By Paul DeVita, PhD
Lower Extremity Review reminds us of Bob Dylan’s famous line, “the times they are a-changin’,” as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. But one has to wonder a bit why it took the pandemic to induce 1 very large change we all experienced: the shift from centralized to decentralized workspaces, at least for those of us in academia. University professors have always had much freedom of choice in how they perform their jobs and complete their tasks. Many…some?… have creatively used their freedoms to conduct their work not just from home but from other enjoyable places for some time. Perhaps this freedom was expressed through teaching classes on Tuesday and Thursday and spending Thursday evening to Tuesday morning working and living at their beach or mountain getaways. Perhaps this freedom was expressed through working as visiting researchers in colleagues’ labs. Most of us, however, went to work Monday through Friday, teaching, researching, guiding students, and performing university service roles. Now though, we see more clearly the alternative mechanism of decentralized workspaces, i.e., working at home, not necessarily in isolation but connected with everyone electronically.
As the pandemic moves to its end, universities are moving back to a new “normal” on-campus existence. Students and faculty will physically attend and teach courses; offices will be open and populated with staff, faculty, and student employees; student activities will resume with great participation…all with maskless people. Yet, the efficiency of virtual work cannot be denied. Distance working saves time and energy and reduces off-time — the time we spend at the water cooler talking with colleagues about the weekend or the latest news. Why travel to work spending money for gas and creating a larger travel-related footprint, or even walk across campus, when we can connect from our homes?
The first way in which the pandemic has changed work is that it taught us that virtual is real. Meeting electronically is as effective as, or more so, than meeting face to face. I think I will spend the next non-pandemic year working at home about half the time, if not a bit more. I do not completely discount the value of face to face. Students and faculty working in the lab can readily and spontaneously interact and learn and advance their work in valuable and unexpected ways. Face-to-face work enables the human touch — the ability to immediately ask a question or instruct a person — and provides faster advancement. We must, of course, meet with others to produce physical testing as part of our science. Perhaps we need to see a real smile or hear a real laugh now and then while working. Still, the benefits of working virtually will lead to permanent change in our working style.
Just as our everyday workdays were affected, National Biomechanics Day (NBD), our annual outreach event designed to introduce biomechanics to high school students, was changed by the pandemic. Of course, real, enjoyable, and exciting meetings with these youngsters has been the lifeblood of NBD but through the pandemic we have created a multitude of online, virtual demonstrations, lectures, activities, and experiences that are now part of the biomechanics world. These video lessons are available for everyone to share and use in new and unexpected ways. Perhaps some will become elements of high school or university courses, or extra-curricular educational camps. Certainly, they will be shared among many NBD participants to increase the breadth of each person’s biomechanics toolset. To learn more, visit thebiomechanicsinitiative.org.
And universities as workplaces were affected as well. Universities are struggling for money post-pandemic and need to save their wealth as much as is possible and reasonable. The savings through reduced travel, virtual interviews, and virtual instruction will be irresistible. Science conferences cost societies, universities, and individual faculty and students time and money. Virtual conferences have lower registration fees, travel costs, and travel time, and participants’ individual expenses. These cost and time savings will be important. I have attended several virtual conferences the past year and all were successful and efficient. Certainly, we will miss the personal contact, discussions, and fun of seeing our distant colleagues and having a beer in the pub in the evening or seeing an entertainment event in a distant city. But the success and savings of virtual conferences will be difficult to resist. We can attend more conferences virtually and make larger impacts with less effort and travel. Certainly, we will see each other more virtually than face to face in coming years.
It surprises me that we needed a health crisis to realize the effectiveness of virtual work. While many people and institutions have known this idea for years, now everyone knows it. Despite people’s fatigue with virtual interactions, I am sure these will continue at higher frequencies than pre-pandemic. I look forward to seeing all my friends and colleagues on my computer monitor often in the future. While not denying the terrible outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic, even negative societal events can partially change society in positive ways. Virtual is real post-pandemic.
Paul DeVita, PhD, is Director of the Biomechanics Laboratory at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. He is Past-President of the American Society of Biomechanics and a leader in The Biomechanics Initiative which hosts National Biomechanics Day. Dr. DeVita also serves on the Lower Extremity Review Editorial Advisory Board.