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How the pandemic changed the industrial chemistry workplace

Whether employers like it or not, remote working and flexible hours are here to stay

by Chemjobber, special to C&EN
January 27, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 4


Illustration of an employer on a balance beam with two employees on the other side.
Credit: Robin Braverman/C&EN/Shutterstock
Employees want to tip the balance toward remote working.

Before the pandemic, the balance between employer and employee in industrial chemistry was heavily tilted in favor of the employer. Bosses dictated work hours (explicitly or implicitly) and where people work, even choosing where the desks are located in offices. Remote work? Forget about it.

In the US, the cement cracked in mid-March of last year. Suddenly, companies that had held remote working at arm’s length were forced to embrace it, and the doors opened to remote working and more flexible hours. The balance between employer and employee began to tilt in favor of the employee.

What does this mean for the industrial chemist? Unlike the financial or software sectors, chemistry will never be 100% remote, because chemists can’t be decoupled from the laboratory. At the core of the chemical enterprise are chemicals and the chemists who work with them. Laboratories can’t be packed up and delivered to garages, and the equipment to do lab work remotely hasn’t been invented—yet. Chemists will still need to go to a central place where experiments are performed. I also believe that chemists will still want to speak face to face, show one another what they have made, and touch and smell their products.

But the pandemic has shown industrial chemists what a more flexible workplace could look like, and I believe that it’s here to stay.

Some chemistry work was already being done remotely. Production plants aren’t always next to R&D labs, and chemists may need to send products across the world to different time zones to be manufactured. Research collaborators have often worked by phone and email with just a few in-person meetings sprinkled throughout the year.

I predict that work outside the lab—the reports, emails, and patent applications—will increasingly be done at home. Moreover, this type of work can be done at any time of the day or night. You may find time to answer work emails after your kids have gone to bed or tap on your laptop while you’re taking a loved one to a medical appointment. Employers have accepted this kind of flexibility, and I predict that more chemists will take advantage of it, even after we are all vaccinated.

Some pharmaceutical researchers have separated the synthesizers and the designers at different research sites. I think the pandemic will accelerate these trends to put distance between the chemists and their supervisors. Rather than seeing your managers in person once or twice a day, you might see them only once a week. Or perhaps your interactions will be mediated primarily through a screen or via text rather than in person. Giving your boss a raised eyebrow at one of their suggestions will be a bit tougher.

At the same time, I can easily imagine employers wanting to shift the balance back in their favor, forcing those who work remotely to regularly meet with their teams in person to establish rapport and discuss projects on a physical whiteboard. It’s also difficult to imagine that performance reviews and other sensitive meetings would continue to happen entirely via Zoom.

Where the balance between employer and employee ultimately lands remains to be seen. What’s certain is that we have profoundly changed as individuals and as a community. This pandemic, in its myriad painful disruptions, has reminded us to be more empathetic, to understand our individual burdens of care, and to offer one another more flexibility. I sincerely hope that whatever happens, the overall balance tilts in favor of a healthier perspective on work and life.

Chemjobber is an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.


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