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Breaking a Decades-Old Stigma: How the Pandemic Accelerated the Rise of the Hybrid Scientist

To be successful as an industry, we must look past the outdated idea that laboratory personnel must be in the lab full-time  

Diane Diehl, Senior Director of Scientific Operations at Waters Corp.

Diane Diehl is senior director of scientific operations at Waters Corporation.

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Corporate employees weren’t the only ones sent home last March, scientists in labs across the nation lost time, access to technology, and critical on-site data when COVID-19 numbers spiked. It’s true that many are back, following strict safety guidelines, but the experience has opened the eyes of many in the life sciences field to how, where, and when they can work.

Across industries a “new normal” is emerging, and the life science space is no different. In fact, lab work and the culture that surrounds scientists’ work ethic is being put under the microscope. This increased focus means that the business resiliency practices meant to simply weather the storm can—and should—remain even after widespread vaccination.  

However, before businesses can move beyond the pandemic and provide the resources and working environments for scientists that reflect the new world in which we work, they must first discard the outdated perception that all work needs to be completed in a lab. Of course, there are components of the job that must be done on-site, preparing samples for analysis, and placing and preparing buffers and mobile phases for systems, for example. But, throughout the pandemic many averaged only two to three days per week in the lab to limit exposure and spread, and still proved successful. So, what will it take to make a hybrid lab workforce a reality post-pandemic?  

Developing a hybrid working model for scientists

The pandemic unlocked the possibility of flexible working, and many scientists have appreciated the ability to take care of children and other dependents—helping them on remote schooling days, having lunch with kids, taking elders to doctors’ appointments. The fact that lab professionals’ schedules are project-based and constantly changing makes them a prime group to undertake a work environment that balances in-person and remote work, combined with flexible working hours, to meet their ever-changing needs.

The good news is that COVID-19 accelerated the technologies needed to transform the daily lives of scientists, untethering them from the traditional working model for good. For years, a core component of a successful lab professional depended on the hours they put in at the lab; this is an outdated and unrealistic expectation given the success we’ve seen across the industry this past year. Now, we just need the right technology for long-term success.

Automation and a digital-first mindset are essential

During the pandemic, teams across the world were all sent home, all of which shut down instruments, not knowing when they’d be back in action. However, after realizing critical projects required staff on-site, plans were put in place to get scientists back into labs—while still adhering to all local government and social distancing policies. This meant taking advantage of automation, digital technology, and a shift-based schedule, which subsequently proved the success of a hybrid working model. Many even realized they were more productive in the lab as they had to plan their time more effectively. 

A critical component in the transition to a hybrid lab workforce relies on the increased use of technology that can be remotely managed. More specifically, the industry needs solutions that address overall equipment performance. This is an especially daunting task considering lab professionals prefer to physically see the equipment. Realistically though, with sensors and cameras, there is no reason these items can’t be remotely viewed and monitored to better predict when a system needs maintenance or attention.

What we have now is a band-aid solution. Looking ahead, the technology that will be essential to scientists’ success needs to encompass everything from hardware—sample preparation, mobile phase/buffer prep, sensors, cameras—to troubleshooting. The industry must eventually adopt virtual reality-type technology for our service engineers to be able to troubleshoot equipment without having to be on-site. Alongside virtual reality capabilities, lab professionals will need to increasingly adopt robotics and software as a service technology to accommodate the hybrid working model. Technology is only half the battle, though, as working together as a scientific community is the backbone of our success. 

Collaboration remains at the forefront

While there will always be a component of scientific research that needs to be done in a lab, the post-pandemic professional will blend the analytical side of the work with on-site experimentation in order to manage research projects without having to be physically in the lab every day. Part of that transition will be taking advantage of the incredible virtual options at our fingertips to address the growing worry that working remote will hinder collaboration. 

Over the past year, those of us in the life sciences have lost—and desperately miss—the casual coffee breaks, lunches, and hallway conversations that so often can lead to our next breakthrough. With social distancing and face covering policies in place, it is hard to collaborate, so instead we need to pivot and find ways to virtually connect in smaller groups or even one on one. For example, setting up a 15-minute virtual call with a colleague or scheduling a 30-minute virtual lunch break. While it does not replace the “water cooler” moments we once had, it makes it possible to host informal meetings so colleagues can share technical updates, data, and the possibility to troubleshoot together.

There are still many unanswered questions as lab professionals look for ways to streamline operations, data collection, and research in a hybrid work environment. To be successful as an industry, we must look past the outdated idea that laboratory personnel must be in the lab full-time. If this past year taught us anything, it’s that we can work remotely and still be productive, and in some cases, we can be even more productive with advanced technology and digital tools that allow for remote monitoring and project management.