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April 24, 2020

Science at home: Is it possible for researchers to work remotely?

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Given recent events, huge swathes of us have suddenly had to start working remotely to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and ease the strain on healthcare systems globally. Scientific researchers play a key role in the fight against the virus as well as other important global challenges, but is it even possible to continue research remotely?

Obviously, there are some hands-on experiments that must be done in the lab and, short of setting up a lab in your kitchen which is neither practical nor health and safety friendly, some researchers must continue to go into the lab. Limiting access and putting social distancing measures in place is therefore the only option in these cases. This is bound to significantly reduce lab time, making it essential to make the most of the time you do have in the lab and to do as much as possible remotely. So how can the scientific community maximize the success of remote working in these challenging times?

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Keep in touch

The importance of communication cannot be overstated in research and without face-to-face interaction, communication technology is playing an increasingly important role in our daily work. As well as setting up regular team meetings and one-on-ones, our style of communication also needs to adapt to ensure everyone is heard. Video should be used as much as possible and designated slots for questions are needed to make sure every member of the team has the chance to raise ideas and problems.

Increasing scheduled communication is important but more informal chats should not be overlooked. Often, casual conversations stimulate cross-pollination of ideas, are the locus for key breakthroughs and are essential for building a close team and maintaining morale. These interactions are what will be most noticeably lost when working remotely so more informal chats should also be encouraged. Many organizations are setting up virtual social gatherings or lunch breaks via Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Google Hangouts and using separate channels of communication for friendly chat such as Slack, Microsoft Teams chat, Yammer or Whatsapp. These could also help overcome the general wellbeing challenges of isolation.

Leading from afar

Increased distance from your team creates several leadership challenges. One concern for many leaders is that productivity levels will decrease without onsite monitoring. As well as clearly communicating expectations and making sure your team sticks to deadlines, making sure your team feels empowered is key according to Management 3.0[1]. One of their ‘8 Remote Team Leadership Dont’s’ is micromanagement, trusting your team is essential!

Forbes recommends the three C’s as best practice for remote leadership[2]:

Clarity – Set clear goals, boundaries and guidelines. Whilst usual training and feedback methods may be disrupted, these are still necessary to keep your team working to the best of their abilities. New measurements of success are therefore required, utilizing the available technology to provide virtual reviews and make sure your team is challenged and engaged.

Communication – As we’ve mentioned, regularly checking in with what everyone is working on and where they need help is vital.

Connection – Overcome feelings of disconnection and maintain team morale by arranging shared remote activities like exercise challenges, baking competitions and virtual quizzes to maintain personal relationships.

Another aspect often overlooked is rewarding. A brief congratulations may be enough to help individuals feel recognized, so this should be incorporated into the new setup either in regular team meetings, by sending a short note, or even by setting up a more formal recognition system like a ‘What went well’ weekly update.

Optimizing your time

For those still able to access the lab on a reduced schedule, optimizing that time is essential. Where possible, any planning, calculations and preparation should be done in advance. Remote access to laboratory technology is often possible and will significantly increase the amount of research that can be undertaken both inside and outside the lab. This can also allow teams to analyze results in detail and make informed decisions about which experiments to perform. In this situation, document sharing platforms are key for teams to collaborate on projects and check each other’s work.

For work that has to be done in the lab, laboratory management technology such as Clustermarket is one-way users can manage their lab time efficiently, viewing instrument availability in advance and booking slots at quiet times of the day to optimize lab use. Even during these difficult times, software like this can help manage and coordinate lab activities remotely and in a safe way (e.g. amount of researchers in the lab). Technology also now allows for many lab instruments to be monitored remotely or even fully automated including technologies offered by the likes of XiltriX[3], BrightLab[4] and ThermoFisher[5]. Whilst this is not something that can be set up instantly, it could be a consideration for allowing more flexible working in the future.

Focus on the positives

Staying positive is particularly difficult at the moment, but remote working does offer some opportunities that we should make the most of. Researchers, for example, can use this time to read, write up and review scientific papers. Studies from governments, academic organizations and HR departments have shown that flexible working increases productivity[6], is beneficial to employees’ mental health and wellbeing[7],[8], and is important to encourage a diverse workforce[9]. The flexible and adaptive ways of working that we are now developing will likely have longer-term benefits for employee welfare going forward and our increased readiness to communicate virtually has the potential to transform collaborative research.

Whilst the current situation is challenging for everyone, using the technology that’s now available could make remote research significantly easier and more effective. We must be sure to embrace new ways to collaborate, maintain regular contact with each other, stay up to date with the progress of the team and plan ahead to make the most of this time and support essential ongoing research.

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