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COVID-19 Laboratory Challenges and Learnings—One Year Later

Managers share the lessons they’ve learned from one year of managing their labs during a pandemic

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted laboratories across the world. Some laboratories were labeled non-essential and were forcibly idled for different stretches of time. Other laboratories were labeled essential and faced the challenges of keeping workers safe and delivering during this crisis. This article is a follow up with Thad Gurley of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI) Accessioning Unit, and Stuart Magoon of the City of Tacoma Environmental Services Laboratory (ESL) to gain their perspective on leading labs through a year of the pandemic. Both lab leaders contributed to our investigation of learnings and challenges faced by labs operating during the pandemic in the summer of 2020. View the original Q&A about DHVI here, and about ESL here.

The middle of the COVID-19 pandemic

Over the summer, both labs faced significant challenges in staffing the labs and keeping staff safe. New work arrangements were required to adhere to CDC guidelines, and keep the data flowing that was vital to their key stakeholders. The staff members of both labs were able to pull together, work as a team, and help each other cope with the challenges of working through the crisis. The labs implemented shift work, new communication tools, and greater workplace flexibility on the fly as they changed to address the challenges. Both labs felt that resiliency was a key trait that served them well over the summer months. Also, being experienced lab scientists, the lab staffs managed the safety protocols and wearing face masks very well. Both Gurley and Magoon commented on the importance of listening to your teams and being willing to adapt quickly to the constantly changing environment.

After one year of the COVID-19 pandemic

After a year of managing labs that ran continuously during the COVID-19 pandemic, both Gurley and Magoon have learned important lessons about leadership and lab management. Both labs had to address the challenges of leading virtually in a short time. Gurley says, “Leading a team this year has been a challenge, but I am a better leader and manager for it.” At ESL, Magoon and his team needed to embrace the benefits of telecommuting, not an obvious choice to lab workers who typically see their function as working at a bench.

One key for both labs was access to updated software, especially Microsoft Teams, which enabled the different forms of communication that were required to address the safety concerns of working through the pandemic. Magoon shares, “We had just rolled out Microsoft Teams in early January of 2020. Talk about timing! This set us up really well to shift from in-person meetings to online meetings.” 

Gurley adds, “The introduction of Microsoft Teams was a huge lift—especially the channels of communication and the Shifts feature.” 

While there were many challenges to running a lab during the pandemic, both labs had specific items they wished they’d figured out earlier during the crisis. For Magoon and the ESL team, that key learning was how to manage the CDC spacing requirements regardless of mask wearing. The ESL team had to operate with a significant number of staff under quarantine due to “close contact” from someone who tested positive despite everyone wearing masks. They were able to change seating and workstations to provide at least 10 feet of separation between staff to ensure everyone’s safety. They made additional changes as executive leadership, the local health department, and the CDC made policy changes.

For the DHVI team, the key learning was about the impact of the huge COVID-19 testing workload. Becoming a central testing lab for the university was a very important role, but the extra work negatively impacted the team. The DHVI team went from a normal work schedule to a crisis basis with two shifts and weekend work for most of 2020. Gurley shares that “The team became weary and drained by early fall.” Changes had to be made to address the impact of the workload. One of the unexpected benefits of the extra work was the ability for lab staff to shine and earn kudos and promotions.

Both lab managers were most impressed with the resilience and agility of their staffs. Not only did they adapt to the changes at work, but they also figured out how to balance the stress of the pandemic, the general uncertainty, and remote school situations for their children. Magoon adds, “Flexibility was key. It not only helped many of them adjust their schedules, it helped us to limit staff overlap, and still get the work done.” 

Some of the changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic created benefits to the labs and the staffs that will be retained even after this crisis passes. Both managers cite improvements in communication, and the use of more platforms, like Teams, Jabber, and Zoom. In addition, the flexibility learned during the crisis will likely remain in the labs with some intermittent telecommuting and more flexible work policies continuing for both organizations.

The pandemic put significant strain on both labs and the people who work there. When asked about the thing they are most proud of for their labs from 2020, both managers talked about their people’s ability to deliver, despite all of the challenges, concerns, and changes brought on by the crisis. Magoon says, “We not only hit our metrics, we set a record for the percent of projects that were delivered on time.”

Gurley adds, “We have maintained the same level of excellence as pre-COVID-19.  We are known around Duke’s campus for providing solid work, and we continued to deliver even when we were working so many hours a week.”

Key takeaways from managing in a crisis

While the COVID-19 pandemic created significant problems for the labs that needed to operate through it, most labs adapted quickly. Being scientists helped. Scientists were able to more objectively interpret the data of the situation, and adapted to additional PPE and personal hygiene requirements well. As we can see from the stories from the DHVI and ESL labs, changing work arrangements, communication paths, and listening to staff made a big difference.  Both labs made the changes that were needed and continued to deliver through the crisis, each delivering despite the challenges. The labs also benefited from strong leaders. Both Gurley and Magoon demonstrated their leadership for their labs when it mattered most. According to training and development expert Brian Tracy, “The true test of leadership is how well you function in a crisis.” Their leadership enabled the people working in the DHVI and ESL labs to navigate the challenges of working during the pandemic and to continue to produce the valuable data needed by their stakeholders.