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Creating a Positive Lab Culture

Along with hiring the right people, creating a good work environment is also required to help foster and maintain a solid workplace culture

Rachel Muenz

Rachel Muenz, managing editor for G2 Intelligence, can be reached at

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The right people and a positive environment are key

In a recent article in the Management Tips section of, Magi Graziano, CEO of Conscious Hiring® and Development (KeenAlignment), cites culture as “the number one driver of employee engagement and workplace performance,” showing just how important it is to any company, scientific or otherwise. As we’ve written about often before, hiring the right people is the most critical step in building a strong work culture in the lab. However, creating a good work environment is also required to help foster and maintain that solid workplace culture. Celeste Reese, lab manager at the University of Pittsburgh Drug Discovery Institute, says that for her workplace, creating a team atmosphere is especially critical within the lab.

“It is important to listen to the input of the staff and involve them in research-related discussions as well as facilities-related meetings,” she says, adding that developing a pleasant workspace is also important. “We have clearly defined rules for ‘lab citizenship’ and etiquette so that shared spaces and equipment are neat and well maintained. In addition, we have created a pleasant break area outside the laboratory, where staff can enjoy a cup of coffee and socialize.”

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Keeping everyone on the same page

Leaders at the Biotron Laboratory, a center on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus that offers controlled environments for a variety of research and testing needs, also focus on team building and developing a positive work environment for their staff. Biotron director Hannah Carey and assistant director Jacob Schoville note that team cohesion is fostered by emphasizing cooperation, communication, and respect among staff, including open discussion during staff meetings. The Biotron Lab strives to maintain a welcoming workplace climate for not only the permanent staff but also for the part-time student workers who assist in various programs as well as the researchers and trainees who work within the facility. Examples include potluck meals and celebrations of staff milestones through social events. They even hold a series of 20-to-30-minute informal talks by research investigators or lab members; these talks allow the Biotron staff to become more familiar with the objectives and importance of the research their own work helps support.

"When people are excited about the work they are doing, I think a strong work culture evolves naturally.”

In her article, Graziano lists open communication and “reining in negativity” as two of the main building blocks of a strong workplace culture. Managers must also stay on top of workers’ activities in order to spot problems before they become major issues that could threaten harmony in the workplace. “When managers are present and aware of their employees’ feelings and workstyles, it is very apparent when someone is off-kilter or upset,” she writes. “The astute leader is right on top of those upsets and provides support for their people, [which allows them] to overcome and get through these motivation killers.”

Related Article: Building a Strong Lab Culture

For Reese, there is one key sign she looks for to let her know when her lab’s culture may be off.

“The main warning sign I look for is when people are isolating themselves, coming in late, or not interacting with their lab mates,” Reese says. “This tells me that they are no longer excited about their work and there may be a problem.” She agrees with the major sentiment we’ve seen in past Lab Manager articles on workplace culture—that hiring the right people is the most important way to build a strong culture.

Motivating staff

“When I hire, I look for people who are excited about science and research and [who] will fit in well with the senior members of the laboratory,” Reese says, adding that communicating the lab’s strategies and providing feedback to staff are also important. “Staff are included in research ‘workgroup’ meetings so that they can receive feedback from the principal investigators on their projects and also provide input on the direction of the project. We also have a monthly staff meeting to discuss any facility issues and suggestions.” Like the Drug Discovery Institute, the Biotron Lab also holds regular staff meetings—in their case on a biweekly basis—run by Schoville to discuss any workplace concerns, status of infrastructure maintenance, new projects and communications with researchers, and other operational or planning issues. In between these meetings, Schoville also meets individually with lab staff in a half-day session to discuss ongoing and upcoming tasks within their units in order to stay on top of progress and any issues they may be facing as individuals.

For the most part, however, scientists don’t seem to need too much help from managers to stay motivated, Reese says.

“I would say that in general, scientists have personalities that are inquisitive and self-motivated,” she explains. “All our staff are personally invested in the projects they are assigned to. When people are excited about the work they are doing, I think a strong work culture evolves naturally.”

However, she adds that a key challenge to maintaining that strong culture is simply that everyone is extremely busy, having to take on multiple roles and projects in the current tough economic climate where research funding is scarce. Again, choosing the right people for the lab and keeping up to date on their progress through regular communication and meetings are the main ways to deal with that challenge.

Training and professional development

Training and professional development also play a role in maintaining a productive lab culture. As Graziano writes, “The rate of innovation is accelerating at a mind-numbing pace, and no matter what role a person holds, the skills of today will become insufficient for the work of tomorrow.” She adds that for managers, helping in staff members’ professional development not only adds to the skill set they can offer a company but also helps foster a sense of gratitude in staff, making them even more motivated to do their best for the workplace. At the Biotron Lab, staff participate in professional development activities when budgetary and time resources allow. Staff are encouraged to “take classes, participate in workshops, and attend local conferences to gain experience and information on new technologies and products,” Carey says, noting, however, that “time and budget constraints present challenges to providing staff with all of the training they request.”

Graziano points out that leaders and managers shouldn’t forget about their own professional development either, as such training can help them better communicate with and motivate staff, as well as stay the course in achieving the main goals of the workplace.

Workplace rewards, which may include training and professional development, are another important aspect of maintaining a strong culture, she adds.

Getting personal, but not too personal

Finally, a personal touch is essential in building an ideal culture in the lab, whether that’s achieved through informal chats over coffee or at lunch or just during everyday work in the lab. However, while developing personal as well as business relationships with staff is important for creating a positive work environment, managers need to be careful not to let such relationships interfere with the lab’s main goals.

“Lead by example, be friendly with the staff, but make it clear that a successful research facility is the singular goal,” says Reese of the advice she would offer to new lab managers hoping to create the best culture in their labs. “Take time to get to know the staff and listen to their suggestions, but make decisions based on the needs of the entire facility.”