Remote Working Stories: Dr Nuria Garcia Ordiales, School of Mathematics and Statistics

By Michael Sinnott, Director, UCD Agile

Coffees, Corridors and Common Rooms

This is the fifth in our sequence of ‘remote working stories’.  We began in May 2020, just after the lock down started, looking at how colleagues deal with the challenges COVID has posed.  Today our guest is Dr Nuria Garcia Ordiales, School Manager of the School of Mathematics and Statistics.  I snatched forty-five minutes of her time from the last days of preparation before the start of the new academic year. 

We met on Zoom, naturally, but my main question was about the return to campus and hybrid working.  (We spoke before the UMT’s decision on the return to face-to-face teaching was announced).  Nuria’s noted that when everyone is remote it is relatively straightforward but “the moment staff and students are on campus, we need to be on campus because there’s certain things that you have to deliver in person once everybody’s there.” 

And what she went on to describe is people needing people and connections with people.

Nuria’s School is large one with over 80 staff, including 59 full time academics, 16,000 student registrations, over 350 Masters students, three academic subjects, 55 PhDs, significant research grant funding (including SFI / IRC / ERC) and involvement in various research institutes and centres.  Nuria runs a team of six, including two part time colleagues. 

How to you keep people connected?  “We still keep one coffee meeting for us to just feel free to talk, the same as we will have done in the office.  We use Chat as the main way of keeping in touch day to day and, again, the fact that we know each other so well makes this very easy”.  She and her team had a year together before COVID, and only one change since, so she had that connection to build upon. 

What about in a hybrid office?  “What might be good would be having everybody together in the office one day a week to keep that personal kind of communication within the team and supporting the hybrid way.”  She sees the planned VOIP system that will let staff get work phone calls via their computer as a significant development in enabling hybrid working.

In any School challenges and problems are bound to arise.  Nuria named something you lose if you only work though Zoo:  “When you have a unit that is so big the human connection cannot be replaced by your camera.  Meeting people in the corridors and having a human face is important when there are problems.  When things work fine things that is OK, but being there is particularly important when issues arise.”

The importance of culture and connections in a large School came up as a strength in a number of ways, and Nuria mentioned the key role of the common room:  “The common room is crucial to a large group like ours.  We include our PhDs as well.  It is really beneficial because again at the end of the day, you may agree or disagree on decisions at a school level put you know the people.  And, and it is important to keep that relationship.” 

There are no Zoom common rooms, no chance meeting in a Zoom corridor. 

I hasten to add, Nuria was not focusing on the negative but on what she sees a source of her School’s strength – which lies in knowing your colleagues as people.

How can you ‘be there’ for your students?  “It especially important for the students with problems and in distress.  Emails are impersonal.  If you have a student really worried about something they want to go to somebody and if they cannot then you are adding additional stress and additional problems.  They just want a friendly face and a smile to tell them, everything is okay, and if it’s not okay I’m going to check it for you”. 

In terms of her approach to School administration, Nuria sees academics as naturally very focused on their teaching and research with her office at the heart of supporting them in the sometimes-complex administrative burdens arising, helping them know the what and how.  

And when challenges arise, she wants them to think: “When I don’t know what to do, rather than doing it wrong, I ask the office”.  She and her colleagues then make sure the supports are there and the administrative burdens managed. 

Like her colleagues across the campus, Nuria and her team work hard to make the School work well.  She could see me floating off with this message, I think, when she pointed out while some of the supports the School uses work well – like the recent changes to the GAP process – a lot of the systems and supports are not joined up.  “And we know there’s a lot of systems that could be much better, much better integrated, but it’s out of our hands.” 

Given the volume of undergraduate teaching in the School, the number of Masters students and PhDs, the research funding and the institutes and centres connected to the School, Nuria’s perspective is broad on this topic.

As I was saying goodbye to Nuria I realised… she was on holidays!  We were not sharing a coffee on campus but she was doing what she talked about throughout our conversation – taking time for people.  Given our focus as an institution is moving from remote to hybrid working, how do we weave three-dimensional people and two-dimensional Zoom into the rich tapestry we all need?  Nuria will be working on that, as will we all.