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Dos and Don’ts of Running a Lab

Dos and Don’ts of Running a Lab

How to excel at management and avoid some common pitfalls

by Sara Goudarzi
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Last October, a manager at Care New England Pathology & Laboratory Medicine came up with the idea of asking lab staff to bring in a baked item on Halloween that included pumpkin as an ingredient. Each person participated by making something and including the recipe. The items were set up in the break room where everyone gathered and enjoyed some time away from their day-today duties and responsibilities at the lab.

“That was the first annual Pumpkinpalooza and I think we'll probably have more as we go on,” says Mae Medeiros, VP, Care New England Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, whose laboratory system consists of 292 employees and pathologists and 23 managers and supervisors. Such enjoyable events allow the staff to interact with their managers and one another. This is especially important because not every day is easy or necessarily fun when dealing with one’s professional responsibilities.

To Medeiros, planning these types of social gatherings is one of the best things a manager can do in terms of team building, “because when you need them to dig deep and work really hard, they're right there with you,” she says. “They feel the importance of what you're doing and they believe in you, and I think that relationship is the only way you're going to get there.” Improving morale with team building activities is one of the major do’s of running a successful lab. Other approaches to ensuring a positive laboratory environment include regularly communicating with staff, allowing discussions and suggestions on issues surrounding work, polling staff on their satisfaction, and working as a unit to resolve issues.

“Sometimes all you have to do is listen,” says Karla Thaxton, laboratory manager at MASI Environmental Laboratories. “Let the staff know that you are listening and that you care about their happiness. There will be things that are out of your control and you won’t be able to fix, but sometimes just the acknowledgement that there is an unchangeable bad situation is all that is needed.” Listening and being an integral part of the team also allows staff to come to management when they need to bring up issues, so it’s imperative for managers to not be isolated from their team.

Creating and sustaining a positive work environment is just one aspect of running a successful lab and although every manager has their own style, and adjusts it depending on a lab’s goals and circumstances, there are some time-tested do’s and don’ts that could be beneficial to those in charge.


For Medeiros, who oversees the operations of two labs in three locations that perform some 2.5 million tests annually and monitor quality and changes needed in the department to meet the needs of their clients, scheduling is especially imperative to keep things on track. To achieve this, she uses data as reference to determine what her labs’ minimum and maximum staffing needs are and allows for as much flexibility in staff schedules as possible to make sure they are always keeping the best interest of the patients and clients at the forefront of all decisions.

“The rule of thumb that we follow is that we truly like to look at evidence-based information,” Medeiros says. “We have a system for managing our productivity so that we can see our workload and the staffing levels for our workload to make sure that we're balancing the appropriate amount of staff to the work that's being done.” This helps maximize the staff ’s efforts and provide as quick of a turnaround time as possible. She also works to meet the needs of her staff as long as their requests do not negatively impact the best interest of the lab’s patients and clients. To that end, she advises against having set schedules for staff that prevent flexibility based on workload throughout the day, being too rigid and not allowing staff to change shifts or days when possible, and not assessing staffing periodically to make sure there are enough personnel at specific time periods based on workload.

“Some places just have three different shifts if they're open 24/7—we have fluid (multiple) start and end times throughout our shifts,” she says. “So, having the flexibility is really important to us.”

Managing meetings

At MASI Environmental Laboratories, where the focus is mainly on drinking water and wastewater, the 16-person lab staff, divided between two lab locations, process more than 8,000 samples per month, with more than 20,000 analyses of those samples during peak times. Due to the busy schedule of the staff, it’s imperative that when laboratory manager Thaxton is due to run a meeting, she sticks to a few rules to use that time as efficiently as possible.

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Her most important tip? “Have an agenda and stick to it,” Thaxton says. “Allow the conversation to stray some to try to get differing perspectives but bring it back when it goes too far.” In addition to not allowing side conversations to completely derail a meeting’s agenda, it helps for managers to take notes and review follow up items at the end to make sure everyone is on the same page and knows the take-away tasks. It is also important to always start on time and not go over the designated end time unless absolutely necessary. Lastly, it’s good to set the tone for professional exchange where everyone is mindful of how they express their opinions during a professional gathering.

“I think everyone has to remember to remain professional and to treat others with respect,” Medeiros says. “And if there is something that I feel like I need to discuss with one of my direct reports staff, I would pull them aside and wouldn't do it in the meeting with a bunch of people there. To me, it's always keeping in mind how I would like to be treated, and so keeping that level of professionalism and respect at the forefront when you're discussing difficult topics is the best way to go.”

Following safety protocols

Failing to follow safety procedures could lead to accidents that endanger the lives of lab personnel and compromise test results. It is therefore essential for managers and those in charge of labs to ensure that their staff follows protocols. This is one of those areas that, while very important, can become a secondary consideration in a busy lab.

Managers should set clear safety policies and procedures. Additionally, it helps to have scheduled times when staff can review the protocols. Those in charge need to communicate effectively with staff to make sure they understand the importance of following procedures and are available to answer any questions. Lastly, managers should perform direct observation to ensure the staff is following the rules as defined and ensure that everyone, including the higher-ups, adhere to the rules.

The best way to ensure guidelines are being followed is to lead by example, explains Thaxton. “Make sure that when you are walking through the lab you are obeying the safety rules.” And despite deadlines and schedules, safety must be a priority for everyone involved.

Sometimes, a manager might be rushing to a meeting when they walk through their department and see someone not adhering to safety regulations. Instead of stopping and redirecting that person exactly at that moment, a manager might say, “Oh I'll get back to them,” and maybe they don't, explains Medeiros. “So, the biggest thing is to always remember that the meetings and all the other things that we're required to do is really at the lower end of the priority list [and] it's a matter of trying to prioritize what's most important.”


Because there is typically a lot to get done in a lab, it’s easy, and to a degree necessary, for lab managers to stick to specific ways of performing tasks and running their unit. However, it’s equally important for managers to have a degree of flexibility for entertaining ideas from those working on tests and seeing issues from a different perspective.

“I have my opinion, but I don't always go with my opinion, because I think that you need to empower your direct reports—your staff,” Medeiros says. “They have great ideas as well and I think sometimes, as you get busy, you just want to fix the problems and be like, ‘I'm going to fix it,’ but you really do need to step back and include others because they're the ones that see it every day and are working with it and you might have a great idea but someone else might have a better idea.”

Thaxton agrees and adds that at times things might end up working well by utilizing your methods and at times, they might not. The key, she says is to “always be flexible and admit when things aren’t working and try to work on a different solution.” Ultimately, everyone involved in a lab—be it management or staff—wants to produce accurate results and work in a rewarding environment. A happy staff, an organized and safe environment, and clear goals help achieve these objectives.