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Staying positive and connected: Work hubs and the alternative coffee date

'Getting used to things, doesn't necessarily mean it's getting easier. That's why we're incredibly impressed by what everyone has accomplished.' How do our institutes stay connected and motivated? Lenneke Alink (Pedagogical Sciences) and Ed Noijons (CWTS) share how pub quizzes and who's who games, new digital opportunities and inspiring work hubs combined with flexibility and a smile keep the courage up. 

Lenneke, how did the colleagues at Education and Child Studies experience the last few months?

We have been able to adopt a new way of working, which no one has chosen of course, but to which everyone has reacted very constructively. Given the circumstances, I find it incredible that people always design their education plans with good ideas and think creatively about how research can be done differently. As a board, we are very impressed by what people do and how we still do it together.

In the first wave, the schools closed and the first attention automatically went to colleagues who had the care for children at home. But at the same time we also noticed that for others who live alone, for example, it was and still is very difficult in another way. Different things play out for each group and work field. For colleagues who teach, for example, the changes went very quickly. There the sudden change was very big and things are still changing all the time.

For support staff there was a big change because their work is often related to being on the work floor, like the secretaries who are the heart of the institute as a point of contact. From home, your position then gets a completely different interpretation. Regular contact with others, in the building if possible, or from home, is essential. At the same time, many research tasks, such as writing an article, can be done from home. But certainly young researchers had to find a new approach to things. PhD students, for example, who had to drastically change their research plan for the next few years.

And of course we miss the spontaneous contact with colleagues. Working digitally alone can be quite difficult, even though we have got a pretty good grasp of video conferencing and digital teaching. We carry the burden together, pushing the boundaries in terms of finance to support as much as possible. But it sometimes frustrates that the work pressure is still really high for many colleagues. I find it admirable that we turn out to be so flexible, and that there are still great initiatives for research, education and also social activities.

Ed, at a research institute as CWTS change was a little less drastic, but you did come up with 'work hubs'. What do they entail?

Indeed, our researchers were already used to the possibility of working from home, so it was an easy step for us to take. It was difficult that in that first phase people also had to arrange things at home. Colleagues with small children, but also the foreign PhD's in a small room who had to organize the technical and social aspects differently. You have to move along with them. Every month we evaluated where we could facilitate, apply for postponement in projects, or simply find out 'it is, what it is'.

After three months, everyone was back to 100%. As soon as allowed, we also allowed people into the building. But our employees themselves are also cautious. Not everyone takes the opportunity to come back to work. Especially colleagues who live outside Leiden didn't do so to avoid public transport. I live in Utrecht and have only been there twice myself. Everyone hates the situation, especially the lack of social contact. We tried to do something about that, that's how the idea of 'work hubs' came around.

As a pilot, with eight colleagues now living in Utrecht, we decided to provide the opportunity to work twice a week for a month in a rented workshop space in the city centre. In the end, it didn't come to that, but we were able to do it once. That was a lot of fun. We are an institute with very diverse backgrounds, both cultural and professional, everyone does different projects or research, but you know each other. To be able to work together in such a working hub gives room for contact and inspiring conversations, both in terms of work content and socially.

The bigger idea is that you can organize this nationwide with the different universities. Together they have the ideal infrastructure to facilitate this; there is a university in all major cities. Besides promoting contact and inspiration, it is very practical. You share the costs and you limit travel movements and the impact on traffic jams and public transport. VSNU also sees this as an ideal situation, but there are still many challenges ahead. Because of the second covid wave, we were only able to make it happen once. Who knows, we might be able to take a broader view of this idea with the other institutes of our Faculty in the event of new flexibilities. Or in collaboration with the University of Utrecht. It is also a matter of building up experience.

Lenneke, how do your colleagues keep up social contact and the 'coffee machine chat'?

Both the board and colleagues themselves organize things to make it fun. It's looking for the balance: What do you offer and how much time do people have. In addition to all lectures, research, consultations, finding time to join online coffees or drinks is sometimes a challenge. While that social connection is also important. With only the focus on the serious, it's not sustainable. Many people need the spontaneous, fun story, personal chit-chat or joke in between work. I especially miss the fact that you don't meet each other in the hallways or at the coffee machine now. Being in the building on a regular basis with a few colleagues certainly helps. And we try this in other ways as well.

