In the first post from our special series ‘Leading during COVID-19’, Professor Alison Gallagher, Chair/President of the ENLP Board and Head of Doctoral College (Coleraine/Magee) at Ulster University, reflects on her experiences working and leading from home.

After completing her BSc Hons Human Nutrition and PhD at Ulster, Alison worked as Research Fellow (University of Strathclyde), then Research Officer (Northern Ireland Young Hearts Project) before returning to Ulster as Lecturer in 1999; being promoted to Senior Lecturer and subsequently Professor of Public Health Nutrition. A Registered Nutritionist (Public Health), she was the first Fellow of the Association of Nutrition (FAfN) on the island of Ireland. An active member of the Nutrition Society, she chaired the Scientific Committee for the Federation of Nutritional Sciences (FENS) 13th European Nutrition Conference (www.fens2019.org). She is a passionate advocate for the European Nutrition Leadership Platform (ENLP), having participated in the ENLP seminar in 1997 and being involved ever since, and is the current Chair/President of the ENLP Board. She is also a member of NICHS’s Scientific Research Committee and the ISA Scientific Advisory Panel.

I feel very fortunate to have a full-time position which has allowed me to work from home. My family and immediate friends have not (touch wood) been impacted directly by the virus and I have the luxury of a comfortable home and outdoor space with a lovely garden to keep me busy during lockdown when the working day ends. For me, coronavirus has had both positive and less positive impacts on my personal and professional life. I do not particularly miss my hour long commute, there have been advantages (as well as challenges) to spending time at home and with my family and I have njoyed the opportunity to get to know my local area on what are now more regular walks and cycles.

My working environment over the last 3 months has changed beyond recognition and remote working has brought its challenges – for starters, never would I choose to work from home with everyone else at home at the same time! Our Doctoral College team have stepped up and delivered above and beyond. As we went into lockdown, we quickly moved to remote/virtual PhD Vivas, and the administration of the entire PhD process is now fully online. We increased our communications and updates with PhD researchers, all our researcher development programmes were migrated online, we held out first virtual 3MT competition and we are currently preparing an online celebration for the class of 2020 - who will not have a face-to-face graduation experience until next year. We are also planning for blended online/face-to-face inductions in September for our new PhD cohort.

Our team are all now home-working and operating within a range of different situations – some have young children and have been juggling home-schooling, some have caring responsibilities, some are self-isolating with health conditions, others on the team are living on their own and facing a higher degree of isolation, whereas others are dealing with teenagers (me) or with adult children returned and living at home. All these home-working environments come with their own unique challenges. In some ways I have never been more connected with my colleagues and the glimpses and insights on their personal lives has been helpful. We have tried in the Doctoral College to adopt an approach of ‘do what you can, when you can, and when you can’t rest’ and as the pandemic has progressed we are reflecting on individual workloads and on what is ‘nice to do’ versus ‘need to do’. Early on we set up a WhatsApp group for our team on which we share regular updates on what’s happening with us, and we have interspersed this with some challenges such as guess the desk/work station, guess the baby (surprisingly a lot of babies look very similar), two truths and a lie and so on. Together with regular virtual coffees as well as team meetings, these have helped our team stay connected and helped with day-to-day morale.

Critical to being a leader during lockdown has been to keep communicating. My role has always involved lots of face-to-face meetings with many different stakeholders and most of all with PhD researchers, and since lockdown and moving to remote working I am spending an awful lot of my time moving from one virtual conference call to another (sometimes with the feeling that I am getting little done). However, as a leader I am making a conscious effort to schedule in regular catch-ups with individuals outside of these meetings – this is time-consuming but I feel the effort once taken is really worth it and connecting at the individual level at this time is even more important and valuable.

Alongside my Doctoral College role, I have had to pivot ongoing research projects to adapt to the pandemic situation – in particular an ongoing intervention in schools has paused but has also brought additional unique research opportunities which has been exciting and, dare I say it, even rewarding.

Valuable learnings are to be from every situation and as a leader I continue to learn as we progress through this one. I don’t think I would ever choose to live/work through another pandemic. At times I have struggled personally with low mood and low productivity (and when this did happen reaching out to others has really helped). The mantra of ‘be kind – both to ourselves and to one another’ has been an important message during this time and is something I hope we take out of lockdown as we return to whatever our new normal working patterns may be. As we come out of this I do hope that it is with a better sense of what work-life-balance looks like! At times I feel like I have never been busier with work, but I also feel blessed to have this time at home and with my family – even if a lot of this time has been spent perched on a temporary desk in the corner of my sitting room on videoconferencing calls!

Thank you very much to Alison for kindly guest-blogging for the ENLP Blog.