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Back to the work floor? We can’t wait!

This COVID-19 pandemic, with most recently the omicron variant of the virus, seems to have passed its peak. Perhaps NWO-I colleagues will soon be able to work more often in their institute building again? That day can’t arrive soon enough, as far as Ulrich van den Ham (Team leader facility services Utrecht), Suzanne Klaver (Nikhef), Sandra Liefhebber (NIOZ) and Anouck Vrouwe (DIFFER) are concerned. In January 2022, Inside NWO-I asked them how the pandemic has affected their work so far.

More popular than ever before

Ulrich van den Ham, Team leader facility services Utrecht
‘It started with applying arrows to signpost the directions to be walked in and the blocking of desks. In the toilets, special rinsing basins were installed to prevent legionella.’ Ulrich van den Ham is, among other things, the building manager and head of the in-house emergency response team of the NWO office Nova Zembla in Utrecht. The building on the Winthontlaan accommodates not just the NWO-I office, but also the Temporary Taskforce for Applied Research SIA and some colleagues from NWO-D. With the government measures, the number of colleagues who were allowed to come to the office fluctuated, which had many consequences for Ulrich’s work. How did he experience that? Ulrich: ‘I enjoy the dynamic nature of the work, and continuously having to adapt. From 20% occupancy to 10% occupancy, and then working out whether we still had enough in-house emergency responders in the building. In the summer of 2021, we switched to 40% occupancy, and that meant that the restaurant could reopen. Everybody was walking around with a huge smile. I saw people talking together who had never really done so before corona. Everybody craved social contact. However, that 40% did not last long. Now we are once again back to a maximum of 10%. We monitor this via the registration in FlexWhere. During the corona period, the building was made suitable for hybrid working. We, the team from reproduction, put in a lot of effort to achieve that.’ People can now conduct hybrid meetings in all of the rooms. And as long as the equipment works well enough, people are very grateful for that. Peter’s popularity (van den Oudenalder, Ulrich’s direct colleague, Ed.) has increased enormously, and mine too, he says laughing. Signs of appreciation also came from The Hague: I even received a letter from Caroline Visser on behalf of the NWO Executive Board expressing their thanks for the good and safe management of our office. I really appreciated that.’

Pretending the Amstel is the Seine

Suzanne Klaver, postdoc at Nikhef
‘At the start of the corona period, a conference in Paris did not go ahead live but was held online instead. Before the congress started, I brought a croissant, walked along the Amstel and imagined that I was walking along the Seine. I then joined in the sessions on Zoom. It wasn’t quite like the real thing though. It’s difficult to stick it out behind a screen all day during such sessions.’ Suzanne Klaver is a postdoc researcher at Nikhef. During the corona pandemic, she returned to the institute after working as a postdoc in Rome and Heidelberg, and as a PhD in Manchester. As part of the LHCb* group, she investigates the difference between two particle generations (taus and muons) with a Marie Curie fellowship and a Veni grant that were both awarded in 2020. Suzanne: ‘I have not yet experienced the normal Nikhef. I’m now mainly working on data analysis and software development, and I only need my computer for that. That was already the case before corona because I work with many international colleagues. Personal contacts energise me, however, and as soon as it was possible, I immediately went to the institute. And it is also cool to be able to speak to somebody if things are not progressing as you would like. You can help each other.’ Suzanne is testing the software for the LHCb upgrade that will be installed this year. There is a lot of time pressure, she says: ‘All of the hardware and software will be replaced. The software must work to ensure that the correct data are collected after the restart. The deadlines ensure that I continue to work hard. My focus has temporarily shifted from my research to the software development. But I can see that some of my colleague researchers are losing their motivation. A survey among LHCb PhDs and postdocs confirmed the decreasing drive. Imagine that you have arrived here from a faraway country, live in small student digs, brought a minimum of stuff, and cannot go to your place of work or even a cafe? For these people, it can’t be much fun doing research in the Netherlands at the moment. During the first lockdown, foreign colleagues could not even go back home for Christmas. I’m convinced that every bit of contact helps – and then preferably at the office. Last year, fellow particles researcher Mara Senghi Soares launched a fantastic initiative: each week, she connected two different colleagues who went for an hour-long walk or phoned each other. Later today, several people from Nikhef will go skating during the lunch break. The ice rink has remained open.”
*Nikhef is a member of the LHCb experiment, one of the detectors at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Genève. Here, more than 3000 researchers are doing research into elementary particles, such as the Higgs particle, and search for answers to questions about dark matter.