For example, we recently held a virtual coffee date on the website Gather.town, which we will certainly repeat. You stand in a virtual environment with your own avatar and you can walk to different groups of colleagues or sit down at someone's table. As you approach you can see the video footage of the people you are talking to. Our events committee also made our own Institute's pub quiz, which was a lot of fun and provided a lot of entertainment. Others organized online bingos or for example a game where you have to guess colleagues based on some crazy facts. PhD students who used to share a room, now put on the teams video connection for the whole day, making comments to each other from time to time. And colleagues who live near each other go for a walk, work together at a long table or plan to go to the Faculty at the same day.

Furthermore, as a board we consciously plan room for contact moments. Personal attention is very important. Just send flowers when there is something to celebrate for someone or when support is needed. Furthermore, at the end and beginning of the academic year and with St. Nicholas and Christmas, we sent something to let people know that we really appreciate them. Showing appreciation and being open to ideas and feedback is important to us. We like to discuss how we can best facilitate working from home or, for example, how we can better balance working at home and on FSW. We do this in institute meetings where everyone can join, but also in smaller groups in the various research programs. And at the board the virtual door is always open.

Ed, how does CWTS reach out for support and keeping up a positive atmosphere?

Trying to maintain that commitment and frequent contact is indeed very important. We have conducted a quarterly survey among our employees about how people feel and what they think of the current working conditions. This showed us that in the longer term almost everyone would like to have a hybrid way of working; going to Leiden a few times a week, working at the institute, and the other days at home or at a work hub close by.

We have quite a lot of people who think along quickly and creatively about this situation. We also set up a corona core team fairly quickly, with employees who brought along knowledge about research, IT and communications, in addition to the board. This enabled us, for example, to transform our annual retreat into an online event. First, we had a social afternoon in which we did an escaperoom in small groups, which was a lot of fun. And the next morning, just like last year's quackathon, in which small groups of people from different disciplines and research projects work together on a solution to a problem. It's still more uncomfortable than sitting around the table physically, but the online version was also very successful.

In addition, we have an agreement that managers have weekly or fortnightly contact with each employee and the social part is also discussed. I have about six or seven conversations a week and they always start with 'How are you?'. In addition, during the internal meetings on Tuesday we also discuss the social side, sometimes in smaller break-out sessions. We do this in random groups, so you talk to people you know well and people you don't know as well. This also gives rise to ideas for fun activities. For example, to have everyone send in a picture of their home situation to make a 'who is who' game. In the end, everyone will laugh their way out of all those pictures and misjudged allocations.

We end the year together with an online drink and of course the Faculty's Christmas game. It was very nice to see when that game was announced, that immediately people started to sign in on different teams and that, although we are a small institute, we are now participating with four teams.

Concentration during the CWTS 'who is who' game.

Lenneke, what positive things has corona brought and what do you hope 2021 will bring?

Yes, the Christmas game is also popular at our institute. So anyway it's very positive to see that people are enthusiastic for that kind of joint activities. The advantage of this crazy time is that everyone has become so accustomed to meeting online, that you get in touch more quickly with someone who is further away and can also participate more easily in congresses or symposia from a distance. With promotions it is also easier to invite someone to the reading committee who is on the other side of the world. The whole world is more accustomed to working digitally. And we have developed a lot of beautiful digital things in education and research, some of which we will certainly keep in the future.

For a good start to 2021, I hope that everyone will be able to take some time off from work around the holidays, despite the hustle and bustle. And my big wish is that we will be able to see each other much more in real life again.

Ed, what new opportunities have come your way and how are you looking forward to 2021?

One of this year's surprises was that our seminar on Friday, which we have been organizing for many years, got a huge rush. When it took place off line, hardly anybody from outside the institute attended, sometimes there were only 14 of us. Since organizing it online, it has actually become a kind of weekly conference with between 40 and 60 people with a very diverse and international audience, all the way to China. And anyone can ask questions through the chat. That's an outreach we didn't see coming. Our blog Madtrics blog is also more popular than ever, both among authors and readers.

For 2021, I hope that everyone stays healthy and that the circumstances will produce something positive. It is an opportunity to look at international conferences, for example. Let's build forth on a hybrid form of them and taking this year's experience into account. And, of course, the work hubs. So: I hope for a positive future in which we see more opportunities than the limitations of our time.

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