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A New Generation

“This is not your grandfather’s or grandmother’s national lab system anymore.”

by Bernard B. Tulsi
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Retooling your management style for millennials

“This is not your grandfather’s or grandmother’s national lab system anymore,” says Devin Hodge, deputy director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) at Argonne National Laboratory, in an apt interpretation of today’s changing laboratory landscape.

The workplace has a variety of space types throughout each floor to enhance the work environment. Multiple workspaces provide greater choices in where and how to work to support focus and collaboration.Photo credit: Andrew Bordwin Studio, Inc.Hodge’s depiction points to a reset—designing and operating highly functional scientific workplaces equipped with smart ways to find, motivate, and retain scarce talented staff. It signals an advance toward more flexibility for workers, opportunities to work remotely, better work-life balance, and greater cultural awareness, and it addresses expectations of early-career millennials, an increasingly dominant segment of the workforce, who embrace a more pervasive role for technology.

“My generation is very much electronically driven,” says Paola Guevara Riveros, president of the Association of Lab Managers (ALMA), who is also an early-career millennial lab manager. In meetings with vendors’ representatives, she typically inquires, “Do you have an app for this?” Apps allow her to place orders via a mobile device while on an elevator or showing a rep around rather than waiting to get back to her desktop. Riveros, who is eager to “make things go faster,” says although apps seem ubiquitous, many vendors don’t have them to support their products. “[That’s] a mind-boggling challenge, because there’s an app for almost everything else.”

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Cursory observations suggest a strong commitment by millennials to faster, more efficient technology with smaller physical and energy footprints. Riveros says that from all appearances, her generation espouses “sustainability and environmentally friendly technologies.”

Erik Lustgarten, director, life sciences practice area at Gensler, says explorations by his architecture and design firm on millennials’ approach to the workplace indicate how conversant they are with technology. “This is the first generation that has grown up with the computer as a normal part of everyday life, giving them a fluidity with technology that prior generations have had to adapt to.”

Rich Durand, director, material, and characterization science at Sun Chemical Corporation, agrees that early-career workers “expect to be able to use their cell phones and mobile devices to communicate and access social media,” noting the potential for tension in lab environments set in older workplace cultures. He believes that steps to understand and accommodate the technology-related needs of younger workers could result in better outcomes and benefit the lab enterprise overall.

Millennials tend to make choices based on socially responsible factors, says Lustgarten. This translates into choosing to work for companies with good reputations in these areas. “Healthy workplaces with real connections to social missions are important to the millennial generation,” says Lustgarten.

Joaquín Rodríguez-López, assistant professor of chemistry at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, discusses next-generation battery research with postdoctoral research associates and graduate students in the laboratories at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.Image courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.He says that labs seem headed toward the “mixed-use scientific community” that incorporates wellness and lifestyle components—including, in some cases, organic gardens on campus that grow healthy food for on-site restaurants—right alongside spaces for scientific endeavors, all aimed at helping scientists access a healthier lifestyle. “That is a distinguishing factor for the generation coming into the workforce now— the lab is just a part of an overall work environment.”

Furthermore, with lab workers now having greater flexibility to work wherever and whenever they want, including from home, Scott Hanton, laboratory operations manager for Intertek Analytical Sciences America, says, “What matters is that the job gets done; you have flexibility about where and when you do it.”

“I care a lot less about when someone clocks in or out, but I pay a lot of attention to whether they got the job done by the time it was due and with sufficient quality. For example, I don’t ask people to schedule dentist appointments in advance. You have a dentist appointment, go, but still get your job done.” Such flexibility helps workers better handle other important activities in their lives, such as caring for older family members or attending to children’s needs and activities. “They can fulfill family obligations and still be successful at their work,” he says.

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Hanton says that his lab’s remote and work-at-home arrangements do not introduce any undue burdens. “Chemists spend about 50 percent of their time with data rather than chemicals. We provide them with tools to access data remotely, and they can be equally effective working somewhere other than in the lab.” He says that for entry-level chemists who mostly do bench work, “We have broader, more convenient working hours that they can tailor to their needs.”

While Hanton acknowledges the importance of keeping up with technology and increasing opportunities to work anywhere and anytime, he says, “As labs become more digital, we have to take advantage of the flexibility that digital features provide without stretching the bounds of community too far. We still have to find opportunities for face-to-face and accidental conversations. My worry for the future is that we stretch the flexibility too far and lose something from the face-to-face community.”

Hodge says the goal is to “allow people to be successful when and where they want to [be].” JCESR’s 20 partnering institutions across different disciplines and cultures work collaboratively to develop next-generation battery technology. The organization uses strategies like scientific sprints, often led by early-career people, along with cutting-edge communication and information-sharing tools. Partners are spread across the country, but innovative approaches help overcome potential barriers.

