Navigating uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic | Dr Katerina Galai
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Navigating uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic

Navigating uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic

Blog by Dr Katerina Galai, Associate Director, COG-UK.

When I applied for the COG-UK project manager role, I was looking for a change. Like many during the pandemic, I wanted to help.

While my understanding of genomic sequencing was limited, I knew I could contribute. A decade of project management, a PhD in international law, policy research, setting up new operations under tense political circumstances, working in male-dominated fields – all of these experiences help me navigate the day to day of a job that is both rewarding and challenging. As my job description continues to evolve depending on the needs of the consortium, I am grateful for the team I have become a part of and embrace the change I was looking for.

And while ongoing change can be unsettling, there is power in knowing that the work I do is relevant and needed.

Navigating uncertainty

Unlike the individual episodes of the unknown, such as waiting on exam results, the outcome of a job application or the result of a swab test, uncertainty is the unknown in our lives that stretches over a prolonged period of time. It comes with a level of instability and the need to envisage scenarios and speculate for outcomes. Why? Naturally, we want to feel in control of our day-to-day and not knowing can be unsettling.

In a time when the global pandemic and the shift in the decades-long economic framework of the EU are dictating how we can live, who we can see, where we can go, what happens to our jobs and even our status as citizens, everyone will come face to face with uncertainty, to a lesser or greater extent.

We all may have different levels of (dis)comfort when it comes to uncertainty and the techniques for managing that feeling of worry, fear or excitement will vary. Although everyone will have vastly different challenges, I have summarised here some of my reflections of experiencing uncertainty in a professional context which, hopefully, others may find relevant and helpful.

Challenges that bring opportunities

For many of us, relationship building has been pushed to a new level. Having joined the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium management team in August 2020, I’ve experienced first-hand various facets of the new format of engagement. Starting from interviewing on a Zoom call to building an entirely virtual team, to managing a consortium comprising 20 partner institutions with over 70 key stakeholders, to speaking to my boss every day for the past 6 months never having met her in person!

Given the unprecedented sequencing and data sharing effort, Director of COG-UK Sharon Peacock is often asked how COG-UK could achieve what it has. The practical reality is that the pandemic has forced remote working for those of us who are not involved in vital laboratory work and generation of sequence data. The pandemic also eclipsed all other work and research priorities to create laser focus on the task at hand. Many of us feel the strain of working from home and endless video calls.

However, no other environment could have allowed for such a rapid and focused constellation of the UK’s most brilliant experts and their talented and dedicated teams. Furthermore, this extends to operational and management teams. In the past six months I was able to develop and stand up a team of project managers, communications experts and administrators, all of whom have been instrumental to the effective functioning of the consortium and none of whom were deterred from applying for the role by their location, as the need to commute or relocate is no longer a consideration for virtual teams. 

Adapting, learning and being present

Uncertainty has redrawn the perimeters of my comfort zone. I often find myself doing something I’ve never done before. Sometime that means trial and error, other times it means heavily relying on my team who never shy away from a challenge and always put their best professional foot forward.

In a way, I found that for me uncertainty has given me the confidence to make imperfect decisions and desensitised me to the risk of failure. Something that in the past could hold me back from “giving it a go”. The reality of the fast-paced nature of working in COG-UK means that the comfortable balance of planning and action has shifted in favour of pragmatic decision-making and improvisation. It has also elevated transparent communication and organic teamwork as we are truly unable to succeed and advance the work of COG-UK without each other. I am under no illusion that working in silos and breakdowns in communication still exist. However, a consortium delivering research and operations of this scale would otherwise not hold together. 

Finally, for me uncertainly had altered the meaning of known concepts such as what it means to be strategic or to plan for the future. As the future has become less predictable and thinking about it – less productive, I found it easier allowing myself to be present during this time more than ever. The pressures of a five-year career horizon or funding for the next project simply became less important than making sure my weeks and days are both productive and balanced. And although this may come across as a lack of foresight, I strongly believe that supporting the day-to-day running of the consortium and focusing on my team’s and my own wellbeing will ensure a sustainable long-term success. 

Finding your antidote to uncertainty

In times of high stress we seek direction, but this time has taught me that our leaders are often faced with even greater levels of uncertainty and conflicting pressures which often make it difficult to crystallise their vision and provide solid long terms plan.

One piece of advice I was given that I am keen to share, is to find your grounding in things and people that give you a sense of balance and security. Anything that gives you back the element of control, continuity or stability – whatever your antidote to uncertainty is – taking a dog for a walk that you do every day and are still able to do, journaling for 10 minutes every day to offload and reflect, speaking with colleagues and answering truthfully the classic “how are you today?”.

I found that for me it became increasingly important to take in new information. Podcasts, new music, articles, eclectic films and TV programmes.  Anything – with the exception of actual news – to cut through the monotony of everyday life and compensate for the inability to travel and see friends and family.

Furthermore, focusing on the present will help me build a strong foundation, and leaning into uncertainty can help become more flexible and open to future opportunities. And the past year has taught me, these opportunities might come from unexpected places, all the more so as the professional world will be profoundly changed by the pandemic and its consequences.

To find out more about the work of COG-UK, please visit https://www.cogconsortium.uk