How digital research can thrive through virtual connections

In April 2020, Dr Dominika Kwasnicka joined our CRE as a Research Fellow. At the same time that she started, COVID-19 pandemic forced most of Australia into lockdown and travel between states travel was not permitted.  Most researchers started working from home, trying to juggle family and work responsibilities. Starting new job while working remotely can be very challenging! You cannot participate in face to face meetings, coffee catch ups, brief conversations next to the printer when you quickly exchange ideas and thoughts, and moan about politics or bad weather.

Here are Dominika’s answers to some questions after she finally visited Melbourne in May 2021, over a year after starting her Research Fellow role within our Centre.

For 12 months now, you’ve been working with the Connected Health NHMRC CRE virtually from Perth, what was it like finally visiting Melbourne in the last couple of weeks and visiting everybody?

Coming to Melbourne for me was long overdue. In 2020, we adjusted very well to meeting everyone on Zoom (Skype, Teams, whatever online meeting software we are using); however, online interactions can get tiring. Meeting everyone in person was a good way to deepen the connections, to discuss work and also simply just to get to know each other. Online meetings are usually limited in time and often ‘business like’; getting to know your work colleagues often takes time, and it is trickier to do when you can only rely on online interactions.

I enjoyed visiting different units and institutes during my recent visit to Melbourne. At the University of Melbourne, I visited the Connect building were our colleagues from computing sciences are based and 780 Elizabeth St., Parkville campus, where our colleagues from the Department of General Practice, Melbourne Medical School reside. I also finally got my staff card to access Melbourne School of Population and Global Health where I am based now, although I continue working remotely from Perth.

I also ventured outside the city to visit our colleagues and collaborators at the Deakin University, Burwood Campus, this place is a nice mix of ultra-modern and oldish buildings where our colleagues from the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) are based. I had the opportunity to give an invited presentation to their Faculty and ironically, they requested an online presentation instead of a face to face or a hybrid one.

The highlight was also visiting Baker Diabetes and Heart Institute where our CRE Director is based, together with his growing team. I finally also got to meet some colleagues who have become close collaborators on recent research grants including Prof Thomas Marwick and A/Prof Melinda Carrington. Our Non-communicable Diseases Unit – led by Prof Brian Oldenburg – has recently relocated to the Baker Institute as well.  Were there any surprises?

My main one was how tall Prof Kostakos is! But apart from that, all was expected, it was great to see everyone in person, to catch up not only discussing science topics but also just having general conversations about life, likes and other things that you do not get to chat about much during ‘official’ Zoom meetings.

How could this kind of hybrid in-person and virtual working relationship be improved in the future?

COVID-19 pandemic has revolutionised how people work around the globe. Although online meetings were possible long before COVID-19 outbreak, they became core part of our work interactions. Take it or leave it, it is probably impossible to now go back to not having online meetings. They do have several limitations: they are tiring, constantly looking at the screen is not the most natural way how we discuss ideas and carry on conversations. We often rely on non-verbal cues to communicate and these are definitely limited when we meet online as compared to meetings in real life. Also looking at the screen, and seeing yourself constantly on the screen has its disadvantages.

Some tips to make it more enjoyable and more effective? My key suggestions would be: limit the number of online meetings – they are very easy to stick in the calendar but you can avoid some of them and simply replace them with an email or a walk-and-talk phone call. These ones are my favourites, and I often ask my students if we need to share a screen, look at the data or if we can simply ‘meet’ outside. Handsfree handsets and wireless headphones are great for that and walking in nature seems to balance well long days in front of the screen.

In terms of hybrid meetings – these ones can get tricky. It may be difficult to coordinate people on the screen to have a meaningful interaction with people in the room. Preferably, you may decide on one or the other – everyone meets in person or everyone meets online. As we proved during our CRE Trainees catch up hybrid meeting can work very well as well. Here are my key pointers for things that make them really effective:

Ensure that people on the screen can clearly see everyone in the room; that may require moving the camera or shuffling people around the room – worth doing though.

Use technology to enhance the conversation. There are several systems and platforms that popped up in the last year that can make an online or a hybrid meeting really interactive – including Miro platform (https://miro.com/signup/) or several online white boards that allow drawing things on the virtual board.

Make sure that the internet connection is good, volume is set at the right level, and that background noise is set to the minimum. As nice as calling into a meeting from your back garden may be, it may not work so amazingly if your internet keeps disconnecting or if your neighbour decides to mown his lawn. If there is a lot of background noise that you cannot avoid, it’s always good to put yourself on mute.

Have your camera on. Nothing more boring than looking at the screen with just people names on. You can switch off your own view so you don’t have to look at your own face, for other people in the meeting it probably makes for a nicer interaction if you actually stay visible online.

Make sure everyone is on the same page – if something is happening in the room – let people online know what’s going on. It may be difficult to follow the conversation, if you cannot clearly figure out what’s happening on the other side. This works both ways so if something happens online that people in the room missed – worth letting them know what’s going on.

Do you think that there are learnings from your experience over the last 12 months that are relevant to the CRE’s research work program?

Absolutely! My key learnings are: building work relationships online may take longer than when you are based in the same place, but it is definitely possible. At the start I took the time to meet everyone one-by-one and to discuss research ideas, expertise and plans. These meetings did not have very specific agenda but they helped me learn about my colleagues, and I will definitely recommend doing it if you start a new job remotely. It’s good to call it a coffee catch up even if everyone needs to cater with their own beverage.

Our research is largely done online, and it works well if we also maintain a social aspect of what we do. During lockdowns we had virtual drinks, virtual retreat, virtual celebrations. We stayed connected even though socially isolated at times. As we go forward, Centres of Research Excellence may become purely virtual and for our CRE with so many partners based all over Australia and with some colleagues and collaborators based in the US, Denmark, and Europe, our centre has proven that we are truly Connected (Health CRE).

Meeting team based at Baker Diabetes and Heart Institute
Attending a workshop on the topic of team building led by Dr Tilman Dingler, using Miro software
Hybrid meeting CRE Trainees brainstorming new collaborative ideas and outputs
Meeting team at Deakin University – another hybrid meeting in the executive rooms
This one and many other fascinating projects showcased at the Computing Science labs
Professor Vassilis Kostakos and his team – key daily event – lunch time catch up!
Cheers! Will see you next time for more brainstorms and interesting drinks!

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