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Open Access Week Interview with Toby Steiner

Toby Steiner, a member of Work Package 1, Work Package 6, and Outreach, is interviewed about his experience working remotely while building major pieces of infrastructure at the COPIM project over the last three years.

Published onOct 24, 2022
Open Access Week Interview with Toby Steiner
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The COPIM team talks with Toby Steiner, a member of Work Package 1 , Work Package 6, and Outreach, about his experience working remotely while building major pieces of infrastructure over the last three years.

Pictured: Toby Steiner

Where are you based? How did you become involved with the COPIM Project? 

I’m currently based in the English South-West, in the sleepy town of Wells, Somerset. My partner and I decided to move here in late 2021 because of a seasonal teaching contract at Bristol Uni that my partner got offered, and as she had to be in Bristol for the semester and I was able to mostly work remotely, it made sense for us to move closer to her workplace.

Prior to that, I had moved from Hamburg, Germany to the Midlands to start in my new job as COPIM’s project manager – this was back in the first quarter of 2020, during the early days of Brexit, when we had only just heard a few odd rumours about this strange and novel coronavirus that had been making the international news cycle. 

Before that, back in 2019, I hadn’t been part of the core team that devised the project, and had only heard of COPIM through an official announcement that the project would be launching soon, and that they would be looking for a project manager. As the project’s overall mission very much was in tune with what I believed – and still believe – would be required to broaden the uptake of equitable Open Access in the Humanities and Social Sciences, I decided to send in an application, and here we are, three years later ... 😊

What are the three most important things that have enabled you to work remotely on COPIM?

I think the most important thing for me has been the enormous support of COPIM’s Co-PIs, Janneke Adema and Gary Hall, against recurring institutional odds, as well as the continued compassion and flexibility in working around potential obstacles that all of us in COPIM have been able to put forward again and again over these past 2.5 years.

Likewise, and similarly important to me: my partner, whom I’m tremendously grateful for being so supportive in finding ways to live a life somewhere in between Germany and the UK that allowed both of us to embark on the joint adventure of experimenting with new modes of working and living: for her, this included a non-permanent position as a lecturer at a UK university in the English South-West, while for me, it meant I have been able to work with wonderful and inspiring people on a project that is very much aligned with my personal set of values.

Thirdly, and in a more pragmatic fashion: the availability of full-fibre internet here in Wells, which has been a tremendous improvement compared to the sub-par connectivity that we were able to get in our previous homes; a lack of which makes one acutely aware of the often poorly maintained underlying infrastructure’s fragility that those working remotely are highly dependent upon.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of this way of working?

Disadvantages:

  • Very dependent on a decent internet connection. 

  • While remote working is very convenient, it needs to be acknowledged that for many – and depending on personal preferences – online meetings cannot fully replace the quality of real in-person interaction.
    That said, I still believe that those who consider themselves on the more introvert side of the spectrum will actually benefit from working remotely.

  • Loss of non-formal, post-work, ad-hoc meetings such as during lunch breaks or spontaneous after-hours meetings for a coffee, drink etc. …  In COPIM, we tried our best to emulate these exchanges online, and while many on the team seemed to have appreciated these kinds of meetings in the beginning, the more time the team had to spend on regular meetings on-screen all day, the less the offer of yet-another-online-meeting to facilitate this kind of collegial exchange had seemed appealing to colleagues. 

Advantages:

  • With COPIM being a fully international team that has been working across multiple time zones and continents for close to three years, I believe remote working has allowed us to find a variety of ways to organize online workshops, events, and team meetings in quite an efficient way.

  • Next to that, this modus operandi has also helped shape a sense of community within the team, as we’ve all learned to make this fully remote way of collaboration work for us.

  • Remote working has proven the best – and sometimes only – way to make sure that we were able to stay in touch with people not only across distances by reaching out to contacts across the globe, but also across less obvious and intangible kinds of barriers, including making sure that those with personal vulnerabilities caused by the pandemic continue to be included in the project, which otherwise would have meant that project partners would have been excluded by more traditional means of conduction meetings and conferences as in-person events.

  • And finally, remote working for me is one way among many to contribute to a reduction of carbon emissions. Compared to that, commuting to work is a very time- and resource-consuming endeavour, and as I don’t own a car, I’m completely reliant on public transport, which, living in a rural area in the UK where public services are being cut left, right, and centre, also adds to the challenge.

Has remote working resulted in anything unexpected, or that wouldn’t have happened without it?

For me, remote working is intrinsically linked to the pandemic, as the pandemic has, arguably, turned our notion of standard modes of work upside down. And while in pre-pandemic times, remote work has certainly been a nice addition to the regular weekly work routine, its importance for me has now, in the midst of yet another pandemic wave, increased a lot. Due to the potential of catching COVID would mean a high risk to my personal health and wellbeing, remote working is now something I very much rely upon.

Has it prevented you from doing anything important? How did you work around that?

I think it is important to keep in mind that the project had been conceived in a pre-pandemic setting and was thus very much dependent on a variety of research workshops and outreach activities that would – in pre-pandemic fashion – have taken place as in-person events.

When all of that changed overnight, and additional complexities were introduced due to the newly discovered vulnerabilities that the pandemic meant for some of us on the project, this quickly led to the team having to rework much of what the project had been relied on previously. As Lucy Barnes has described in one of her excellent COPIM blog posts, the re-structuring of events and the more general way of working across on the project across Work Packages has been challenging in the first few months, but I believe we’ve been able to face these obstacles and devised efficient workarounds and alternatives that allowed us to still keep the project broadly on track, and even exceed many of the goals – particularly with regards to Outreach.


Banner Photo by Sam Knight on Unsplash

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