Managing from a Distance

As part of professional development and training programs, lab managers must be provided with opportunities to develop the skills required to effectively facilitate virtual collaborations.

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A Strong Organizational Structure and Support Services are Essential

The ability to manage labs remotely is a necessity. All lab managers work remotely in some capacity— whether checking in with staff while attending a conference or working from home due to a sick child—and many are now tasked with the responsibility of working collaboratively as part of multi-institutional research teams or supervising an off-site location. As part of professional development and training programs, lab managers must be provided with opportunities to develop the skills required to effectively facilitate virtual collaborations.

The pros and cons

The complex scientific challenges being addressed in this century (e.g., climate change, precision medicine) require multidisciplinary approaches conducted by research teams comprising experts with academic, industry, and government affiliations. Federal funding agencies have encouraged the growth of team-based research with the advent of multiple principal investigator funding mechanisms that enable researchers to form cross-disciplinary teams and apply for “big grants.”

Both the public and private sectors benefit financially from team science and virtual collaboration capabilities. Alice Marcy, in her role as scientific operations officer with Dynamis Therapeutics, Inc. (Jenkintown, PA), a small preclinical pharmaceutical company in the metabolic disease area, has managed more than ten research collaborations with academics, pharmaceutical companies, and contract research organizations in the past decade. As for the reason for this increasing trend toward public-private partnerships, she explains, “Pharmaceutical companies have decreased their internal research and development capabilities and have become more receptive to collaborative arrangements for drug discovery.”

Laboratories have been able to reduce expenses associated with business travel costs by using virtual communication platforms to connect with collaborators and clients around the world.1 Meanwhile, the globalization of industry allows companies to capitalize on emerging and growing markets in other countries to develop products and solutions tailored for local regions.2 Indirect benefits include the higher performance levels associated with teams that learn how to effectively collaborate, enabled by the use of electronic communication tools.3

Working remotely also provides numerous advantages for the lab manager, such as greater work flexibility, the ability to take time off for professional growth, and enhanced work performance. For example, Teesta Jain, vice president of clinical research at Sonostics Inc. (Binghamton, NY), finds that “working remotely gets that member of the team to have interactions with people in different areas, which often opens up new avenues with new ideas: more parameters in the study, what the results mean and future direction of these results, and also new products for the pipeline.”

While technologies are advancing, there is still no substitute for direct, face-to-face interaction with research teams. Improvement is needed in the design of virtual communication tools that can simulate in-room interactions, which are essential for developing personal rapport and trusting relationships with individual team members. Jain, who primarily manages the clinical research lab for her company remotely, offers another difficulty in that “exchanging and bouncing off ideas to be more creative” is inhibited when working alone.

Other issues with geographically dispersed teams include the burden of constant electronic communication (i.e., communication overload) and a range of cultural and physical barriers (e.g., different time zones, ethics, and work styles). Additional challenges specifically related to laboratory work include staying updated on daily progress, troubleshooting lab experiments, and monitoring research data. However, the task of managing remotely is becoming more achievable with the collection of online tools and resources available to facilitate both laboratory operations and team communications.

Lab operations

There are a number of software tools that can assist in monitoring day-to-day activities to keep a lab running efficiently. These products, including electronic lab notebooks and inventory management systems, allow users to access experimental data and results, approve purchasing orders, and check inventory supplies without stepping foot inside the laboratory. Lab Manager offers a comprehensive selection of online resources to help managers choose the best products for informatics needs in their laboratories.4 These resource guides also provide information on laboratory equipment that is capable of being brought online for remote monitoring purposes.

For example, Priyanka Bhattacharya, manager and head of the Chemical Science Division at Proton Power Inc. (Lenoir City, TN), has adapted her company’s inventory management system to track chemical and laboratory supplies. This system helps her plan for experimentation when working remotely to check whether needed glassware or chemicals are in stock and to subsequently proceed with authorizing an experiment to be conducted while she is away. In Bhattacharya’s lab, analytical instruments such as the GC-MS can be accessed remotely so she can review sample results and help troubleshoot protocols from outside the lab.

