Academic institutions in the time of Covid-19: Homeworking and productivity

Working from home became a necessity due to lockdown constraints. As governments are currently formulating protocols to allow companies to re-open their business premises and restart the economy, several universities and academic institutions are proceeding cautiously and making plans to deliver teaching remotely at the start of the new academic year.

The pros and cons of working from home have been discussed for a number of years, prior to this year’s public health emergency, in the context on how to achieve a healthy work and life balance. A paper entitled Work-Life Balance and Working from Home, authored by Tracey Crosbie and Jeanne Moore and published in Social Policy and Society in 2004 examined the experience of homeworking in this context. The paper concluded that, “a more cautious approach to homeworking would be wise given that so little is known about its effects on home and family life”.

However, the pandemic has made it mandatory to work from home and this has proved challenging in a number of ways for academia. The coronavirus has shut down institutional facilities, including laboratories, libraries and archives, and stopped fieldwork activities. Libraries are trying their best to offer digital resources, but many of these have not been digitised or purchased.

The example of Newton is often mentioned to show how isolation can foster creativity and innovation. Isaac Newton discovered calculus during the Great Plague of London, which occurred in 1665. He was a student at the University of Cambridge and also discovered gravity in the same year.

However, reality paints a different picture. Academics have had to learn to use unfamiliar technology quickly to teach, collaborate and provide student supervision. They have had to find a quiet space in their homes - which is harder when the household includes young children in need of entertainment or home schooling - to continue planning and writing papers. Institutions might be supportive, but they still have some expectations of productivity. Another challenge is that many researchers had to find new angles for their research output as funders and journals are keen on promoting and publishing research connected to the pandemic.

What academic institutions are doing during coronavirus

Many academic institutions have been understanding, allowing academics to deal with their workload while satisfying family commitments. Universities have postponed events, moved this year’s teaching and supervising online whenever possible, reduced the number of staff meetings to address more pressing concerns and started to award degrees virtually.

Academic committees are planning for the new academic year and keeping an eye on governmental memos, which are often vague because it’s difficult to predict what will happen in the next months. There are also concerns that enrolment to future courses might fall due to COVID-19.

Universities have also considered the mental health of their students and staff, offering counselling sessions and tools. Academics have set up virtual communities, trying to keep in touch with their students and fostering international research networks.

Working-from-home tips for academics

The ‘home office’ will remain the new normal for a while yet. Here are a few suggestions to stay on task while keeping healthy and motivated:

  • Keep the channels of communications open. Email is still fine and so are collaboration hubs like Slack, which allows you to communicate with your team in your own time. We are all suffering from ‘Zoom fatigue’ and if you have young children at home it might be easier to work outside conventional office hours. Clear communication is key to manage expectations from your superiors, too.
  • If you are feeling isolated, keep in touch with your network by organising a virtual water cooler chat. Most academic institutions are using Zoom and Microsoft Teams to run formal and informal meetings. You can also pick up the phone and call your colleagues if you need a real conversation, rather than relying on email only.
  • Create boundaries in your home and inform your family members of any zoom meeting or skype call in advance.
  • Take regular screen breaks and break long periods hunched on your computer by doing some stretches and chair exercises. Many fitness professionals are offering free classes online. Working without stopping for a break will affect your focus and health.
  • Be kind to yourself and your team, be patient with yourself and others. Do not set unrealistic timelines, build in enough contingency time so you can tackle any problems arising during your project. Give yourself and your colleagues more time in light of the current situation.
  • Have some think time in your schedule. Pausing some projects might be inevitable but you could use the time to learn a new skill and plan ahead in case covid-19 constraints are going to carry on until the end of the year.
  • It is not an easy time for anyone. We are all hoping things will go back to normal as soon as possible. In the meantime, it’s helpful to counterbalance boredom, anxiety and uncertainty with new ways to stay occupied, productive and positive.
  • If you have been working on a paper, perhaps created a collaboration with other researchers and are looking at publication options, do visit our journals page to find out what we can offer you.