Working at home during Corona virus crisis

by Constantinos Kanellopoulos

Undoubtedly, since the Coronavirus confirmed as a pandemic by the World Health Organization, our lives have been affected to a great extent. As most of the governments started to implement physical-distancing measures, it came as a natural consequence, that people would have to start working from home, where this is possible. As a result, the question of how effective work from home could be rises. In the next paragraphs, apart from making an attempt to address this question, I will also give a short description of my work within Inspire project during this crisis. New ideas and thoughts on how to proceed with my research in the near future, based on the online classes I am attending this semester, will be given as well.

One could come up with several good aspects that working from home has, however there will be always people to argue that. Since, not all the kind of jobs allow for distance-working, herein only those ones, for which home office is feasible, are considered. So let’s start with some advantages.
The first thing that comes to my mind when thinking of it, is that one can actually take real control over his/her daily life, in the sense that he/she is not obliged to work at specific hours of the day anymore, when he/she might not even be in the mood for. In this way, people would be able to organize their working schedule in the way they like, and work those hours of the day, that can really be productive for them. Except from that, being at home while working, would definitely decrease the amount of stress of people, as home environment is by far more cosy and friendly than a typical office; at least for the most of the cases. Another issue that is worth mentioning, is the non-negligible amount of time that everyone needs to get to the office daily. It is not rare the case, that a whole productive hour or so is totally wasted in traffic every day, and on top of that, when people finally reach at the office they are already tired, if not nervous; and the day has not even started yet. Last but definitely not least, working from home gives the chance to everyone to spend much more time with loved ones, whether these are parents, children, friends, a relationship and so on. Especially for people working abroad, which is the case for most of ESRs as well, it would be more than nice to have the permission to work some time of the month, like a week or so, from their own country.

On the other hand, potential drawbacks of switching to home office should be cautiously addressed as well. For sure, physical distancing doesn’t mean social distancing, as of today there are numerous ways to contact, see, discuss and even work with each other online. However, we should not forget, that as human beings, we really need to interact with each other in a physical way as well. Take as an example here, the first training school that took place in Zurich. Although teleconferencing worked really well and efficiently, in terms of attending and presenting lectures as everyone admitted, it was obvious that something was missing there. And that was the physical presence of the people from Italy. We didn’t have the chance to physically talk with them during the lunches and the coffee breaks, in order to start creating bonds with each other. And those bonds, although might sound trivial for someone, to my view this is the fastest way, if not the only one, to gain each other’s trust, and gradually build on that, and eventually develop a successful working relationship for the future. Apart from that really strong point, there will be always people, that just prefer working at the office for fixed hours each day, and leave everything related to work behind when they get back home. In this way, tension between family members could be avoided.

So, to sum this first part up, I would say that no general conclusion should be drawn on whether working from home is effective or not. Each case can be different and this is how it needs to be examined. In my
opinion, a “hybrid” model could be applied, in which people would have the option to choose for some days of the month to work from home, if they want to, and spend the rest ones at the office.

Coming now to my case, I would say that this crisis has affected my work in a rather positive way so far. Since the nature of my work is such, that I only need my laptop and a good internet connection, the whole quarantine-situation and distance-working has been nothing but beneficial for me. As, I didn’t have to waste time anymore on the roads before I make it to the office (it takes me about 45 minutes to get there), I realized that I can be productive from the very first moment of my day. Apart from that, small distractions, that unavoidably exist when working with other people in the same office, are not there anymore, which also adds some points to the quality of the working hours. Another important outcome of this crisis, which influenced quite positively my studies, was the fact that all the classes in ETH switched to online-teaching, with the lectures being recorded. In this way, except from the flexibility that I have, as I can attend the lectures whenever I want, the fact that they are recorded makes it possible to go through them several times, which is really important for the process of learning. So, all in all, I really cannot come up with any drawback that this crisis has brought upon my work so far. And speaking of my work, the next paragraphs present some information about it, along with some new ideas for my next steps.

To start with, in simple words, the ultimate goal of my research would be to find out whether the use of metamaterials at large scale (i.e. Meta-cities), as a measure to reduce the earthquake motions observed on the ground surface, could be the way to go, in terms of reducing the total risk for a given portfolio of buildings after an earthquake strikes. The first step for that would be to choose a metamaterial and see how this interacts with the soil, without any structures on top of it. In the video attached, one can see a 2-D Finite Element Model (FEM) of a soil layer excited at its base with a 1-dimensional horizontal motion. Embedded in the soil are 2 sets of boxes. Each box is supposed to be a hollow concrete box, and in the centre of it, there is a mass attached to the sides of the box with two springs. This mass can oscillate inside the box only in the horizontal direction. The whole configuration of the box, the mass and the spring consists the metamaterial. At certain frequencies of the excitation, like the one in this video, the mass is going to move out of phase with the box and consequently with the soil, which means, that while, for instance, the soil is moving rightwards, the mass will be pushing leftwards, and in that way the accelerations in-between those 2 sets of boxes (where the structure will be) can be significantly reduced. However, it is more that obvious that a variety of parameters can affect this problem, like the type of the soil and the structure, the soil and structure inelasticity, the earthquake motion and so on; and all of them need to be taken into consideration in the future.

Apart from that, this semester I am attending three extremely interesting courses offered in ETH, namely; Modelling and Simulation of Earthquakes, Soils, Structures and their Interaction (Prof. Jeremic), Constitutive and Numerical Modelling in Geotechnics (Prof. Puzrin), and Uncertainty Quantification in Engineering (Dr. Marelli).

In the first one, Prof. Jeremic teaches us how to realistically model earthquakes, soils, structures and their interaction using his own Finite Element software, named REAL-ESSI. Except from the numerous constitutive models, both for soil and structures, that are available in REAL-ESSI, what really makes me considering of using it for my future numerical models, is the fact that one can model the wave field, produced by the rupture of a fault, realistically, using the so-called Domain Reduction Method (DRM). The class of Prof. Puzrin is important for my research too, as, when working with numerical models, one should have perfect knowledge of the constitutive models he/she uses, and especially its limitations, in order to be able to critically judge the results afterwards.

Finally, in the Uncertainty Quantification in Engineering class, Dr. Marelli teaches how to use the Polynomial Chaos Expansion (PCE) method, in order to create a surrogate model, which will be able to predict similar results with the ones of the real model (Finite Element model in my case). This method can be really powerful, when the real model is computationally expensive, which is going to be the case for me, once I start modelling a small part of a city for example.

So, to wrap up everything, and trying to look always on the positive side of things, I strongly believe, that the current unprecedented situation, that we are going through the last couple of months, will be the start of a new era, where the possibility of working from home will be a part of it. And to answer to Marianna’s question, this was definitely not a Newton moment for me, but it was a quite productive time of my life, in terms of both working on my PhD and acquiring new knowledge in parallel.

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