It's Personal: Zoom'd Out Workplace Ready For Face-To-Face Conversations To Return

Jun 14, 2021
Originally published on June 14, 2021 8:00 am

Studying the brains of fruit flies is not the kind of work that you can easily do from home. You need special microscopes and something called a fly-ball tracker, which neuroscientist Vivek Jayaraman likens to a treadmill. A very tiny treadmill.

"We position them on a little ball. The fly walks on the ball. It's in a virtual reality space," explains Jayaraman in his lab at the Janelia Research Campus, part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

But access to lab equipment was not the only hurdle — or the biggest one — in the pandemic. Jayaraman says the absence of freewheeling discussions and impromptu chats held back the science over the past year. The migration to telework and virtual meetings stole away the spontaneity that he believes drives their best work.

"It really affected us perhaps more than many institutions," Jayaraman says.

Vivek Jayaraman is head of Mechanistic Cognitive Neuroscience at Janelia.
Matt Staley / Janelia Research Campus

Now that COVID-19 vaccines are available on demand and infection rates are a small fraction of what they were just a couple months ago, workplaces across the country are taking stock of the what was lost over the past year, and what's worth bringing back. Many employers, from Google to the federal government, are making hybrid work options permanent, allowing employees to split their time between home and office. But others are eyeing a future that looks much more like the past.

Before the pandemic, Janelia had about 750 people on campus, working to answer big questions in brain science, cell biology and microscopy. The plan is to bring everyone, including administrative staff, back full-time by late September. "The way things are going right now with cases and vaccination, we are looking forward to holding to that date," says Ron Vale, Janelia's executive director.

Janelia's cafeteria, which was noisy and crowded in pre-pandemic times, now operates a contactless takeout system.
Sarah Silbiger for NPR

The building was socially engineered to encourage face-to-face interactions

Jayaraman has been with Janelia for 15 years and is steeped in the ethos of the place, believing that it's not just collaboration, but "organic, creative collisions" that lead to great discoveries.

"This building — it's been socially engineered so that you do have those kinds of collisions," he says. In a three-story building that spans the length of three football fields, there is only one tea and coffee station. And that's by design.

The idea is, while walking the halls or waiting for coffee, you might run into someone you didn't plan to see. You start chatting, and an idea gets sparked. You follow up, maybe in the evening when the coffee station turns into a pub. In the pandemic, Jayaraman realized how critical those conversations are to his thinking process.

"[They] help me articulate ideas that might be dimly in there somewhere, dormant," he says. "Then someone says the right thing, and something is triggered. I miss that."

Zoom meetings with pre-determined agendas where participants have to take turns talking and no one interrupts just don't do it for him.

Left: Ron Vale, executive director of the Janelia Research Campus, hopes to have all employees back in the building by late September. Right: An employee eats lunch alone at a table that in pre-pandemic times seated eight.
Sarah Silbiger for NPR

Covid safety protocols remain in place

Already, several hundred researchers are back on campus, but most appear to be tucked away in their offices or labs. You don't see a lot of people wandering the halls. Covid safety protocols are still very much in force, with masks and distancing required. The cafeteria, normally crowded and noisy, mainly handles takeout orders now.

Before the pandemic, lunch was only served between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., again, by design. Seating was at big round tables with eight chairs each, like at a wedding.

"We wanted people actually to have lunch together," says Vale, as he orders an eggplant ragout sandwich to go. "We were encouraging high density interactions then, exactly the opposite of what we're doing now."

Those who choose to dine in now have to dine alone.

But Janelia has been thinking hard about how to get people face-to-face again. Back when it was chilly outside, they created cozy seating areas around fire pits. They put up a tent. They do twice-weekly COVID-19 testing for everyone who comes in to work.

"That's been an important additional safety measure," says Vale. Starting in late August, employees will have to show proof of vaccination to come on site.

A few good things have come out of the pandemic

Vale does hope to hold on to some of the innovations that have come out of the pandemic. After canceling all in-person events and conferences last year, Janelia created an online seminar series that drew in people from around the world, including those from smaller institutions and farther-flung places.

