The new normal in academia changed how and where we work

University of Helsinki staff is now in the 5th week of remote working. Scientists used to participate in seminars and conferences are now working from home offices. Many of the usual events are cancelled, but some of them are still organized online. 

We asked HELSUS doctoral student Roope Kaaronen and the HELSUS director Anne Toppinen how the COVID-19 situation has changed their way of working.  

“To be honest, not by all that much”, says Roope. “I often prefer to work from home, anyways. Not being able to drop by the office or meet colleagues by a cup of coffee is a downer, but all things considered the situation is bearable. Fortunately, the only infrastructure I am dependent on for my work is my portable laptop”.  

“I start to get used to constant roll of research and admin meetings on Teams and Zoom”, Anne says. “Sometimes there are a bit too many of them per day, but I think it is also because we have had a starting phase. I like peaceful mornings at home and getting rid of moving around campuses. Having virtual team coffees at weekly basis is a very nice thing to break the isolation.”   

“Many meetings and seminars have been cancelled instead of moving them online. The realized meetings have been pleasurable, but privacy concerns have been raised regarding the use of third-party software for discussing sensitive research material“, Roope says.  

Most conferences have been postponed later into 2020 or 2021. For example the Sustainability Science Days Conference in May 2020, organized by HELSUS and Aalto Sustainability Hub, was postponed to the year 2021. Anne however participated in the H2020 expert evaluation panel which was moved online because of the international travel ban. The panel was moved online just a week before the panel was supposed to start in Brussels.   

“The first day was a bit chaotic with jammed connections. Experts from 6 countries crazily communicating over chat boxes. But during the week we learned to communicate quite efficiently”, Anne tells. “This actually not only saved travel time and managed to cut down emissions, but also worked as an encouraging example for developing fully remote research evaluation processes.”  

The flight emissions of the academic world are one of the big challenges for future conferences and other events organized. In 2019 University of Helsinki staff flight emissions increased over 2 % from previous year. The university is nowadays offsetting all carbon emissions from employee flights, but encouraging the workers to cut down on air travel and participate in events via video hasn’t yet taken any notable effect.   

Roope has avoided flying for a longer time, and as a consequence he has been unable to attend many conferences he would have liked to participate in. “It seems clear to me that there is lots of potential in reducing flights in academia by organising meetings and conferences online. This would also have the double benefit of increasing accessibility for those researchers who are unable to attend conferences for other reasons”, he says.   

Anne wishes that we will not go back to intensive flying to conferences when things normalizes after COVID-19. “This ‘forced experimentation’ experience has taught us new ways of working online, so let’s keep up with them”, she says. “One example is UNA Europa alliance that University of Helsinki is participating in. The alliance has expressed strong focus on virtual mobility for both students and researchers. I am hopeful that some concrete ways will come out of this from UNA community working together on this challenge.”  

How else would Anne and Roope try to reduce the flight emissions of the academic world?   

“I think the solution is fairly straightforward: only fly when you absolutely must. Otherwise, it is difficult for a sustainability scientist to justify such a practice. Sustainability challenges cannot be reduced to individual behavior choices, but we must practice what we preach if we wish to be taken seriously”, Roope says.   

Anne thinks we should pay attention to our leisure time travel habits. She is less optimistic about these travels. “We humans tend to be able to think differently when it comes to leisure travel, because also many individuals who advocate sustainability as part of lifestyle do actually travel a lot. Perhaps we could find more meaning in exploring the wonderful nature here locally. Or favor flightless means of traveling even if it takes more time and can be also more costly”, she says.   

University of Helsinki started year 2017 a project named Digiloikka. It encourages the use of digital platforms at the university. The COVID-19 situation has presumably speeded up this development. The situation is not a pleasurable or easy situation for anyone, but in this difficult situation lies also possibilities. Many of us have started to use digital platforms more and in new ways and the experience and knowledge can be used in the future. Various online-meetings and other platforms are however still new ways of working to many.   

What would you want to say to others who’s organizing and participating in online meetings?   

Both Roope and Anne thinks that keeping online meetings brief is important. “Participants seem to get distracted quite easily”, Roope says. Anne thinks that using video is also important since it makes the meetings easier and more humane. “Reserving enough time for also casual exchange is important!” she reminds us.  

COVID-19 is far from an enjoyable situation, but if we want to try to see something positive in the situation the reduced flight emissions and the digital progress among university workers are definitely part of it. The new HELSUS research coordinator Eeva-Lotta Apajalahti highlighted in one of Zoom meetings: “At the moment we have a favourable and understanding atmosphere to develop digital tools and platforms.” By this she meant that it feels safer to start using new digital platforms and make mistakes while learning to, since everybody knows it is the only way to do it for the moment. Nobody is going to question why these new digital platforms needs to be taken into use.