Integrated European
Long-Term Ecosystem, critical zone and
socio-ecological Research

Overcoming the pandemic: Lessons from an experimental physical eLTER meeting

28 September 2021

It will be an exaggeration to say that most people barely remember what working on international projects was like before the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is true that we got used to “the new normal” – seemingly endless virtual meetings, repurposing our homes into offices, all our colleagues suddenly turning into “floating heads” in hazy backgrounds. To some this almost sounds like a dystopian, futuristic novel.

However, the hope is that with the vaccination process going strong the situation is slowly bringing  back qualities of “the old normal”, which we´ve been missing for so long. Even if the “new normal” will not be a copy of the old one.

But before this happens an exit and transition needs to happen, which has turned out more difficult than many of us expected. It is clear that we are still months away from full normalization. It is also clear that isolation is starting to affect working relations by eroding the sense of team spirit and each other. That is why eLTER decided to experiment with a new style of meetings.

Instead of flying dozens of people from 27 countries across the continent to still not meet physically as complete groups, we started with key persons to visit groups of 10-15 from one or few countries or partners.

experimental work meeting

The first such visit was by Michael Mirtl to Sofia, Bulgaria. It lasted only one day – 17 to 18 August – but proved immensely fruitful. Michael met with the Bulgarian LTER team, as well as both eLTER projects communication team at Pensoft for an intense 6-hours brainstorming session.Several other members of the eLTER General Executive Team (GET) also joined online for parts of the meeting, but the main point remained the face-to-face conversation.  The discussed more user group targeted  communication and dissemination approach will be implemented in the coming months. Furthermore, the Bulgarian LTER team presented a recently launched national project to upgrade  the existing eLTER sites or establish new ones.

The focus of the Sofia meeting, however, was the meeting itself – seeing other people in person, feeling their presence, talking, enjoying a meal together, a cup of tea, laughing.... In that regard the informal cultural evening and dinner were as valuable as the work session in the morning.

Due to the fact that both eLTER projects started right at the beginning of the pandemic, many participants of the meeting in Sofia met for the first time ever. This made us strongly aware, how much building a community  and knowing each other personally is still irreplaceable. Many feel more relaxed and are talkative face-to-face, while they might be reluctant to open up in front of dozens of people online.

Photo from the cultural evening and dinner at Sofia.

As output-oriented scientists, don`t we sometimes forget how important feelings and human interactions are in life? If there is any positive outcome from the pandemic at all – the realization of this fact might belong to it. eLTER believes that until we return to “normality”, this type of meetings could be a way forward for eLTER as well as other projects and RIs.

Illustration of the research being done at the project