Joint efforts to keep COVID-19 out

Sandra Liefhebber, head of Human Resources Management at NIOZ
Sandra Liefhebber came to work at NWO Institute NIOZ as head of Human Resources Management in September 2020, during the corona period. ‘It was a relatively quiet period in terms of COVID-19’, remembers Sandra. ‘The personnel had access to the building according to a sign-up list. During that period the canteen was open to a limited extent.’ She immediately became a member of the NIOZ corona team, which included a daily routine for a specially set up corona mailbox. Sandra: ‘You definitely can't skip that email for a day, with the large amount of corona-related questions screaming for answers, about expeditions, access to laboratories or new protocols.’ Looking back at 18 months of the pandemic during her time at NIOZ, Sandra is particularly impressed by the responsibility shown by NIOZ employees: ‘Even before face and nose masks became the norm in Dutch public spaces, our lab leaders discussed how to introduce these in their workspaces because keeping a distance of 1.5 m in the labs was simply not possible. Everybody at NIOZ was determined to keep COVID-19 out of the workplace, and we have indeed succeeded in doing that till now. Many necessary expeditions at sea and during fieldwork could still go ahead, with a minimum of personnel onboard the NIOZ ships and in accordance with all the rules. Sandra: ‘For example, if you need to do research during a nesting season, then that can only be done in a certain period. We wrote declarations stating that the research is necessary scientific work so that our researchers could still travel.’ The pandemic engendered a lot of creativity that helped to keep the work tolerable. For example, the institute facilitated “Breathing spaces” outside where principal investigators (PIs) and their PhDs or postdocs could safely meet each other. Sandra: ‘Many of the PIs supervised the young international researchers during walks. The lockdown can make you feel quite desolate if you are far from home and live in one of the residencies, “De Potvis” on Texel or “De Keete” in Yerseke. NIOZ therefore organized a digital, aikido-based physical training for the PhDs to recognize stress and increase resilience. In addition, the NIOZ sports activities and boot camps in the dunes of Texel also went ahead, with adjusted numbers of participants. We are looking forward to a better spring. What I definitely won’t miss from this period? Having to write a corona update after each government press conference.’

On camera with my dinosaur

Anouck Vrouwe, head Strategic Support at DIFFER
‘We are a team of five people, but we have not physically met as a team yet. Our away day was cancelled. I have met everybody separately during walks’, says Anouck Vrouwe, who has worked at DIFFER in the new position of head Strategic Support since 1 March 2021. She relates how the easing of the restrictions of 14 January 2022 means that all DIFFER colleagues can now work at the office again for one day per week. During the lockdown, the instruction was “100% working from home” for colleagues who did not need to be at the institute. Since the start of the outbreak, DIFFER has chosen to be cautious in order to protect employees. Anouck: ‘Of course, colleagues who work on the experimental setups, such as the Magnum-PSI*, were given permission to do so. DIFFER was also accommodating towards colleagues who couldn’t properly work from home.’ Registration of those present in the building takes place according to a schedule. ‘Which is very complex’, laughs Anouck. She says that the occupancy sometimes peaked but that people never had to fight for a place in periods of fewer restrictions. She does not think that going back to a regime of five days per week at the office is realistic. ‘We’ll end up with a hybrid mix. I’m happy with that because I have a cosy den at home in the attic where I can be enormously productive. The advantage of working in the DIFFER building is that you feel more comfortable posing slightly more sensitive questions during a live meeting than during a digital meeting. However, there are some advantages to a remote meeting: seeing your colleagues in the home situation makes you feel a bit closer to them. You get to see their cats and their children walking past the camera. Or you witness a kiss from their partner. A guitar or a bike in the background can give you a chance to talk about hobbies that might otherwise not be mentioned that quickly. And sometimes funny things happen too: Erik Langereis and I were in a Microsoft Teams meeting together with the webmaster who had a whining kid on the lap. Erik and I both had a toy to hand that we held up in front of the camera. We managed to keep the child entertained with my dinosaur and Eric’s toy.’
*Magnum-PSI is the most important research facility of DIFFER. It is a linear plasma generator that can be used to study interactions between plasma and the fusion reactor wall with the help of a large number of diagnostic instruments. Magnum PSI is a user facility that is open to external researchers.

Text: Anita van Stel
Newsletter Inside NWO-I, February 2021
You can find the archive of the newsletter Inside NWO-I on the NWO-I website.

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