by Roberto Scopigno and Daniela Giorgi (ISTI-CNR)
The CNR Institute for Information Science and Technologies describes its experience in adapting to smart working, which has dramatically changed the institute’s modus operandi for most of the year 2020.
When the Coronavirus epidemic led to the abrupt closing of all its offices in March, CNR introduced the Covid-19 smart working regime. This was the most significant experiment on smart working ever done at CNR. Indeed, CNR had never accepted that much research activity could be done anywhere and at any time.
In spring, we operated under a remote-work-only regime. Then, after alternating between home and office working for a few months, in November we were back at home. Though what we have experienced has not been real smart working, but rather a forced situation in which we had no or limited choice about where (and how) to work, this experience has provided much food for thought: could the solutions we devised to run research groups remotely be continued after the emergency has ended? Can smart working be successful in complex research organisations such as CNR?
The past months have tested both our organisation and our resilience. Embarking on a well-planned smart working project would require months, if not years, to redesign policies, technologies, and behaviour. Instead, at the beginning of March, we were mostly unprepared: we had to implement a new organisation of work in just a few days. But we were fast to react. We were eager to keep Italy up and running. This included continuing to run existing projects as well as starting new activities designed in response to the epidemic.
Of course, there have been practical issues in moving our offices to our homes. The administrative staff used paper archives and desktop rather than portable computers. Often, home Internet connections were insufficient to serve the needs of entire families. Luckily, it was easy to solve the technical issues by bringing some of the office equipment home or buying new devices.
The major problems were organisational. With family homes of a small size, several people had to work in kitchens or living rooms, with many sources of distractions. Spring school closure forced many colleagues to divide themselves between their professional roles and activities as tutor/ technician/babysitter for children. An experience that either destroys or fortifies you forever is taking part in an international project meeting while dealing with interruptions from impatient kids.
The other side of the coin was that, since we all were in the same boat, we felt a sense of common fate, which created new bonds. We began to know each other’s homes, as the backgrounds of virtual meetings showed kitchen furniture or toy shelves. We laughed when a colleague had to leave the virtual conference to let a yowling cat out of the room, and others laughed at us when we had embarrassing conversations with our families without muting our mikes. As weeks passed, we learned how to keep virtual meetings light, while still productive.
We found that virtual meetings can save time and money. We experimented with many different virtual platforms and bought professional accounts when needed. The (impossible) quest for the ideal platform has not been solved yet, but we are getting there.
Our annual meeting, which we call ISTI-Day, turned virtual as well. While in the past we had a full-day conference, this year we distributed the event across three weeks, one afternoon per week, to maximise attendance. The program featured both plenary talks for researchers to share their latest advances, and poster sessions for young researchers and PhD students. Keeping young researchers motivated and involved has always been a priority for us. This year we felt the need even more, as young people are likely to suffer from isolation from their lab environments.
Admittedly, we missed social contact and social life. But there is more to smart working than the reduction of social interaction. CNR-ISTI is organised in 12 large research groups, and much informal discussion and exchange of new ideas happen during coffee or lunch breaks. We missed these chances, which often turned into productive brainstorming. Despite many jokes circulating about Shakespeare writing plays and Newton discovering fundamental laws while being isolated during pandemics, we were well aware that social distancing could affect motivation, creativity, and productivity. We conducted an informal survey among ISTI lab heads to investigate if researchers were mostly working on established projects or if brand new ideas emerged during the epidemic period. The replies indicated a perceived decrease in our capacity to innovate during the stringent spring lockdown.
Our lab heads had to look for different ways to maintain relations with and among the lab members, as well as upholding the sense of belonging to the group – from formal teams on yet another platform to informal digital chats or virtual happy hours through video conferencing tools. Dealing with the sense of isolation has been very important: it is essential that the reduced visibility of smart workers does not result in missed opportunities.
A downside was a perception of reduced delineation between work and non-work time, with the risk of lower quality down-time. As the epidemic emergency period is now getting longer, learning how to switch-off is growing in importance.
Finally, to evaluate our countermeasures to the emergency situation, we will have to analyse our research production in the coming months. This analysis will need to take into account gender issues, to check whether the need to balance family care with research had a different impact on women than men, and to help us proceed towards full gender equality.
Overall, we look at the experience from a glass-half-full perspective. Without a doubt, we see smart working as an opportunity for the future, not as an ordeal to endure.
Roberto Scopigno, Director, and Daniela Giorgi, Visual Computing Lab, CNR-ISTI