Managing Your Lab Amid COVID-19

Managing Your Lab Amid COVID-19

Lab leaders and related experts share how labs are helping staffers cope with the new reality of COVID-19

Bernard B. Tulsi

The immense devastation from the COVID-19 coronavirus appears to be increasing hourly. No part of society has been spared. For some segments, continued viability, even survival, may rely on the successful implementation of emergency medical and economic measures. Authorities, at all levels, openly say the danger will persist, and no one knows for how long. Meanwhile, precautions such as self-quarantine, social distancing, school closures, diminished social gatherings, and personal hygiene practices like proper hand washing are strongly encouraged.

As might be expected, fear and uncertainty abound as new information emerges on how the virus is transmitted, on vulnerable population cohorts, and infection and mortality rates. Furthermore, fear levels escalate on persistent reports about the shortage of protective equipment, medical supplies, diagnostic tests, and therapies in the United States (US).

To be sure, laboratory staff share some of the occupational characteristics of front-line medical personnel, and must be mindful of their personal safety as they perform their work. Recent FDA guidance to clinical trial staffers may be applicable to other categories of laboratory workers: virtual work; telecommuting; remote monitoring of subjects, laboratory tests, and instrumentation; among others.

Lab Manager reached out to lab leaders and related experts to discuss how labs are helping staffers cope—as Dr. Wendy Becker, professor of management at Shippensburg University (Shippensburg, PA), notes, “Paraphrasing Thomas Paine, these are the times that try our souls...”

Lab managers can build on their knowledge and work experience with previous crises and epidemics—9/11, SARS, MERS, Swine flu, H1N1, etc.—to be a source of strength and leadership for anxious employees.”

She pointed out, however, that, “COVID-19 is different, though, and managers must move beyond arbitrary policies of employee discretion and flexible work toward a new plan for getting the critical work of the lab done.” 

The best approach a manager can take is asking employees for their ideas to resolve the situation facing the lab. But employees must know that the organization is doing its best to keep employees healthy and safe while doing their work. Managers must be honest with employees about the reality of the situation.” 

Pointing to potential silver linings in these trying circumstances, she says, “Many employees want to step up to the occasion, which gives them a chance to handle even bigger roles at work. Leadership is emergent in crises as new temporary organizational systems and working groups are created. This requires honest relationships, and trust, between managers and employees. These times of crisis will call upon a new breed of lab leaders who can guide employees through uncertainty.”

Waters, a leading lab equipment and instrumentation maker, maintains regular email and video communications from leadership, via a dedicated COVID-19 site for employees, says Chris Orlando, of corporate communications. “The site shares relevant information, updates from our executive team, frequently asked questions, and links to resources related to COVID-19, such as information from WHO and the CDC,” he says.

Related Article: COVID-19: What You Need to Know and What You Should Do Now

Orlando says, “Given the technology at our disposal, we have asked?many of our employees around the world to work remotely until further notice.” This helps to reduce risk in the company’s facilities and protect workers who must do their work in lab settings.

“Onsite, we have cleaning and disinfection guidelines in place in case of suspected/confirmed COVID-19 exposure. Specific to our employees in the laboratory, we have taken additional measures, such as increasing the number of cleaning and sanitation stations and rotating shifts to limit the number of employees in the laboratory at a given time,” says Orlando. 

Dr. Elizabeth O’Day, CEO of Olaris, Inc., says, “This is an unprecedented time in history where every single person has a role to play. Social distancing and quarantining are part of that.” 

In early March, Olaris ceased all lab work, and moved to a work from home schedule. “I felt this was the responsible action to take, not just for my employees, but their families, friends, and society at large.” While this will slow down some studies and cause timeline adjustments, she noted, “at the same time we are accelerating other projects, focusing on data analysis, writing patents and articles, and new training.” 

The Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Sandia National Laboratories uses daily cross-organizational team meetings to discuss and monitor COVID-19. The goal is to ensure that effective preparedness and management systems are in place, according to Kristen Lee Meub, Sandia’s spokesperson. She says that Sandia is keeping its employees updated about all guidance, precautions, and steps the labs are taking in response to coronavirus.

To protect employees’ health, Sandia has limited both international and domestic travel to mission-critical only, enabled work from home, and temporarily closed Sandia’s California site for everything except mission-critical work. 

“We’re also encouraging social distancing to protect employees whose work requires them to be at Sandia. As of March 17, Sandia employees have not reported any presumptive or confirmed cases of COVID-19,” she says.

Christopher Kramer, head of media relations at Argonne National Laboratory says that each DOE lab has detailed plans for a range of potential scenarios, including pandemics. The lab supports and helps to ease employee concerns by sending daily updates from leadership to lab staff, including emails and voice messages from the director. In addition, it has activated an employee hotline that is staffed 24/7 for employee questions or concerns.

US laboratory operations have a long and stellar track record for excellence and resilience. They will undoubtedly have a central role in the design and development of diagnostics and treatments for the management and eventual curtailment of the coronavirus crisis. Cooperation, open communication, and trust along with thoughtful emotional and logistical support between bench scientists, technicians, support staff, and laboratory leadership will help to shape a positive outcome from efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic.