Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Best Practices for Keeping Your Employees Engaged, Challenged, and Happy

An important part of managerial responsibility is to ensure an overall satisfactory work environment

by Sara Goudarzi
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Several years back, the then-owner of OnSite Environmental Inc., an environmental laboratory located in Redmond, Washington, pulled aside two of his talented and dedicated employees who were engaged in entry-level work. Knowing there were no positions for them to move up to, he good-naturedly relayed to those employees that it wouldn’t hurt his feelings if they looked for positions elsewhere.

“He really did it out of the genuine kindness of his heart, letting people know ‘Hey, you guys have a lot of potential, and I don’t think it’s being met here,’” says Karl Hornyik, OnSite’s principal.

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Within six months, the two employees left their positions at the lab.

“I think we learned something from that, and there was a real loss in that they were both really skilled, very competent, and really good employees, and I think had we been able to offer them even a little bit of something, they could’ve hung around a bit longer,” Hornyik says. “You never know when someone else will leave and a position will open up for somebody.”

The ultimate difficulty that Hornyik and many other managers face, both in the laboratory sector and in other industries, is that a significant portion of the entry-level jobs tends to be the least rewarding, partly because those jobs are the most repetitive and often labor intensive. And if there are no positions for those individuals to move up to, those employees end up less than satisfied.

An important part of managerial responsibility, aside from making sure that the lab is running smoothly and jobs are getting done on time and on budget, is to ensure an overall satisfactory work environment. Any good manager knows that when employees are happy, performance goes up, and when performance improves, so does business.

Each manager has to assess what the culture of his or her lab is and how this culture can be improved. In the case of Hornyik, he is keenly aware of ensuring that his employees don’t feel trapped in entry-level or tedious jobs and they feel they are improving as professionals.

“So what we try to do is allow our employees to have training opportunities,” he says. “Even if they’re not a full-time analyst, [we allow them] to be a fill-in person so that they do see that there’s sort of a light at the end of the tunnel here, and they’re actually able to, even though we may not have a spot for an analyst open for them, train for moving in that direction.”

The role of automation

Over the years, many labs have experienced an increase in the automation of tasks. If there were a relationship between increased automation and job satisfaction, one would imagine a decrease in levels of fulfillment among workers. But in fact, managers are seeing the opposite effect; as repetitive tasks are automated, lab professionals are left to do what machines can’t do—think. And once individuals engage in more analyses, as Hornyik noted about his lab, they seem happier at work.

“Our analysts are constantly seeking better, more efficient ways to do their work in order to meet the increasing demand for analytical support from our department programs,” says David Whiting, deputy director, FDEP Laboratory and Water Quality Standards, Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration, in Tallahassee, Florida.

The FDEP provides state agencies a broad range of analytical services, such as analyses of organic pollutants, pesticides and herbicides, algal toxins, and chemical tracers of wastewater.

Whiting does admit that automation has led to decreased staffing in the FDEP’s analytical chemistry laboratories, where opportunities to automate have been greatest. But, however, he doesn’t believe automation has resulted in a decrease in the skill level or satisfaction of employees who perform significantly more analyses today compared with a decade ago.

“If a new automated process requires [fewer] staff hours to perform the same amount of work, the affected staff are freed up to invest their time and energy [in] other priorities and tasks,” Whiting says. “The automation can provide opportunities for staff to work on tasks that are more interesting to them, like method development or lowering detection limits, rather than working on more rote, repetitive tasks.”

For example, a recent change in one of the organic chemistry analytical platforms in Whiting’s lab significantly reduced the volume of aqueous samples that need to be extracted to achieve the same method’s detection levels.

“This,” Whiting says, “allowed us to move some of those staff into our nutrients laboratory, which was experiencing a significant increase in analytical demand due to a recent change in our watershed assessment program’s monitoring strategy.”

In labs such as Hornyik’s, automation hasn’t increased enough to make an impact, be it a positive or negative one. But in the future, if the tasks that his lab employees perform become more automated, he also believes that it could only have a positive effect on the satisfaction of his staff.

“From my perspective, I think people would appreciate that,” he says, “because I don’t think it’s the repetitive tasks that yield job satisfaction for people. If you free people up to do more types of tests that involve thinking or troubleshooting, then that’s kind of what makes people a little more engaged with what they’re doing.”

Money and fringe benefits

While keeping people engaged and challenged is an important part of ensuring they are satisfied in the workplace, other benefits, some of which are more material, will also help people feel appreciated and therefore make their overall lives easier.

The most obvious token is an increase in salary or providing bonuses to those who are excelling in their duties. Providing monetary compensation, however, is often more prevalent in the private sector. For those in academia or federal positions, this type of benefit can be limited.

“I wish I had the resources to reward my talented staff, and this is an area that gives me the most concern and heartburn,” says Robert L. Tanguay, principal investigator at the Tanguay Lab at Oregon State University in Corvallis. His lab is a high-throughput zebrafish toxicology laboratory with 25 employees, 10 of whom are students.

“The resources are often not there to provide sufficient raises, as 100 percent of the salaries are derived from federal grants and contracts, which are increasingly competitive,” he says. “This is a major threat to academic programs and the research enterprise in general.”

Similarly, as a state agency laboratory, FDEP Laboratory and Water Quality Standards is also somewhat limited in providing fringe benefits and promotions as compared with a private-sector laboratory. Therefore, these lab managers have to look for other ways to show their appreciation.

For some, this comes in the form of helping employees with long-term goals.

“We do invest considerable time and effort to train our analysts, and we look for ways to promote them into positions of greater responsibility that will move them forward in their professional development,” Whiting says. “Many of our division’s senior managers started out as analysts in the FDEP laboratory. Their analytical background serves them well, even as non-laboratorians.”

Instead of offering monetary compensation, Tanguay’s lab tries to provide incentives, including travel to meetings, awards, and other recognition. Another benefit that lab managers can provide and control is a pleasant lab atmosphere, be it instilling respect for the team members or providing a relaxed environment. For Hornyik, allowing flexibility has yielded big positive results, especially because lab work in the private sector can vary in intensity during different time periods.

“What we try to do most of all is provide a relaxed work atmosphere,” he says. “We’re very casual here, and we allow people to, for a large part, set their own hours, and we let people take time off regularly.”

“Because it’s private, our lab tends to be a lot of feast or famine, so when it gets really busy, sometimes people are working long hours. So we try to employ a very generous policy of letting people have time off when it slows down. So people feel less like they’re in the middle, as it were, working constantly.”

Communicative atmosphere

No matter the policies, compensations, or fringe benefits, no lab can succeed in pleasing its staff without a free flow of communication from managers to employees and among the staff. Only lab managers can instill a proper communication culture.

“Good communication, both up and down the chain of command, is frequently identified by staff as a significant factor in their job satisfaction,” Whiting says. “Good, frequent, sustained communication requires some formal process to be used. I hold weekly meetings with my program administrators, who follow by holding weekly meetings with their laboratory managers, who follow by holding weekly meetings with their analytical staff.”

Furthermore, Whiting’s division arranges quarterly full-staff meetings to brief staff on issues of significance at the agency, division, and staff levels. They use these quarterly meetings, as well as brown-bag lunches, to have employees provide updates on recent research, study results, or method development. The lab also keeps a suggestion box to allow staff to leave anonymous input for the higher-ups.

Similarly, Tanguay holds weekly staff and research- related meetings to provide transparent interactions. His lab also has an open-door policy for communication in all directions within the group. “Without a concerted effort, misunderstandings and conflicts can erode morale and reduce productivity and impact,” he says.

Last, communication is only as good as those receiving the information and processing it properly. This means that managers should have an acute ear for their staff ’s needs, because if an issue is being mentioned, it usually proves to be significant.

“I’ve been a lab manager for over 20 years, now a director, but I’m still actively engaged in the management of the laboratory, and I would say my biggest advice would be to really, genuinely listen to the staff and to ask them what they want,” Hornyik says. “Now, you’re obviously not going to be able to have staff who get to do all they want, but a little bit of goodwill can go a long way.”