I have a meeting with my colleague in Australia in the morning. After that I give a lecture at TU Delft. In the afternoon I supervise master students and a PhD student. In between, I talk to a colleague at TU Delft and a colleague in Germany. In the late afternoon I present a new paper at a series of seminars in the USA. And in the evening, I am on time to enjoy a delicious dinner and watch a film with my family. This is all possible in these strange times.
After the Covid-19 pandemic will we still replace face-to-face meetings with digital meetings? Doing so does have important advantages, one of them being a dramatic reduction in the amount of traffic caused by students and staff. This is not only significant in terms of their ecological footprint, but attending meetings in person also takes a lot of time and energy. At the same time, we miss the personal contact during our working days.
Last year we have been carrying out lectures and tutorials as well as the thesis supervision almost completely online. I used blended learning even more than I did before. This entails students using the material that we make available to prepare for a lecture. The lecture itself is then primarily used for questions. While students are happy doing this, they often feel uncomfortable if it is done in a large group and especially in a large digital group. At the same time, they feel comfortable asking their questions during one-to-one digital consultation hours. For thesis supervision of bachelor and master students and doctoral candidates online only works well if the project is going smoothly. If there are problems with internships, learning styles or in their personal lives, it really helps if I can speak to students in person. Then I can offer then a cup of coffee or tea – or a hanky if necessary.
While research must be done in the labs on campus, other types of research can be done digitally. However, researchers cannot completely replace personal meetings with digital ones. It is easier for experienced researchers who already know each other personally than for starting researchers or researchers who have never met each other.
Researchers do not want to be away from home for days for every conference
Hybrid forms of research meetings are becoming popular. Many international conference organisers are opting for hybrid conferences this autumn. After all, it is not yet clear if we will be able to travel as we used to. At the same time, I sense that colleagues want to keep hybrid events, at least in part. They do not want to be away from home for days on end for every conference. They may have children or grandchildren or be carers. They may have a lot of work piling up. Or they may simply not find every conference that important. I also see this trend for work meetings at TU Delft.
Is the ideal future a mix of personal, digital and hybrid meetings? It depends on how we arrange them. There are disadvantages too. People who work at home a lot are less likely to be promoted, even though they are more productive. If you ask staff members if they want to work from home, it is often the people with disabilities, with young children and those with care duties who do. A fairly simple solution for teams is to arrange among themselves which days they will be together on campus and which days they won’t. This will increase their productivity while ensuring enough personal contact. Hybrid meetings – local or international – will only work if the digital attendees get enough out of them. One of the post-pandemic challenges will be how we draw on our experiences of working at home and digital meetings. The objective must be to turn TU Delft into an even more modern and better place to study and work, where everyone feels at home.
Claudia Werker is Associate Professor of Technology and Innovation at the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management. She has worked at TU Delft since 2007. She is also the Vice Chair of the Works Council.