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2020 in retrospect: the coronavirus year at NWO

A year of working from home, facemasks and Zoom meetings

In December 2019, a new coronavirus broke out in the Chinese Wuhan region and spread worldwide. NWO and NWO-I tried to respond to the developments to their best abilities, and the health of its employees always took precedence. Inside NWO-I looks back at a turbulent coronavirus year and the consequences that the virus has had so far on the organisation and its employees: how do the institutes deal creatively with the (partial) closure of their buildings, which specific policy measures did P&O take, and how do employees view working from home? And, last but not least, how is NWO-I looking ahead during the second lockdown?

Since the first lockdown in April 2020, the NWO Institutes might have mostly been closed, but the research carried on and, via creative methods, the work-related and informal contact as well. PhDs from the institutes did their PhD defences from home, for instance, workshops and social events, such as piano concerts, were organised remotely, and buddy systems were set up to link (new) foreign researchers with employees who had already found their way in the Netherlands. In addition, several institutes donated facemasks and gloves to the healthcare system during the first lockdown.

P&O policy adjusted to the COVID-19 crisis

Besides practical measures that affected the organisation, P&O also implemented important changes for employees. Examples are special leave for care tasks, amendments to the commuting expenses regulation, and the establishment of a remuneration for working from home.

Special leave for care tasks
NWO-I granted leave for care tasks during the first lockdown until schools and childcare could reopen. Last August, NWO-I announced that from 1 September 2020 onwards, special leave for care tasks would once more be granted according to the prevailing CAO provisions. Fortunately, the lockdown had been lifted, and schools and childcare could restart safely. Then the second lockdown came and changed our lives again on 16 December 2020.

Amendments to commuting expenses regulation
On 1 July 2020, an amended commuting expenses regulation was due to come into force as part of the Implementing Regulations (IR), which was aimed at encouraging sustainable travel. However, due to the coronavirus crisis, this proved to be an unsuitable moment for introducing this new scheme because travelling on public transport had been discouraged for months. Now, the current scheme for employees of NWO-I and NWO is as follows: since 1 July 2020, commuting expenses are only remunerated based on declarations.

Changes to working from home remuneration
With effect from 1 July 2020, following the agreements made with the NWO Central Works Council, NWO-I has retrospectively paid a remuneration to all employees for the costs of working from home during the coronavirus crisis. The amount was paid in conjunction with the salary payment of December 2020. From 1 January 2021 onwards, the working from home remuneration will only be paid based on declarations.

Message Stan Gielen

In April 2020, the then president of NWO Stan Gielen addressed all employees by email (and via Inside NWO-I of April 2020). He wrote about the importance of our health and that of those around us, the limited social contacts of (international) employees and the uncertainty among employees with temporary contracts. The message Gielen sent at the time still applies now: NWO-I wishes you the best in your home situation, private situation and also in your professional situation. Stay healthy and keep in contact with each other.

Survey about working from home during the coronavirus crisis

Last year, NWO-I employees (institutes, NWO-I office and the university workgroups/BUW) completed a survey about working from home during the coronavirus crisis. The outcomes revealed that NWO-I employees gave job satisfaction an average score of 7.2, which was comparable with the national benchmark. 57% of NWO-I employees experience working from home as positive to very positive. 30% were reasonably positive about working from home. The reports for the separate NWO-I units are largely comparable with the overall findings for NWO-I. The outcomes of the survey are reason for NWO-I to review its stance on working independent of location, such as from home, for after the coronavirus crisis too.

Scientific research related to the coronavirus

The coronavirus has obviously had an impact on doing research at the NWO Institutes. Several institutes revealed that, especially now, they are focusing their research on coronavirus-related themes. Some studies had to be adapted to the situation, and certain current studies have become more relevant than ever due to the coronavirus. CWI group leader Pablo César, with his group Distributed and Interactive Systems, has investigated human-oriented remote communication since 2005. Due to the coronavirus crisis, this research has suddenly become highly relevant. How do you manage and model complex collections of multimedia systems to contribute to a better digital and more empathic communication between people? César explains: ‘Digital systems understand nothing about your context. Take a video conference as an example. Suppose you have a system that moves with whoever is talking or sees who is bored and withdraws because its cameras can anticipate changes. In that case, you will acquire an experience that is similar to a live face-to-face conversation.’ At NWO institute Nikhef, staff worked remotely on the LHCb detector in Geneva in Switzerland. Due to the coronavirus crisis, the research institute CERN was closed, and it only allowed the most urgent activities. By the end of May, two RF (radio frequency) boxes produced by Nikhef for use in the particle detector LHCb could be mounted in the underground detector hall. The operation, partly carried out by Nikhef technician Freek Sanders, was followed remotely via a Zoom video connection and supervised by fellow technicians from Nikhef in Amsterdam. Finally, NSCR criminologist/anthropologist Marie Rosenkrantz Lindegaard, together with the University of Amsterdam, the Amsterdam police force and the municipality of Amsterdam, is investigating how people deal with the rules for social distancing during the coronavirus crisis.

Current state of affairs during the second lockdown

The NWO offices in Utrecht and The Hague, the NWO Institutes and the universities where employees from the university workgroups (BUW) work are still only open on a very limited scale, and working from home is the norm. At the institutes, experiments can continue thanks to the technicians, the emergency response staff and others who are present on a rotating basis. Most researchers and their support departments work from home. Through online talks with the directors, digital newsletters and online coffee meetings, employees remain informed about the latest state of affairs and remain in contact with each other. However, we have all realised that maintaining contact with each other digitally is anything but easy. Nothing beats social contacts in the real world, the impressions you acquire during such contacts, and the chance surprises you experience during normal life.

It is still anybody’s guess when our buildings can fully open again. The opening will take place in steps. For the directors and managers of the NWO Institutes, government policy regarding the coronavirus and vaccinations is leading. They closely follow this policy and discuss the consequences for NWO-I during the monthly meetings.

Newsletter Inside NWO-I, May 2021

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