Receptionists: ‘the face of the organisation’

What do schools share with clinical research?

For former teacher and current receptionist at the NIHR Cambridge Clinical Research Facility Antoinette Rivera, that’s easy to answer: they both enjoy an environment of discussion and learning, where ideas and developments are shared.

You’ve swapped PE and languages for research – describe a typical day for you?

My day-to-day is focused on establishing a welcoming environment and smooth start to each appointment, so that participants feel relaxed and in good hands from the moment they arrive.

Coming to hospital is daunting for many people, and coming to a Clinical Research Centre can seem even more so. But the research nurses here are truly amazing and provide a relaxed atmosphere, work to a high professional standard, consistently meet others on a human level, have a very good dose of humour, and are unfailingly kind; all of which make it lovely to be a part of.

My role is mostly people centred, whether face-to-face, on the telephone, or via email. On a typical day I also speak with clinicians, visiting contractors and the facility manager, as well as colleagues from around the Trust who visit the centre on a daily basis for a number of reasons.

That’s in addition to receiving and dealing with deliveries, pointing people in the right direction, booking taxis, and organising meeting rooms. Then there’s making sure blood collections are done on time. And keeping in the loop with the other receptionists in the team, who are located on the other receptions at the research centre.

The admin side of my job also keeps me pretty busy; liaising with the research nurses and clinical admissions team, sometimes helping register, reschedule, or cancel appointments when necessary. We need to maintain handwritten records, and ensure the data on the central reference frame is up-to-date and accurately reflects the length of time every participant spent at the research facility. And importantly for me, it’s while preparing the daily appointment sheets in advance that I glance through the names and corresponding studies, in order to be able to address a person by their name when they arrive and leave. Many of the participants will come to appointments weekly or monthly, and so it’s possible to build a rapport with them over the months or even years.

What’s rewarding about your job?

Several things: knowing that I’ve contributed in helping ease someone’s day, whether that someone is a participant or colleague. Having the time to listen. Kindness being a valued quality. Working at my own pace for the most part, and in my own style, which is in fact actively encouraged and supported. And being part of a top-notch team, whose compassion and professionalism is in turn heartening and commendable.

What challenges / difficulties do you face in your role?

Ordinarily, it’s trying to be there in some meaningful way for someone having a hard time. And challenge-wise, it’s thinking outside the box, which I actually enjoy.

But this year it has been particularly tough, because of the blindsiding nature of the measures put in place to deal with Covid-19, both inside and outside of the workplace. When things are tough in a normal year, I’d meet up with friends, go for a meal, take a day trip. Hug. But this year that’s all been impossible. The worst though has been being unable to physically sit alongside someone in a supportive way, and having to hold back on giving or receiving a comforting embrace when that has absolutely been needed.

Why is your role important?

To my mind, being a receptionist means that you set the tone of the experience at the research centre for the participant or patient or visitor. We all know what it’s like starting the day off on the wrong foot, which can sometimes take longer than expected to shake off. And so being welcoming, kind, patient, sensitive, professional, and having clear communication can positively facilitate a smooth start. It’s been said that a receptionist is the face of the organisation, which I agree with as we are often the first person visitors see and meet.

What are the opportunities working in an administrative role in research?

There’s quite a variety of choice regarding continuous professional development, as well as lectures and seminars on new developments in medicine. Before lockdown I was lucky enough to go to a couple of lectures, one of which was a TedTalk; so both the quality as well as the choice is good.

What have you learned since working in research?

Firstly that it’s unambiguously vital. Another, that it consists of multidisciplinary teams that are reliant upon each other, with high levels of communication and integrity needed not only among themselves, but for potential and active participants too. Also, that here’s an accountability pathway from inception through to and within realisation, which includes an ethics committee and external monitoring. And realising unequivocally that even seemingly menial jobs are of importance to the overall success of a study. What’s more, it’s been eye-opening to see how far-reaching research is. However, what was a welcome surprise to me and something I love, is that there are leading women in this field not only developing cutting-edge treatments and contributing to advancements in science, but also within the directorship; from turning a vision into the building and set-up of the centre.

What skills do you need to work in an admin role and in research?

I’d say that being a people person is one of the cornerstones, as it’s probably a daily responsibility to make sure visitors to the facility feel welcomed. And so approachableness is key too. Also the usual re admin: high levels of communication, being well organised, ability to work as part of a team but also on your own initiative, having good time management, thinking on your feet, and upholding the Trust’s qualities of “Together – safe, kind, excellent”. Plus, it definitely helps to have an interest in the studies trialled here.

What is the great thing about working in research?

Being part of progress and ethical change for the better with talented and friendly people.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in an admin position in research?

Decide if the research being done genuinely interests you. And consider if you’d find the role stimulating in the right way; where I am in my life right now, it is. Also if you can, pop over for a tour of the facility and meet the team beforehand.

Why do you think research is important?

To my mind, research is essential to life and at the very core of protecting us in our different genders, age ranges, and ethnicities; in order to provide safe and effective treatment for life threatening or damaging illnesses. So, by that definition it’s also fundamentally educational, from which delving and trying-out treatments in purposely built facilities allows us to safely grow and evolve both as a society and as a species. But maybe more substantially, research is important because improving and saving life is embedded within our humanity, and so its’s a part of us that should never be denied. Therefore, research being recognised as indispensable, is to me, conclusive.

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