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Sampling the mood at CWI during the coronavirus crisis

Gradually buzzing back to cross-fertilisation

Since 18 May, NWO Institute CWI (Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica) has been open again. The receptionist is back behind the desk to welcome you, and the employees can work at the institute on a rotational basis. As soon as you enter the building through the revolving door, you notice the signs and stickers reminding you to keep a distance of 1.5 metres. Disinfecting tissues hang in the lifts, and there are posts with cords in between to ensure that colleagues cannot accidentally get too close to each other.

During the lockdown, the rabbits dared to show their faces again between the few cars on the Science Park car park. On each floor of the CWI building, no more than one room was occupied by the so-called skeleton staff. A colleague from the secretarial team, an IT colleague, a workplace support person, the caretaker, the institute manager: they took their own lunch with them and were startled by sporadic noises in the corridor.

One of the CWI researchers who gained access to the deserted building on several occasions during the past few months is group leader Pablo César. ‘It wasn’t much fun being here. Besides the buzz, I missed the good coffee from the library.’

As the technology at CWI was better than that at home, César organised a remote workshop in the institute. That workshop was scheduled to be held in March in Hawaii, but it did not go ahead due to COVID-19. The participating scientists decided to hold the conference in a 3D environment with their own unique avatar. They virtually built this environment, including the keynote speech, brainstorm sessions and informal meetings in the corridors. César: ‘It was a huge success. Thanks to the 3D aspect, you could speak to colleagues in different capacities. Only the dive in the Pacific Ocean was missing.’ César can see the benefits of virtual conferences: ‘They won’t replace live exchanges, but I do foresee that conferences in the future will also acquire a digital variant. I’m in favour of that because it means that scientists without a travel budget can take part too.’

Empathic communication
With his group Distributed and Interactive Systems, César has been doing research into human-oriented remote communication since 2005. Due to the coronavirus crisis, this has suddenly become far more current than ever before. How do you pilot and model complex collections of multimedia systems so that you can make a contribution to an improved digital and more empathic communication between people? César explains: ‘Digital systems understand nothing about your context. Take a video conference, for example. If you have a system that moves with whoever is talking or sees who withdraws due to boredom, because cameras anticipate changes, then you will have an experience that is similar to a live face-to-face conversation.’

César and his colleagues base their results on realistic test fields for remote consultations between medics and patients, such as a theatre environment or recently in a hospital. One part of César’s research has evolved into 3D communication, like on Star Wars and Star Trek, in which participants can talk with a hologram. César: ‘With a 3D headset you can interact with another, more realistic person, instead of looking at a single camera during a remote meeting while at the same time being watched by all different people you cannot observe.’

Working from home
Just like everybody else, most CWI colleagues had to seek their refuge in the current tools for remote communication. On the face of it, working from home was not a limiting factor according to César: ‘The young researchers in my group have been enormously productive.’

Institute manager Dick Broekhuis adds: ‘Our researchers do not need a microscope or lab, like our neighbours at AMOLF, where my colleague institute manager Paula van Tijn has to allocate scarce lab space. But at the front door of CWI, the employees could pick up a keyboard, monitor and office chair. The group leaders were fantastic in anticipating the new reality and initiated a wide range of virtual contact moments. During the first weeks of the lockdown, there was a lot of attention for the social environment of employees. For foreign PhD students who did not yet know exactly how everything in the Netherlands works and who were suddenly left sitting alone in their room, the situation was far from ideal. In any case, I am amazed by everybody’s loyalty and ability to adapt. People had to learn to cope with a huge wave of inefficiency in the daily routine in what was already a busy period.’

Meanwhile CWI, in accordance with the rules from the Dutch government and NWO, is slowly letting go of the reins. The question which we now try to answer first is: which work is essentially better done at the institute. CWI facilitates that each day, on a rotational basis, by allowing several people from each group to work at the institute and small meetings of two to three people to take place at a distance of 1.5 m. Some CWI employees hold lunchtime meetings outside in the sun. The new regime is aimed at helping to prevent intellectual starvation. Broekhuis explains: ‘What we miss is the interaction within teams. Due to the coronavirus crisis, every contact has to be managed. However, CWI is characterised by cross-fertilisation, the interactions that people have that lead to good ideas. Our building was also designed on the aspect of meeting each other. By gradually allowing more people into the building, we hope to restore the old sense of collaboration.’ However, Broekhuis also emphasises a positive side effect of the coronavirus crisis: ‘Everyone in the Netherlands now sees the public value of predictions and statistical analyses based on scientific insights.’

Newsletter Inside NWO-I, June 2020
Text: Anita van Stel

Photo: CWI

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