2020 vision

Tim Minshall, Dr John C Taylor Professor of Innovation and Head of the Institute for Manufacturing, looks back on the challenges and opportunities posed by the past year.

He talks candidly about the realities of home working, FOMO on virtual team meetings, and the power of tea, coffee and cake.

Tim Minshall

When the lockdown and consequent requirement to work from home was announced in March, there was a very brief period in which some of us naively thought: “At last! We will be able to catch up on so many things!” Within 24 hours reality struck home. 

All the regular business of the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) would, as far as possible, continue. In terms of teaching this meant the delivery of lectures, supervisions, industrial placements, and assessments. Alongside this we would attempt to continue projects across our 18 labs and research groups, while supporting industrial and policy partners.

All the operational aspects of academic life would remain. However, substantially more effort would be needed to overcome the hundred and one little – and not so little – points of friction imposed by geographic separation. 

New ways of working 

So, along with most of the world, everyone at IfM rapidly had to become functionally competent in using a plethora of new programmes designed to enable virtual team working. In parallel, we developed coping strategies to deal with the explosion of emails that sought to explain, clarify, query, amend and reassure.

Some experienced a bizarre form of Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). Had an important decision been missed while trying to manage home schooling, reset the WiFi, and listen out for the arrival of the Tesco delivery driver? Did that issue get resolved in a Teams Team (so confusing), or via a Slack channel, or perhaps a WhatsApp group, or had the discussion reverted to an email thread?

We assembled from this whole experience an arsenal of new ways of working and competencies.

We learnt to cope with the stress of trawling through messages to find a Zoom link for a meeting starting imminently, only to find out that it had accidentally been scheduled for 3am rather than 3pm. We mastered recording lectures, delivering keynote talks at international conferences, and collaborating with industry and government partners from our bedrooms, kitchens and store cupboards. 

We assembled from this whole experience an arsenal of new ways of working and competencies that I believe will allow us to be more efficient and effective as we slowly return to a world where colocation is possible.

 Institute for Manufacturing building

Institute for Manufacturing

Institute for Manufacturing

Responding to the COVID-19 crisis

In parallel with the ‘day job’, given the nature of the work of the IfM, we found ourselves in a position where we were able to help address COVID-specific challenges facing the NHS and wider economy. 

Thanks to introductions made via the intricate social network that connects the University with the local healthcare system and national government, we were invited to join some of the COVID response planning meetings. By listening and developing an understanding of the problems faced by those on the healthcare frontline, and by those implementing national and regional policies, we were able to match some of our resources and capabilities with specific needs, and to provide rapid support. 

We have been eager to share our experiences to ensure that lessons can be learnt for helping address future crises.

This was only possible thanks to the openness of colleagues in the NHS and government agencies, and the efforts of volunteers from across the IfM, including students, researchers, technicians, knowledge transfer teams, administrators, receptionists and academics. 

We were able to give support in three ways: healthcare logistics; development and delivery of key equipment and supplies; and the capture, curation and sharing of data on different approaches to addressing COVID-related challenges around the world.

We have been eager to share our experiences to ensure that lessons can be learnt for helping address future crises and, dare we say, to ‘build back better’. It has also been particularly pleasing to see how the experience of recent months has provided a solid platform for further collaboration between IfM and the local healthcare community. 

The IfM community

We have learnt a lot about ourselves as ‘the IfM community’. IfM has a strong culture of collaboration, openness and innovation. But this culture has developed over the years through people working together in our wonderful building, which provides spaces and opportunities to bump into each other and share ideas over a tea or coffee and cake.

The IfM culture has been stress-tested through this period and has helped ensure that, in the face of the diverse personal and professional challenges we are all facing, we have managed to continue with the delivery of almost all of our core activities, and even extend the reach of what we do.

We just need to constantly remind ourselves of the need to reach out to those we cannot see.

In all honesty, we do worry about how we can ensure we maintain this culture as we continue to admit new students and recruit staff who have not experienced the foundation of being physically located together.

But we will find a way: we just need to constantly remind ourselves of the need to reach out to those we cannot see, and to be smart about using all the tools in our virtual collaboration toolkit… and to find an online way of replicating the power of sharing coffee, cake and a chat.

Tim Minshall is the inaugural Dr John C Taylor Professor of Innovation at the University of Cambridge, Head of the Institute for Manufacturing, Head of the IfM’s Centre for Technology Management, and a Fellow of Churchill College.