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What We Have Learned About Managing a Lab during a Pandemic

Key lessons from a year of managing a lab during the COVID-19 crisis and how to apply them

Rachel Muenz

Though better prepared than most when the pandemic-related lockdowns hit the US in March 2020, labs were still caught off guard. Those involved in testing for SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—faced a massively increased workload, while those in other fields deemed essential needed to quickly adjust to added safety measures to protect staff. Labs labeled non-essential had to deal with sudden closures and a shift to remote work. After more than a year of managing their labs during the pandemic, the lab professionals we’ve spoken to have emerged stronger than before in spite of the stress and uncertainty.

Positives and negatives of the pandemic

While most labs are quite comfortable with stringent safety measures and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), and many have disaster preparedness plans, they still faced many key challenges over the last year, including:

  • Helping staff deal with challenges at home while working remotely
  • Added strain on mental health
  • Adequately staffing labs while meeting social distancing measures
  • Mastering the art of leading their teams virtually
  • Quickly adopting the digital tools required for remote work
  • Dealing with situations where staff either tested positive for COVID-19 or were in close contact of a COVID-19-positive individual
  • Increased workload
  • Having to put research on hold

Some of the positives included:

  • Staff got an opportunity to perform under pressure and earn promotions
  • Enhanced leadership skills from leading virtually
  • Meeting or exceeding goals in spite of the challenges faced
  • Increased flexibility with remote options to stay in place post-pandemic
  • Time to work on existing data for research papers (for labs shut down)
  • Increased proficiency in using digital tools and other technologies for remote work
  • Being better prepared for PPE shortages in the future

Management lessons from both labs and businesses

Lab Manager

Both labs and other organizations have learned some important lessons from a year of managing during a pandemic. Successful management during such a crisis involves:

  • The use of digital tools to effectively communicate with teams
  • Ensuring staff have the flexibility they need to meet both work and at-home commitments
  • Resilience on all levels—organization as a whole, management, and staff

Get more lessons from the lab here.

Learnings from businesses in general complemented those from the lab. In a recent report from the UK on managing a business successfully during a pandemic, researchers noted three things resilient organizations had in common:

  • Identified which services were most important to their clients and ensured those services continued
  • When they faced challenges in delivering those services, business managers found other ways to ensure customers got what they needed
  • Were already prepared for potential crisis situations in advance of the pandemic

Get more learnings from the business world to apply to managing your lab here.

Safety lessons from the COVID-19 crisis


Though already familiar with PPE and strict safety protocols, labs still had to adapt to additional COVID-19 safety protocols. While using PPE in non-lab areas didn’t present as much of a challenge for most lab professionals, implementing adequate social distancing in workspaces was frustrating for some. Many labs also had to deal with shortages of PPE and learned to be better prepared for the future. Being flexible and open-minded was essential to get through these challenges. Key safety lessons learned from the pandemic so far center on:

  • How to handle PPE shortages
  • The importance of ongoing education on the dangers of pathogens
  • The need to be prepared to move quickly (yet safely) to put new practices or testing procedures in place

Find a more in-depth look at safe laboratory practices learned from the COVID-19 situation in this article by lab safety expert Dan Scungio.

Tips for maintaining strong mental health during a pandemic


In addition to physical safety, lab professionals learned plenty about taking care of their mental and emotional health during the added stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and some of the challenges of remote work, such as not having a set start and end time to the work day. Some tips for effectively managing your mental health during a crisis include:

  • Set boundaries
  • Build resilience
  • Gain perspective
  • Carefully manage news intake and social media usage
  • Create a plan to ensure you get enough rest, exercise, water, and healthy food

For more tips on looking after your mental well-being during a pandemic or other disaster, see this article by workplace mental health expert Susan Jakobson.

Technologies that will shape the post-COVID laboratory


While it’s long been the prevailing opinion that workers need to be in the laboratory to do their work, the pandemic has shown us that’s not entirely true with many labs using remote instrument access and various digital tools to be just as productive—or even more productive—while doing some or all of their work remotely. Managing resistance to these remote options will be important for lab managers to ensure automation and other such technology is integrated successfully in their facilities. As we move beyond COVID-19, keeping these technologies in place—and adopting new ones—will be essential to labs’ success, resilience, and flexibility.