Homeoffice with children

HZI scientists also “enjoyed” home office – reports from the first lockdown

Prof Melanie Brinkmann, research group leader at the HZI

Married; three children

How did you manage scientific work, childcare and numerous media events for the HZI during the first lockdown?
I was fortunate because my children were eligible for emergency childcare. Otherwise, I would have been desperate and wouldn't have been able to do much media work. Even so, our family pretty much reached its limits. This is because not only did the school stop, but also the kids' leisure activities such as gymnastics, handball and soccer were no longer available. Contact with grandparents was also considerably reduced. In any case, we are now all significantly better at playing table tennis - our table tennis table proved to be a lifeline. However, I struggled since I had no administrative assistance at that time. I received tons of emails after each media event. Responding to all of them took a lot of time and organizing all the invitations was also quite a challenge.

Which family experience will you remember from that time?
I remember one evening at the dinner table when we all discussed whether I should continue to be involved in public outreach activities such as talk shows and interviews. I was travelling a lot and even when I was at home, I was absent minded, thinking about the pandemic nearly the whole time and was quite stressed. My oldest son then said: "Mom, you're doing great, and what you're doing is so important. I think you should carry on." That was our final decision, then.

How did you manage the supervision of your research group?
We were lucky because three of my PhD students were about to write their papers. So the timing was perfect, and we achieved a lot. However, it was and still is a difficult time in terms of the team spirit. Personal exchange is just so important. And we haven't been able to celebrate any of our papers properly. We have a lot to catch up on!

Dr Vivien Nagy, Funding Management for the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF) at the HZI, and Prof Till Strowig, research department head at the HZI

Two children, 8 and 5 years old

How did you organise your home office time as an "HZI double-career couple", and how did it work out with your children?
We worked in shifts, and we worked a lot during the weekends. One of us was able to concentrate on work, and the other took care of the children. We coordinated our calendars and set time slots according to critical appointments. The person who had "kids’ service" also took care of household chores such as cooking, laundry, etc. Just preparing three meals a day took up a lot of time. The number of dishes to clean afterwards was enormous! But it was nice to see that our children grew even closer together, out of necessity, and became wonderfully creative in games. They created huge miniature landscapes and great hideouts, and they cheered up their burned-out parents with funny dance performances and role-plays. After a few weeks, however, it became clear that our shift system was good for a sprint, but by no means for a marathon. The family life was neglected because one parent was always working. There was no longer any personal time. This was frustrating and sometimes caused bad moods. Besides the enormous double burden, we were also in a great internal conflict, because we weren’t able to meet our own expectations with regards to professional challenges and childcare. Our productivity on the job was simply not the same as before. At the same time, our children were spending time using electronic devices much longer than usual. Of course, like many other people, we also worried about how and for how long this pandemic will affect our society and our lives - not to mention the health risks.

Would you have liked to receive more support?
Neither of us has family nearby that could help us with childcare. After about two months, our son went to emergency childcare for a few hours a day. This allowed us to concentrate better on home-schooling our daughter. Once contact restrictions were relaxed again, we were able to help each other out more with friends. Unfortunately, the HZI cancelled holiday childcare at the HZI during the summer holidays at short notice. We would have liked the planning to be more reliable. Real relief only came after the summer holidays when more or less reliable childcare was guaranteed again. The core working time regulations have been waived in order to allow for flexible working hours. That definitely paved the way for our working model during the lockdown. That change, by the way, would also contribute to a better work-life balance regardless of COVID-19.

How did you organise the work with your research department?
Before the coronavirus pandemic, many scientists had already worked while travelling or from home. They were thus prepared to work from their home offices, using remote access and video conferences. We were very concerned about the ongoing experiments, especially those involving laboratory animals. Fortunately, we were able to find solutions together with the staff of the animal facility so that we could complete the experiments correctly while observing the precautionary measures. As a result, the laboratories were never wholly deserted, and we were able to prepare for the time of the "new normal". This included working in shifts in the labs to minimise contact and changing all meetings to video conferences. Unfortunately, there are often technical problems, and the discussions often do not have the same dynamic as in person. When the institute gradually reopened, and the weather improved in the summer, we could hold many meetings outside. The time was particularly stressful for our international employees, who on the one hand had to experience the devastation the pandemic caused in their home countries, and on the other hand, often did not have a close social network nearby. Due to the language barrier, they also had difficulties understanding the constantly changing rules of everyday life.

Dr Berit Lange, physician and epidemiologist at the HZI

Married; two children, 9 and 4 years old

Your primary residence is in Freiburg. How did you manage to combine science and home-schooling during the "hot phase"?
I am usually a weekly commuter. I work Mondays to Thursdays in Braunschweig, and Fridays from my home office at my family’s house in Freiburg. For me, the first lockdown was demanding and exciting, but also exhausting. During that time, I significantly expanded my team to be able to tackle systematic reviews and impact assessment during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, I monitored the planning for the MuSPAD antibody study. I also took on media communications and initiated various research applications. I worked mainly from my home office during that time. However, the workload was greater than before, and the tension was high, especially during the peak in March/April. Childcare during that time was also challenging. The usual childcare model of school, childcare, and kindergarten between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. suddenly disappeared. I was classified as systemically important, but my husband was not, and we were thus not entitled to emergency childcare. On the one hand, we had to equip our older kid with knowledge and equipment to master the various virtual and analogue school assignments. On the other hand, our little one often had to keep herself busy on her own, which is not always possible for a four-year-old. Video conferences with my child on my lap, who was playing, moaning, or screaming, were, therefore, the rule. And, of course, household chores always increase when everyone is at home the entire day. My husband, who heads a research group at a Fraunhofer Institute, took on more of that family work than I did. To do this, he took extra leave days that were intended for childcare. He thus effectively reduced his working hours to roughly 80 percent.

What was your everyday life like?
I usually started working between 6 and 8 a.m. I then had a quick breakfast with my family around 8.30 or 9 a.m. The day was dominated by phone and video conferences. I could do the actual writing and calculations often only in the evening or on weekends. We had a quick lunch at about 12.30 p.m., a dinner between 6 and 8 p.m., and we then put the kids to bed. I often went back to work from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Of course, there were also the occasional night shifts. On weekends, I could take a break in the morning and only worked in the afternoon and evening. Around May, I was able to take a full day's break on Saturday or Sunday, and the number of night shifts decreased significantly. That has changed again in September.

Does working from home remain a desirable option for you as a commuter?
In my case, I think a mix of virtual and on-site work would be the best solution. Basically, most of my work is done on the computer. Of course, I can do it from anywhere. However, I find on-site meetings often more efficient and less likely to cause issues and misunderstandings. The constant delays and technical problems with video conferencing are a little nerve-wracking. I have, therefore, decided to equip myself and my team for hybrid work in the future. This means that we will also have the option of virtual connection during on-site meetings so that nobody is excluded.

What anecdote do you remember from that time?
I can best remember how I accidentally sent a washer-dryer to the wrong address (to Freiburg instead of Braunschweig) ... My husband, who knew nothing about that, was amazed when he was suddenly asked to accept a washing machine. He burst into a heated video conference with the sentence: "Tell me, Berit, did you order a washing machine?" I then had to explain that to my international partners during the video conference ... (sti, afi)

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