Not having people traveling to Virginia from across the world saved time and carbon emissions. "With the remote world now, the energy barrier for getting people to communicate obviously is a lot lower," says Vale. Virtual conferences will continue, even when in-person conferences resume.

Graduate research fellow Virginia Rutten looks forward to the day the campus pub known as Bob's reopens and random conversations return.
Sarah Silbiger for NPR

Graduate research fellow Virginia Rutten found another silver lining this past year. She's been able to connect with all kinds of people who normally are tied up in meetings or running places.

"You just feel that everyone's a little more relaxed, has that time to explain that extra thing to you," says Rutten, who studies larval zebrafish. "That's been really valuable and a real treat."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People in many workplaces, including this one, are deciding what normal looks like as the pandemic eases. What did people really lose by working from home? Did some people gain? Should we all come back? These are especially pressing questions at one workplace, where face-to-face interactions are considered essential to people's best work. NPR's Andrea Hsu takes us there.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Vivek Jayaraman remembers the day he came back to his office in Ashburn, Va.

VIVEK JAYARAMAN: I got a rush of just walking around the building. I didn't - there weren't even many people in the building at that point.

HSU: Jayaraman is a neuroscientist at the Janelia Research Campus. It's part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He studies the brains of fruit flies, how those brains help flies navigate their world.

JAYARAMAN: I mean, there's a lot going on there. It's just very compressed. It's a miniaturized marvel is what it is.

HSU: He's worked here for 15 years, and he's steeped in the ethos of this place, believing that it's not just collaboration but spontaneous creative collisions that lead to great discoveries.

JAYARAMAN: This building - it's been socially engineered so that you do have those kinds of collisions. There's, like, one space where there's and coffee. It's deliberate.

HSU: That's right. You're not supposed to have a coffee maker in your lab. The idea is you walk the halls. You run into someone you didn't plan to see. You start chatting. An idea gets sparked. You follow up, maybe at night when the coffee station turns into a pub. The pandemic shut all of that down.

JAYARAMAN: The spontaneity is just gone. All you have now are these Zoom meetings.

HSU: Where there's a set agenda, and everyone has to take turns. Jayaraman says some work did go on, but there were lab experiments that didn't happen. And who knows what ideas didn't get sparked when conversations moved online?

JAYARAMAN: There's absolutely something lost in that process. And so I'd say that it's definitely held us back in terms of moving the science forward.

HSU: Now, before the pandemic, there'd be maybe 750 people here on any given day. Now it's fewer than half that. And most seem to be tucked away in their offices. You don't see a lot of people wandering the halls. COVID safety protocols are still very much in force. Everyone's wearing masks and keeping their distance, especially in the cafeteria.

RON VALE: You know, maybe I'll get that warm eggplant ragout sandwich, please.

HSU: That's Ron Vale, the executive director of Janelia, ordering from a safe 8 or 10 feet away. Before the pandemic, he says, lunch was only served from 11:30 to 1.

VALE: We wanted people, actually, to have lunch together

HSU: And by together, he means at big, round tables that seat eight, like at a wedding.

VALE: So we were encouraging, like, high-density interactions then, exactly the opposite of what we're doing now.

HSU: There is only one chair at each table now, but they have been thinking hard about how to get people face-to-face again. Outside, they put up a tent and created some cozy seating areas.

VALE: They're little fire pits with four chairs around them.

HSU: And they're doing COVID testing twice a week for those who come on site. Vale says the plan is to bring everyone back to campus full time in late September. By then, they'll also require vaccinations. He does hope to hang on to some of the good things that have come out of the pandemic, for instance, the virtual conferences that were more accessible to scientists from smaller institutions and farther-flung places. They'll keep those going even when in-person conferences resume.

VALE: And I think that will be a positive.

HSU: Virginia Rutten and points out another positive. She's a graduate research fellow studying zebrafish. This past year, she's been able to ask questions of all kinds of folks who are normally kind of hard to reach.

VIRGINIA RUTTEN: You just feel that everybody is a little bit more relaxed, has the time to explain the actual thing to you. And that's been really valuable and a real treat.

HSU: And the kind of thing that's worth preserving. Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LANTERNA'S "BROOKLYN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.