Team communication

Most employees will already be familiar with virtual collaboration tools in use for team communication, including options for videoconferencing (e.g., Skype), project management (e.g., SharePoint), and file sharing (e.g., Google Drive, Dropbox). While these tools are becoming commonplace, lab managers must focus on carefully selecting user-friendly tools that work best for the whole team. According to a National Research Council (NRC) report on team science, “When selecting technologies to support virtual science teams or larger groups, leaders should carefully evaluate the needs of the project and the ability of the individual participants to embrace new technologies. Organizations should promote human-centered collaboration technologies, provide technical staff, and encourage use of the technologies by providing ongoing training and technology support.”5

Some online tools are better suited for virtual collaborations. For instance, Nancy Cooke, professor and program chair of Human Systems Engineering at Arizona State University and committee chair for the NRC report, suggests the use of videoconferencing software that has features to see who is online, allows team members to raise their hands to contribute to the discussion, and can easily be led by a moderator. There are also general best practices for holding virtual meetings, including distributing presentation slides and a premeeting agenda with call-in details in advance and promptly sending post-meeting summaries with action items. The NRC report details a suite of communication tools and guidelines for decision-making purposes.

Organizational structure

A strong organizational structure, along with support services, is essential for virtual lab management to work well. This structure should include a local point person authorized to deal with day-to-day issues. For example, Bhattacharya relies heavily on a research associate in her lab whom she can trust to manage the inventory and serve as the safety coordinator. The lab structure is supplemented by a solid IT department that provides access to remote computing functions (e.g., virtual private networks), a facilities division for safety and maintenance issues, and a purchasing office where she can forward orders. Overall, Bhattacharya comments, “Most of the time managing remotely works well as long as I have a phone to talk on, a laptop, and an Internet connection.”

Smaller institutions and start-ups may not have the luxury of a dedicated person or unit to carry out routine lab duties, and in this case labs might consider outsourcing responsibilities. HappiLabs (Chicago, IL), is an example of a company that provides virtual lab management services, including strategic purchasing and inventory management, to save researchers time and money.6 Additionally, when planning work breakdown structures across multi-institutional collaborations, Cooke suggests, “If tasks can break down into subtasks, then naturally group [them] by location where lots of interactions occur in one place, because a problem [with team science] is the overhead on communications.”

Planning ahead

Cooke explains that there is an interdisciplinary community, called The Science of Team Science, dedicated to studying the science behind team-based research. These researchers are taking lessons from collaboration science and applying similar tools and techniques to help teams of scientists work better together. The Science of Team Science conference website contains a comprehensive list of resources to support the planning and management of large-scale collaborations with wide-reaching applicability.7

As an example of resources, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has developed a field guide with a number of hands-on exercises (e.g., fostering trust, communicating science) for developing an effective team.8 According to the guide, the first step is to prepare yourself (and team members) with the communication skills and “collaborative spirit” required for success. Cooke also finds that the top two characteristics needed in team science are a willingness to work across disciplines and lots of patience, because electronic communication just takes more time.

Another important aspect is the vetting of potential collaborators who have the same vision and values as your own team. Marcy recalls, “One of our best collaborations was with a partner that was highly engaged and thought carefully about the best way to reach our company goals within budget limitations. It was like working with a company colleague rather than a contractor.” She continues, “A good collaborator asks good questions during initial interviews to show they are thinking about the project, has lots of experience with what you want to accomplish, is rigorous and has high standards, complements your capabilities and can fill holes with their strengths, will be recommended by other groups, and has adequate time for your project.”

As Cooke explains, it is essential to develop a collaboration plan in advance of starting a team-based project. The plan acts as a “prenuptial agreement” with expectations on how often to meet, what communication tools to use, and other cooperative guidelines. She emphasizes that it takes “start-up time” for the onboarding of all team members (e.g., developing a common vocabulary), and funding agencies should allow teams this time to get started. The aforementioned NIH field guide also contains a collaborative agreement template that can be used as a starting point. Whether managing a lab remotely on an intermittent basis or leading a major collaborative research effort, these team science tools and resources can help you direct highly effective teams from any location.

References

1. John K. Borchardt, “The Online Lab Manager,” Lab Manager Magazine (2010). www.labmanager.com/business-management/2010/01/the-online-lab-manager 

2. John K. Borchardt, “Global Management,” Lab Manager Magazine (2010). www.labmanager.com/leadership-and-staffing/2010/07/global-management

3. John K. Borchardt, “No Boundaries,” Lab Manager Magazine (2012). www.labmanager.com/business-management/2012/09/no-boundaries

4. Lab Products page, Lab Manager website. www.labmanager.com/lab-products

5. National Research Council, “Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science” (2015). www.nap.edu/catalog/19007/enhancing-the-effectiveness-of-team-science 

6. Happilabs, “How Saving Resources and Simplifying Lab Management Works” (2015). www.labmanager.com/how-it-works/2015/12/how-saving-resources-and-simplifying-lab-management-works 

7. Resources page, Science of Team Science website www.scienceofteamscience.org/scits-a-team-science-resources

8. “Collaboration and Team Science: A Field Guide,” NIH (2010). https://ombudsman.nih.gov/collaborationTS.html 

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