Interview by: Cathrin Stöver, GÉANT
Erik, when this issue is published at the end of March 2021, it will be exactly a year since the world was struck by the COVID-19 pandemic and GÉANT closed its offices in Amsterdam and in Cambridge. Let’s talk about managing an organisation from the home office. What are your major reflections after one year?
We were lucky in the sense that at GÉANT we had robust remote working tools in place and, more importantly, in constant use pre-pandemic. The GÉANT community is European, even global, so in order to avoid too much travel, we had stable videoconferencing systems in place and also services that enable instant messaging, that way we could easily continue our conversations with our partners and internally. We also already had a functioning working from home policy. So, when COVID-19 struck a year ago, we were in a relatively lucky position and did reasonably well moving to a working from home environment. Our business continuity was good, and we had minimal disruptions related to the pandemic.
However, GÉANT as an organisation and the GÉANT community thrive on trust. We are a trust-based organisation. We value community over transactional relationships or money. I find that building trust or even maintaining it, is almost impossible via videoconferencing. Humans need to regularly be around each other to establish and maintain trust and rapport. Also, what I see – and what really worried me – is the potential loneliness that our members of staff are struggling with. We are very proud to be an organisation that employs staff from almost 40 different countries, but after one year of pandemic it is clear that many expats have built their lives in Amsterdam or Cambridge around the premise and promise of easy travel home. It continues to be a difficult time for many members of staff and as the CEO, I have to ensure that I continuously balance physical health of staff with mental well-being.
What measures did GÉANT take to make the working from home easier for staff?
I felt that I needed to ensure that there is a continuous feeling of togetherness across the organisation and we have tried to stimulate that throughout the year. This started when staff collaborated in our video message stating how proud we are as GÉANT to be supporting the COVID-19 research and being part of the solution. We also made sure that the Easter Bunny delivered eggs to everybody at home! Once we saw that the pandemic had settled in for good, we changed our staff contracts and gave an allowance to cover the extra internet use at home, as well as a specific allowance for office furniture to ensure people could comfortably work from home with good connectivity. And at Christmas we had a joint online dinner. So, we did our best to ensure that staff felt considered.
I organised regular meetings with all team leads to get a feeling whether there are issues I should be aware of and I also took to writing bi-weekly emails to staff – nothing long or difficult, but a regular check-in in everybody’s mailbox with the reminder: I am here for you, if you need me, please let me know. Whenever there was a need, I would follow up on Slack or via VC.
One thing that I know staff in Amsterdam very much appreciate is your Walk and Talk initiative – can you tell us a little more what is behind it?
As soon as it became evident that COVID-19 infections are much less likely to occur outdoors (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33307081/) I decided to meet with staff members based in the Netherlands in the form of a Walk and Talk. This means that we meet outside and take a walk for about an hour and talk about work and about how we are experiencing the pandemic. This is the one way I can at least keep a direct contact with my staff here in the Netherlands, and as a people person myself – I can tell you these are regular highlights of my week. It is so good to just be able to see people and talk.
Of course, it is unfortunate that I have not been able to travel to Cambridge now for a year and I cannot do these Walk and Talks in Cambridge. I have been very vocal encouraging staff to take the time both in Amsterdam and Cambridge to also organise their own Walk and Talks and I am very happy every time a picture is shared showing two members of staff meeting and walking together.
What is the biggest challenge for you when managing your organisation from afar?
It’s simple: I get the information that I know exists, but I do not get the information I don’t know exists! As we are working from home, I am cut off from the chance encounters, the hallway, water cooler and pass-by-my-desk brief encounters that give me valuable background information and, very importantly, a sense of the atmosphere in the office. We now have new members of staff that I have never met in person. We have a new Board and that I cannot meet in person. This long-term dependence on video conferencing is just not a good enough solution. We have seen that conflicts appear and do not resolve because people cannot see each other, teams cannot get together.
On top of this, our community is our lifeline. We run projects in which many people of our community participate. We have Task Forces, Special Interest Groups and conferences. All of these are now online, leading to less personal interactions and more potential misunderstandings and conflicts. So, the challenge is not just inside GÉANT but also to work together with all the NRENs to make sure we manage the challenges in the whole of our community.
How do you see the times after COVID-19? In your view, what is the future of the office space?
GÉANT is a people organisation, we value our people, our staff and we need a place to regularly meet and interact. So, our office spaces in Amsterdam and Cambridge will remain very important for us. The way I see it, we already had a mix of working in the office and from home prior to the pandemic. So, this will remain, but I think there will be a stronger focus on working from home.
Once the restrictions are lifted, what is the first thing you plan to do for the organisation? And maybe you can also tell us, what it is you are looking forward to most for yourself?
I really do believe we deserve a party – a real party, with laughter and music and dancing, maybe even Karaoke. So, I hope that at some point a GÉANT get together for all staff will happen,
and I cannot wait for it!
I so miss the handshakes and the hugs, so for me personally it’s getting that physical connection back – and being able to once again travel to Cambridge to meet with UK staff.
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