Insights from lockdown: flexible working in academic research is possible!

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Marloes Tijssen talks through her experiences of successfully running a research group that promoted flexible working and a culture of feedback – long before the pandemic. With reflections from others, this blog aims to show you that flexible working can work for many people.

For many COVID-19 has brought sadness and loss. Yet, the way we have dealt with the pandemic has given us unique insights that society may benefit from. The pandemic meant that researchers were asked to work from home and to work in shifts in the lab. This has shown us that research can progress even when you are not in the laboratory all hours under the sun (and the moon). Julia Hobsbawm, chair of the think-tank Demos Workshift Commission, has written a paper entitled ‘The Nowhere Office’ (March 2021) in which she illustrates that COVID-19 has accelerated the drive of the current digitally native generation toward more flexible, and remote, working opportunities.

The report ‘What Researchers Think About the Culture They Work In’ (Shift Learning, 2020) commissioned by The Wellcome Trust mentions that many researchers expect a career in academia to include long hours and high-pressured working environments. The pandemic has taught us to be creative and find inclusive solutions that involve collaboration; to share the workload and increase flexibility. But it needn’t have taken a pandemic for our community to see that flexible, inclusive working hours are possible for researchers.

When I started my family in 2010, I was a postdoctoral researcher on a personal fellowship. I reduced my hours to 70 – 80% FTE, depending on the childcare arrangements I had in place. This was the right balance for me and made me feel fulfilled as a parent. When I started my own research group, I was keen to continue working parttime. I envisioned a team with experienced postdocs who could cover for me and support the others in the team when I was not around. I attracted two very talented postdoctoral researchers with many years of experience. One worked 80% FTE and the other 70% FTE. This meant I got all this experience and input in my research whilst balancing my research budget. We all realised that the ability to work parttime was rare in academic research and this meant we were all 100% motivated to make this work. And it worked!

I am a London based clinical haematologist, and the ability to work remotely around lab experiments saves me significant commuting time, so I gain valuable extra hours in my day/week. My schedule allows me to be in the lab four days a week when required for experiments, have one full day at home with my children, and offers a few hours flexibility to work around my family. Based on my experience, I strongly believe that flexible working allows researchers to be their most productive

Janine Collins, PhD Student (70% FTE)
We attracted funding and we published the papers

To make a creative solution like this work for your group, these approaches can help:

  • Think about what kind of a leader you are. I had undertaken management training and was training as a coach. Being a good leader should be rewarded in the Research Excellence Framework assessment.
  • Think about the team’s core values and make sure that they reflect the collaborative, inclusive, supportive and creative working culture that researchers are craving (Shift 2020). In their report on ‘Mental health and employers’ Deloitte (January 2020) reports a return of £5 for every £1 that is invested in well-being. Instead of using well-being initiatives, invest in addressing the causes of stress.
  • It is important that all your staff are onboard and play an active part in the process. When hiring new team members, we explained how we envisioned ways of working and made sure new team members felt comfortable with our approach.
  • Devise a schedule where there is enough overlap for interactions between experienced staff and less experienced staff and to have meetings and brainstorms. This should also include enough opportunity for social interaction for the people who need it. We had team rules that were regularly reviewed, management workshops as a team, and 3-monthly socials.

What worked for me was this (rare) opportunity to job-share at a post-doc level which allowed me to have the balance of home life I wanted at the time without compromising on the level of work I was doing. I enjoyed the greater level of collaborative and co-operation that was needed to make this flexible set-up work.

 Joanne Woods, postdoctoral researcher (70% FTE) in the Tijssen group until April 2017.
A team functions better when there is trust

If you worry about whether staff and students will deliver when they are working remotely you can work on your ability to delegate and to establish trust as a leader. Allowing yourself and your staff to be relaxed enough to be creative, will be in everyone’s benefit.

  • Create a collaborative atmosphere by being clear, honest and open about authorships. Define them at the beginning of a project and don’t be shy as a group leader to open the discussion again if things shift during the project. Flexibility is possible when people are happy to cover for each other’s experiments when necessary.
  • Be creative about how you measure performance. It is not about being present. It is about whether the experiments have been done properly and papers and grant applications have been written. Don’t waste time in unnecessarily long lab meetings. Instead, schedule one-to-ones, be interested and organised to save everyone time.
  • Use feedback. Only half of researchers receive feedback or have regular appraisals. And only 11% of researchers are asked for feedback by their manager (Shift Learning, 2020). How can you understand the team dynamics and make the team grow if you do not use feedback? Although it made me feel vulnerable, I used the regular formal appraisals to ask my team for feedback on my performance. My team was brilliant and honest and it has taught me many valuable things.

Personally, I think the key to successful flexible working arrangements are a supportive and collaborative work environment, something that is strongly encouraged and evident at the University of Cambridge.

Amie Waller, Postdoctoral Researcher (75% FTE)

I left my position after just publishing two senior author papers and at a time I had 4 years of funding. The more I learned about coaching, the more I realised I wanted to use those skills to help others. I hope that our stories together with the insights gained from working remotely during the pandemic can inspire others and their career choices!

I worked for Marloes during my first PostDoc at the University of Cambridge. After several years working in academia, I was impressed by her commitment to people management and coaching skills. It’s not often you find a PI so concerned about providing a good work environment. Additionally, she denotes a lot of analytical capability and willingness for both her personal and professional development.

Pepe Ballester, postdoctoral researcher in the Tijssen group until September 2017.

If you would like to contact Marloes about this blog you can do so on LinkedIn or by email

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