Ensembl under lockdown – Part 2

It’s now ten weeks since we have started working remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The novelty of the situation is gone and we got accustomed to the ‘new normal’.

We have worked on ongoing projects as well as new ones: We have released Ensembl 100 in April and a new COVID-19 resource earlier this week! As many of us, Magali and Andy were heavily involved in the development of the COVID-19 resource. But in the second part of our ‘Ensembl under lockdown’ blog series, they give their personal perspectives on what lockdown means for them. They talk about how they adjusted to working from home, challenges that it brings for them and opportunities they see for the future. Come back next week for more insights into Ensembl under lockdown!

Magali Ruffier

What is your job in Ensembl and how has it changed under lockdown?

I am Ensembl development coordinator; I oversee development projects that span multiple teams in Ensembl and are critical to the whole project. Before the lockdown, I had started increasing the number of my work days after returning from maternity leave. Since lockdown and the unavailability of the nursery, I have reduced my working hours once more, as my partner and myself take turns working and looking after our one year old son.

What are the challenges for you?

I find balancing home and work life particularly challenging when they both happen in the same building. The house has become my son’s giant playground and I find myself changing my work place frequently throughout the day to stay out of his way. It is also really hard for me to let go of work that I looked forward to starting on after having been away for months.

What positive aspects do you see?

In many ways, I find myself lucky to have a small child in the house. While every day feels like the previous one, my son grows and changes almost on a daily basis. I also get to see him develop much more than I would have done if he was still at the nursery. Professionally, it has been inspiring to see everyone adjust to the situation, find new ways of staying in touch and look after each other, while devoting themselves to the work they are so passionate about.

Is there anything you will take away from this period in the long term?

In the long term, we will need to review our working practices. We have shown that it is possible for a large number of our staff to work from home effectively and we have also seen that there are some limitations to it. We should consider more ways of working flexibly and adjusting to individual circumstances in the future, while acknowledging that it might not work for everyone.

Andy Yates

What is your job in Ensembl and how has it changed under lockdown?

I’m a team leader at EMBL-EBI and coordinate our outreach and training programme alongside the development of our web site, production pipelines, microbial and vector resources. That boils down to participating in a lot of meetings to either discuss these topics or helping to coordinate other efforts within the wider team, including our collaborations and future funding opportunities. These activities normally involve extensive international travel and I was due to visit groups in Italy, Germany and the USA during March and April.

The big change since lockdown is the removal of all travel and many of these meetings chose to switch to a virtual environment. One of these was a scientific advisory board, which we switched to be semi-virtual with only a few days of notice. Otherwise the other parts of my job have remained as we already conducted a lot of our business in virtual settings due to the international nature of science. The transition to a 100% virtual environment has been a much smaller switch than anyone might have thought.

One area where my job has changed is that I now have a much greater emphasis on pastoral care to make sure my team is adequately supported whilst ensuring they are all mentally and physically well. Doing this virtually is much harder than in-person. If anything, the pandemic has shown how quickly things can change and the need to keep on-top of this.

What are the challenges for you?

There are a few. First is the lack of change in the days as there is very little to distinguish between them. Setting up a daily routine including exercise, having a dedicated workspace and appropriate equipment has been essential. Being able to close the door of the office at the end of the day means I can mentally clock-off from work. Otherwise the desire to continue working would be too great. The second challenge has been the switch to virtual meetings. For the ones I’ve participated in, there’s been little to no change in reaching satisfactory outcomes.

Where it becomes more difficult is in the more social work discussions you can have at meetings. Such as developing new ideas or talking problems through with someone, which happen at these kinds of meetings. For example, 18 months ago at the Global Alliance for Genomics & Health (GA4GH) 6th plenary meeting I spoke to a colleague about a new standard and that this might complement a proposal they had. 14 months later we had developed this into an approved standard. That kind of ad-hoc discussion is difficult to have in a virtual environment. Finally, I miss talking to people and not staring into a camera.

What positive aspects do you see?

The reduction in travel has been really nice, both to the office and around the world. Whilst I do enjoy travelling, I find that travel can build into periods where I am away from the UK for a significant amount of time. I know many people travel far more than myself but the break has been nice. The sunnier weather in April has also helped.

I also feel there’s now a wider acceptance that virtual meetings do work and that teleconferencing software is not only good enough to cope with over a hundred people, but good work can be accomplished too. Whilst it doesn’t replace face-to-face communication, I hope many people, groups and consortia will question if in-person meetings are required and if so, it is because they will enhance what happens outside of the meetings.

It also can’t be underestimated that the lockdown is having a positive impact on our environment and that businesses can reduce their carbon footprint effectively by employing the methods they are using now. I feel there will be a wider desire to return back to “normal” as soon as possible and these positives will be lost as quickly as they have appeared.

Is there anything you will take away from this period in the long term?

It’s currently difficult to say, since we are still only at the beginning stages of this journey. For sure it will make me question if the meetings I am organising are necessary and if they are, should they be virtual or in-person. It has also made me value more those face-to-face interactions for what they can enable, the time a person spends to engage in them and that personal connection with someone.

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