Four years ago, I became our institution's IRB Administrator. Our compliance operation required a full overhaul; but our IRB portfolio is small, and I would work primarily with a small staff group. My experience—and my wish to reduce work hours—aligned with the scale and nature of the new role, as did the concept of working remotely. I made a case for this to my employer.
Back then, none of our staff worked remotely. But I live an hour from work, and we get heavy snow in winter, making for hazardous driving. I'd worked on-site for three years, demonstrating reliability and productivity, so a trial remote-work period was approved. This soon became permanent and I settled into 'hybrid' work (though we didn't use the word at that time) where I spent about one day a week on-site. It was perfect for me and the work I was doing in my role.
A few years later, in 2020, the pandemic brought me many remote colleagues! I admit I envied them being handed something I'd had to earn. But many people were unprepared for the reality of remote work versus the 'pajamas on the sofa' fantasy. I received a new level of respect from colleagues who previously thought I 'had it easy'.
As many companies now embrace remote or hybrid work as a long-term option, how can you make remote work for you? Here are some suggestions from my experience:
- Can you do it?: Make sure your employer has a clear policy on remote work, and that you share an understanding of job parameters and expectations with your manager.
- Draw a line between 'pandemic' and 'permanent' remote work: You are no longer responding to a crisis. This is essentially a new role. Treat it like starting a new job.
- Assess and address your needs: A dedicated work space at home is essential. Office, closet, or shed—somewhere to be 100% distraction free, that you can close off with a door or curtain when not working. Your employer should provide the tools you need—printer, scanner, screens etc. Don't be afraid to ask—they too are learning how this new working world will operate! And your IT department is your best friend. Ours set up a cloud file storage platform that is invaluable.
- Yes, I said no pajamas!: Get dressed every day! You are going to your new office! Then, when you do leave the house, you won't have grown fur.
- Keep a time/activity work log: I started this out of curiosity, and it became a habit. Understanding how much time you are putting in will also help you give yourself 'permission' to stop work at the day’s end, which can be hard to do when working remotely. Speaking of which…
- Use your vacation time: When you worked on-site, you took vacations. The world survived when you went away for a week; it will again. Take time off!
- Make time to keep learning: The pandemic brought many free webinars and events, as well as expanded virtual offerings (including from PRIM&R). You might go to fewer conferences right now, but you should continue to broaden your knowledge when opportunities present themselves.
- Maintain institutional visibility: The relevance and role of the IRB can get lost at our institution, where research is not top priority. During the pandemic, I stopped sending frequent all-staff emails, replacing them with a formatted Quarterly Newsletter summarizing updates. So far, feedback on this more concise communication is positive.
I didn't realize my weekly office visits were important to me until the pandemic halted them. Even if you are fully remote, if you have a physical office, I recommend periodic visits. Set an agenda for the day (filing, meetings, supply run, lunch date). I schedule it when we have our in-person IRB meeting (to resume in August) or when there is a meeting I want to attend in person. And, if find that you're sad to return to your home office at the end of the day—maybe it's time to rethink your remote working plan.
Kim Hunter-Schaedle, PhD, hails from Scotland and is IRB Administrator & Research Administrator at the Austen Riggs Center, Stockbridge, MA. She had a long career as a medical research foundation executive and research neuroscientist. Kim has come to the IRB world late in her career, but is glad to add research compliance to her roster of experience, which includes research strategic planning and developing new grant funding programs, from discovery research to clinical trials.
Kim is passionate about science writing for professional and public audiences, and has authored peer-reviewed research papers, consensus statements, conference proceedings, book chapters and science news columns. In her spare time, she skis, knits handbags, endeavors to write fiction and non-fiction, and has many van trip travel adventures with her husband and Scottie dog.
Guest contributors are valued members of our community willing to share their insights. The views expressed in their posts do not necessarily reflect those of PRIM&R or its employees.