“If you want to communicate, the best way is for the parties to be able to see each other. This helps you to read the situation better and know whether everyone is engaged. Our easyto- use communication system allows us to engage people quickly in ad hoc meetings across the country.” Hodge says this approach relies on trust and transparency, noting JCESR’s considerable effort to build trust, starting at onboarding.

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Hodge says, “At JCESR, we are all about giving people the tools to work wherever and whenever they want. We just have to work that way, and it just so happens that our early-career people prefer it that way. They want to be able to work remotely, and we give them the tools to enable that.”

He notes that while it hasn’t happened completely yet, private offices with bookshelves and decorated walls are giving way to open collaborative spaces. “Millennials seem to want it that way. To stay competitive, labs have to respond by moving in the direction [that accommodates] where the talent wants to be.” He notes that research has suggested that millennials don’t want noisy spaces, but are interested in areas where they can collaborate and work together.

“They want the best of all of those worlds. What they don’t want is to be anchored to a desk. They want freedom to move around and work someplace else, and we try to provide that.

“For lab work, you need to be where your experiments are conducted, but a decent amount of time is devoted to reading papers, crunching results, and other activities that can be done remotely. I am positive about this approach, especially for millennials, who prefer to work this way. If they are happy, they will be more creative and innovative. I believe that’s true for anyone. There is more creative power in this freer, collaborative model, with people working side by side, taking on challenges together,” says Hodge.

ingshu Hui and Elena Montoto, graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, conduct JCESR next-generation battery research in the laboratories at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.Image courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.Leadership is crucial in such flexible, less formal arrangements. Riveros says, “We are lab managers, but no one reports to us. We do guide, direct, and manage large processes across campus. What’s crucial is a culture of mutual respect that includes a willingness to listen to lab managers as persons with knowledge and experience because of their integral involvement in helping to design and create the laboratory workspace—as people who can provide information and guidance.”

Riveros says it’s challenging to be a lab manager when no one reports to you. “In a culture where people are unwilling to heed someone they don’t report to, a lab manager would be ineffective. Lab managers need to be more leaders than managers in these situations to be truly effective,” she says.

Hanton concurs, adding that the exercise of leadership should be encouraged at every level in the organization. “Sometimes we expect leadership to come only from the top; however, if we expect ideas to come from a select few, we’ll miss a lot. What’s the next best idea? We need it from everybody, from the most junior person to the most senior; everybody has the ability to contribute, and everybody else will listen.”

Turning to motivation and retention, Riveros says that training is essential not only for skill building, which is essential for early-career workers not specifically trained for laboratory duties, but also for retention of the workforce.

Hanton adds, “We are focusing on people and making sure that we make sound decisions about recruiting, hiring, retaining, developing, and performance review, because qualified staff are even more critical today than in the past.

“We have more resource constraints, so we have smaller staffs and less spending flexibility. Against greater staff mobility, we have to spend more time figuring out the best workers who will fit into and stay longer in our organizations.”

Hanton identifies two key considerations for motivating and retaining lab staff. “One, we are placing more attention on individual development. As lab managers, we are tasked with developing a staff. In the past, we focused on skill building. Now we are paying more attention to the holistic individual. There’s still skill building, that’s a part of it, but lab managers are spending more of their time thinking about their whole development, not only what lab skills they bring but also the development of leadership, communication, influence, and negotiation skills— areas that are much more broadly useful than just their technical skills.

“Two, we need to have a lot more conversations about how the people are doing, how they are feeling. This is not natural for people in the technical fields, who are more comfortable with conversations on the science and projects they are working on. But I see myself and my peers spending more time talking to people about how they are doing, really working toward making the right decisions to keep them challenged and satisfied as part of retention and development.”

On the question of collaboration and community building in the laboratory, Lustgarten points to notable areas of progress. “Twenty years ago, socialization was just in a little café-style room where workers stored their lunch. Socialization now [happens in] a place where they can do scientific work and analysis as well as a place where they can take a break from their workday.

“Now leaders want to be engaged in the lab, they want to be accessible for conversations. They do need privacy for sensitive discussions and administrative duties. Increasingly, those types of situations are accommodated by the availability of alternative, private spaces that are just as available to senior leaders as they are to workers who want to make a private call to their doctor.”

Such settings significantly increase opportunities for unplanned, accidental conversations that often turn into serendipitous exchanges of information with future value, according to Lustgarten.

Hanton says that increasing such opportunities for such “collisions is really important, because the resulting accidental conversations actually help to build community among staff. A simple coffee room can help to facilitate this. The value of these informal conversations is enormous, far outweighing the cost of the space … and the coffee.”