact that we can have to get back to normal as soon as possible.

If you struggle with the uncertainty of the situation, here some suggestions to deal with anxiety.

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