Navigating Change: How Labs Are Adapting and Staying Productive

By Christina Phillis

It has often been said that preparation is the key to success. Because change is just a fact of life, we all must be ready for that fateful day when our world might get turned upside down. But change doesn’t always happen as we’ve imagined it. Think of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. No one could have completely prepared for that.

How can you adapt quickly when a situation doesn’t go according to plan? What do you do when something happens that you never expected? We invited some lab and facility personnel to share their experiences and methods for maintaining productivity amid sweeping and unforeseen change.

Evaluate the Hazards and Risks

There are inherent risks present in every lab, from physical obstacles that can cause trips and falls to chemical hazards, which vary by chemical class. Evaluation of these hazards should start as soon as a lab opens, according to Michael J. Russell, Environment, Health & Safety director at the University of Kansas. Russell and his team help over 900 labs incorporate safety procedures into their everyday operations.

“From day one, we work with labs to understand what they’re trying to accomplish, so we can help them run through a hazards risk assessment. From there, we work with them to develop operating procedures to integrate safety into everything they do,” said Russell. 

If disaster strikes, potential hazards are a known quantity and can be addressed based on the situation. Russell and his team reevaluated hazards when labs started to shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions. He said, “You have to look at what’s in process. How are chemicals being stored? Are bio activities and chemical activities being taken down properly? What about equipment? Some pieces can’t just be unplugged. They need to go into hibernation mode so things can keep running while people are away.”

If your lab is located in an area prone to natural disasters, it’s important to be vigilant about these risks. According to Logan Mlakar, Fisher Scientific portfolio manager and former lab manager, a move from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to a lab in Charleston, South Carolina, meant learning about the potential risks that accompany tropical storms. Buildings in the south may be designed to withstand hurricane winds, but associated flooding can also cause serious damage. Pay attention to hazardous chemicals and equipment that might need extra attention during storms.

During evacuations, there can be security issues for unoccupied labs. Scheduled and unscheduled deliveries need to be received to avoid damage or loss of materials. Personal items and equipment left unattended are susceptible to theft or vandalism.

Cyber security can also be a real threat, especially when labs are vulnerable. According to the recent Fortune article “Hackers ‘without conscience’ demand ransom from dozens of hospitals and labs working on coronavirus” by Ryan Gallagher, ransomware attacks have increased in the U.S. and Europe during the global pandemic.

In addition to following all IT protocols at your institution, look for any weaknesses in your system. “If you’re using a probe to monitor the temperature of a freezer or other piece of equipment, you should make sure that system gets fully integrated within your university’s IT network,” said Mlakar.

Communicate Effectively

When Leanne Sayles, a research specialist and lab manager for the Sweet-Cordero Laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and her team were told they had to close their lab in a single afternoon because of the pandemic, they needed to decide what parts of their research had to stop completely and which activities could continue in some capacity.

Sayles said communication is key in a situation like this: “It’s really important to keep communication open. Communication has changed a lot in terms of how we used to communicate on a daily basis in the lab. But the other part of it is not spamming people with too many emails. I really try to be intentional with the information that I’m giving them.”

She also recommends keeping in mind that communication is a two-way street and said, “People need to feel comfortable enough to tell me when they feel there’s an issue.”

In a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, where stay-at-home orders prevent people from accessing the lab, Sayles expressed the importance of having a small subset of people who can visit the lab and be the “eyes and ears” of the physical space to report back to the rest of the team.

Finding the best channel and cadence for communication with various cross-functional teams and colleagues can be difficult. Luckily, different platforms can serve a range of purposes. Samantha Savage Stevens, a lab manager at CEDAR, Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) Knight Cancer Institute, School of Medicine, said her team uses a combination of Zoom, Slack, and Confluence.

“We have an internal web page that we use to post updates. We use Slack to quickly communicate with our larger group. And we have a weekly Zoom lab meeting where we highlight different research groups,” said Savage Stevens.

Be Flexible

Adaptability is important in the best of times and can be a lifeline as you manage a crisis. Think creatively and consider options you wouldn’t normally utilize.

When faced with shutting down your lab, find out what you can and can’t do. “You don’t want to lose months of progress,” said Sayles. For example, she worked with UCSF to understand their restrictions and was able to harvest tumors and freeze them for later study. To make up for lost time, her team is considering outsourcing mouse genotyping, plasmid preps, gene editing, and other molecular biology procedures.

As Savage Stevens’ OHSU team ramps up, they will need human specimens and data. They’re currently working on establishing a pipeline for sharing these essential resources with other institutions. She’s also helping other teams within the organization by ordering necessary supplies for COVID-19 research.

"Overall it’s good to be as flexible as possible. We need to find a way to navigate this new normal."

Returning to work with social distancing guidelines and capacity restrictions presents its own set of challenges, so staff members need to remain flexible. Savage Stevens’ team will use Outlook to schedule work in two shifts. All of their tissue culture and equipment rooms will be scheduled using a web-based platform called Lab Agenda. If a COVID-19 outbreak occurs, they’ll know which staff members were potentially exposed.

“Overall it’s good to be as flexible as possible. We need to find a way to navigate this new normal,” said Savage Stevens.

Utilize Downtime

If you can’t enter a lab or your research is put on hold, use this additional time to think through process improvements. Find educational opportunities; free online courses are offered through Coursera and edX. Process experimental data. Submit papers or grants. Design new experiments.

Sayles said she utilized her time taking a course on basic computer programming to help her perform data analysis for an upcoming drug screen at UCSF.

You may not need to venture beyond your own team to share knowledge and insights. Savage Stevens said they looked to in-house subject matter experts at OHSU to provide educational opportunities to the larger team.

They also used the time to explore subjects they might not have otherwise — for example, bringing in an outside speaker to learn more about healthcare disparities. “It’s opening our eyes to how we can collaborate with people,” said Savage Stevens.

Support Your Team

Employees will need different levels of support as you manage change. “Don’t assume everyone has the required technology or that their equipment is fully functional,” said Jason Dong, an executive projects analyst at the Cardiovascular Research Institute, UCSF. He had to replace his hard drive before he could effectively work from home, and one of his colleagues did not have a laptop or at-home wireless service before the stay-at-home order.

Consider your team’s morale. Some people may not have family nearby or may be new to the area. Create opportunities for bonding virtually. “We have a recurring Zoom lunch every day and a Zoom happy hour every Friday to reach out and see how everybody is doing,” said Sayles.

Sayles recommends making it clear to your team that you will get through this. She said, “Be aware that there needs to be flexibility.” A patient, understanding team-first mentality can help you manage even the toughest of challenges — together.


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