Supporting and managing academic labs during a pandemic, some thoughts

Adjust expectations, be flexible, support your groups

Research will be different from normal for a while and even in the best cases it will also be slower. The shift to working remotely will limit the kinds of work we can do and everyone doing research is experiencing a dramatic disturbance to their lives. This means the people in our labs will need flexibility and support.

Talk to your lab members to understand their needs: Recognize that these needs will be different for different people. Many will have new responsibilities and stresses that preclude working normally, but some may use work as a coping mechanism.

Make it clear that moving more slowly and delaying things is expected and 100% OK. Push back project timelines, understand that some folks will make little to no progress for a while, consider delaying stressful graduate activities like qualifying exams.

Provide financial reassurance: If true, ensure your team that their current funding won’t be cut. If possible, offer extensions on funding. This will help alleviate stress and uncertainty.

Recognize power dynamics when offering flexibility: Make sure that team members are comfortable opting-out of “optional” choices and don’t feel pressured to be productive, to work on-campus, or work at certain times.

Provide access to university resources: Inform group members about university programs related to mental health, expanded sick leave, and other forms of support for well being.

Give your team the resources they need to work from home:  Encourage your group to move things from campus that they need to work at home including computers, books, and chairs. Universities typically allow this for remote work (there may be a form to fill out). If possible, purchase additional supplies needed for remote work (e.g., headsets).

Adopt & adapt tools and approaches for managing remote teams

Remote management recommendations focus on good communication, breaking projects into manageable pieces, keeping everyone on the same page with clear next steps, and tracking progress. This will make your group more efficient and inclusive when working remotely.

Use video conferencing to replace in-person interactions: Do this for any regular meetings you have (e.g., one-on-one meetings, lab group meetings) and also informal interactions (like popping into an advisors office or chatting science with labmates). Communicate your availability and how to set up meetings.

Use a group-based discussion tool (e.g., Slack or Microsoft Teams) : This supports asking questions and working on group projects and facilitates interactions among lab members with different work hours (important for those with responsibilities like child care). It can also provide an outlet for social interactions. Text does lose subtle social cues so video or audio is still best for delicate conversations. Check out the getting started documentation for Slack or Microsoft Teams.

Read up on managing remote teams: There are some unique skills to remote management, but there is lots of information on how to do this including: How to overcome your worries about letting people work remotely, How to oversee a remote team’s work, Ten simple rules for a successful remote postdoc.

Use project management and collaboration tools: These tools help you use good remote management practices. Most labs will benefit from a tool for writing and a tool for project management. Labs that write code (including for analyzing data) will also benefit from a code collaboration platform. Check out getting started guides for Google Docs (for writing) and Trello (for project management). Learning version control for managing code is a bigger commitment, but the Software Carpentry lessons are a good starting point.

Help identify research that can be done remotely, but understand the limits

It’s important to prioritize the safety of your team over research. This may mean changing your research plans to support social distancing and reduce or eliminate travel.

Focus on analyzing and writing up existing data and ideas: This is the easiest adjustment because it minimizes shifts in research area and need for new skills. Existing data isn’t just what a specific student has already collected, but can include previous data collection from your lab.

Synthesize existing knowledge: Writing reviews lets your team use their expertise to synthesize existing knowledge.

Conduct research on open data: There are increasingly large amounts of openly available data in many fields. There may be data that can be used to address questions similar to those you are studying using field or lab based approaches.

Collaborate when extending into new research areas: Computational research, working with large datasets, systematic reviews and metaanalyses all take expertise. To pivot into new methods or topics consider finding someone with the associated expertise to collaborate with. There may well be experts on your students’ committees or in your department or university.

Develop new skills/expertise to expand your groups’ research horizons: Instead of jumping into a new project requiring new skills support your team taking this time to learn new skills (e.g., computing methods or statistical approaches) or develop new expertise (reading up on new areas of the literature) to serve as the foundation for future research.

Initially prepared for the UF/IFAS Faculty Forum: Living, Working, and Adapting to the New Normal of COVID-19. Led by Ethan White (@ethanwhite) (who is responsible for anything bad) with contributions from SK Morgan Ernest (@skmorgane), Hao Ye (@Hao_and_Y), Brandon S. Cooper (@brandonscooper), JJ Emerson (@JJ_Emerson), Katy Huff (@katyhuff), Russell Neches (@ryneches), Auriel Fournier (@RallidaeRule), Jessica Burnett (@TrashBirdEcol), Melissa Rethlefsen (@mlrethlefsen), Eric Scott (@LeafyEricScott), Kathe Todd-Brown (@KatheMathBio), itati en casa (@itatiVCS), Alexey Shiklomanov (@ashiklom711) (who are responsible for anything awesome). A lot of the thinking in “Adopt & adapt tools and approaches for managing remote teams” was influenced by “Ten simple rules for a successful remote postdoc” by Kevin Burgio, Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie, Stephanie Borrelle, Morgan Ernest, Jacquelyn Gill, Kurt Ingeman, Amy Teffer, and me.

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