Ensembl under lockdown – Part 3

The start of the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the changes it brought has affected all of us in different ways. In this blog, we hear from Michal and Beth. 

Michal was on holiday in Brazil when travel restrictions, the UK lockdown and compulsory work from home for EMBL-EBI staff started. His work also changed a lot as he normally runs face-to-face workshops all over the world and instead delivered a popular webinar course with the rest of our Outreach team when back in the UK.

Beth’s role and the responsibilities of her team have not changed significantly, but she faced the challenge of onboarding a new starter, and succeeded, while working remotely. She also talks about balancing remote work with homeschooling children and the support for families from our management.

Read on to learn more about experiences and insights from both and keep an eye on the blog for the next part of the ‘Ensembl under lockdown’ series!

Michal Szpak

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

I’m an Ensembl Outreach Officer and my job is to support people using Ensembl by answering helpdesk questions, managing our documentation, blog and social media as well as by running face-to-face and online workshops on how to use Ensembl worldwide. Things have changed dramatically, as face-to-face classroom teaching and prepping was a major component of my pre-lockdown job. I was meant to be running five Ensembl workshops in four different countries in April alone. Rightly so, all travel and classroom teaching throughout the summer got cancelled and it seems now that face-to-face workshops might not be possible until the end of the year. We’ve adapted to the new reality by offering an online webinar series to compensate for some of the cancelled workshops. The other aspects of my job haven’t really changed, as they were online based in the first place and they’re the main focus now while working from home.

What are the challenges for you?

The first challenge was actually getting back to work! The lockdown found me abroad, as I left for holidays at the beginning of March before any travel restrictions were introduced. I got stranded on Santa Catarina Island while travelling in Brazil. Sounds like a great place to be stuck in, but it’s not fun while all hotels, hostels and guest houses are closed, you have nowhere to go, your return flight is from another state and there’s no way of getting there. After spending a night at a shelter (big thanks to the local police!), another sleepless night at the airport and a vicious cycle of booking, cancelling and rebooking up to eight flights I finally managed to come back to Cambridge.

That’s when the other problems started. Having been away I couldn’t prepare for working from home before the EMBL-EBI closure. Thankfully, I’ve taken my laptop home before leaving and my colleagues ‘evacuated’ my laptop charger for me. My workstation at home was rather miserable and not fit for eight hours of work a day, which was quickly fixed thanks to the amazing support from EMBL-EBI – I was provided with a keyboard, mouse, desk and an ergonomic chair. The only frustrating technical struggle is my internet connection, which sometimes fails when I need it most – during live webinars – although I’ve learnt how to deal with this now and pre-record webinars as a backup should problems occur during the live session.

The final challenge is living on my own in a tiny studio apartment, away from family. I miss the social aspect of working on campus and simple things like having lunch or a coffee with colleagues. Separation of my living and working space is impossible in my studio flat – I sleep in my office and work in my bedroom, as it’s essentially the same room, which makes it difficult to switch off. I’m still not used to spending all my time in one room by myself. Zoom and slack do help, but it’s not the same as talking to others in-person.

What positive aspects do you see?

We’ve been talking for a while about reducing our carbon footprint and extending our portfolio of online courses to reduce extensive travelling. The current situation proved it’s not only possible to reduce travelling, but the implementation of virtual alternatives to face-to-face workshops and conferences is doable over a short period of time. I’ve just finished preparation of an online workshop for the big European Human Genetics Virtual Conference. Not only is a virtual conference greener, but it can also be more accessible without the need to cover travel and accommodation costs in addition to registration fees. Of course, there are some aspects of face-to-face workshops and conferences which are difficult to emulate online, but there are new opportunities too. I also signed-up for a range of online courses and webinars and I find it much easier to fit them around my schedule while working from home.

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

A new shiny desk! Jokes aside, it’s a great adaptability lesson. It proved we’re capable of rapid adjustment to a new reality and new routine. I got to train my self-imposed discipline by structuring my day and keeping active. Finally, it’s a good lesson not to take anything for granted. 

Bethany Flint

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

I am the project leader for the Ensembl Applications team, which is responsible for developing applications focused on using Ensembl data in specific ways. My role mostly involves people and project management. Since lockdown, my role has broadly remained the same in terms of responsibilities. The team was used to people working from home now and again, so adjusting to using tools such as Slack or Zoom on a more regular basis has not been too onerous. The Applications team has adjusted to the new style of working, so most of the time it is business as usual.

The biggest change for me has been learning how to balance working remotely and homeschooling. The older children are mostly self sufficient with college work or waiting for GCSE results, but my daughter who is in primary school has required more input. Trying to make sure that learning continues while ensuring that her mental wellbeing is looked after (not to mention making sure she gets some exercise!) is hard. Trying to work at the same time is really tough. Luckily, the management at all levels in the Genes, Genomes and Variation (GGV) cluster, at EMBL-EBI and at EMBL have supported parents really well. The message has been clear – family first. So as long as people do not mind children popping up on video calls (and I do not think anyone does) it is all working better than I could have imagined. 

What are the challenges for you?

From a communications point of view, I did not realise how much information I obtained from ad hoc meetings and chats with people in the office. Although online communication and collaboration tools such as Slack work very well, I miss bumping into people in the corridor or being able to sketch things out on a whiteboard there and then. 

We had a new starter, Bilal, join the team in April. I was a little bit concerned about how we were going to onboard him and get him settled in and working. Again this worked better than I could have hoped for. The documentation for the procedures that have been put in place for external collaborators worked well for getting new starters up and running. Bilal is now working on his first project in the Applications team. 

What positive aspects do you see?

Pre-lockdown, booking meeting rooms was always awkward and room availability tended to dictate when meetings could be held. Not anymore! A surprisingly large piece of scheduling work now no longer exists! 

The virtual meetings have in most cases been more productive. It surprised me, but I think people have to put more effort into explaining what they mean, so things are clearer. Also, more work is being put into agendas. The collaborative nature of the software we use (sharing screens and drawing on them, shared online documents etc.) has made sharing and documenting ideas in real time easy and we are doing it better than we did before.

Another positive is the number of meetings and conferences that are now being held online. This makes them much more accessible to people who have other responsibilities. I really hope this continues post-lockdown and maybe people will see that there are alternatives to long haul flights to attend.

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

It has been really interesting to see how a large organisation can change how they operate in such a short period of time and how well it can work. Generally speaking, it is nearly business as usual. I think this will stick with me long after this is over as a testament to what can be done when it needs to be.