Gradual lifting of lockdown by the UK government means that laboratories in both academic and industrial settings will be opening; Steve Bone explains this is far from trivial and offers some advice on some of the good practice that is emerging.
The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on research around the globe, shutting laboratories, aborting projects, and costing scientists’ months, if not years of work. Even when research and development does resume, there’s no guarantee it won’t shut down again, especially if there is a second wave.
Lifting of the lockdown will enable a welcome return to:
- academic research momentum;
- competitiveness and profitability through new or improved products/services;
- creativity due to face-to-face interaction between scientists, marketeers, product development staff.
However, opening up labs will cause practical R&D management issues regarding safe social distancing, productivity and innovation.
In many laboratories the social distances set in each country can’t be maintained. Also, many laboratories have complex scientific equipment, glassware and stored dangerous chemicals/gases all of which are exceedingly difficult to sanitize. When labs reopen only a small proportion of personnel will be allowed to work at any one time often on rotas at different times during the day and even at night!
These issues create more complex management problems than the challenges involved with opening schools, retail and much of manufacturing.
The UK government has issued guidance to managers which goes some way to helping[i].
Mitigating actions include:
- increasing the frequency of hand washing and surface cleaning
- keeping the activity time involved as short as possible
- using screens or barriers to separate people from each other
- using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face) whenever possible
- reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’ (so each person works with only a few others).
However, many of the important safety suggestions above such as using back-to-back or side-to-side working and reducing the number of people each person has contact with will have negative impacts on innovation. Organising R&D project teams around different times could influence how experiments behave and how handovers between scientists and engineers work.
Practical advice for reopening a laboratory
When talking to R&D managers there are several suggestions emerging that could help with lab reopening (see table):
Suggested Tips from Practitioners
|Consensus is that above all there needs to be a seamless well communicated strategy integrating the needs of the whole organisation. This will enable a view about which parts of R&D should be prioritised to open first. As part of this prioritisation management will need to think about:
|Good communicated strategies will enable effective and safe working in the laboratories and avoid confusion.
|Strong leadership is crucial
|Health and Safety
|Suggested checklist that includes conducting health checks at entrances to labs, controlling access, reducing density, revising work schedules and condition monitoring/servicing expensive equipment prior to any scientists re-entering the labs.
|Creates a common culture.
|Researchers should be asked to avoid working with hazardous chemicals when they can, to minimize the risk of spills that would require medical attention
|Avoids a strain on medical services when infections could still be high. Response times could be slower.
|Institute an operating decision-making principle, based on employees’ health and welfare, coupled with UK Government guidelines. You may also issue special badges to track those allowed to continue working on-site at specific times – maybe rota group names.
|Easier to manage and lock down again in an emergency.
|Create social bubbles with R&D groups who are regularly together in one lab in the same rota. The move to strategic distancing as middle-ground between complete lockdown and fully re-opening R&D. Repeatedly interacting with the same social contacts (repetition), by creating micro-communities, commonly referred to as social bubbles[ii].
|Strategic contact reduction has a substantive effect on flattening the curve compared to simple social distancing especially when the country-specific social distance is difficult to maintain.
|If someone in the bubble proves positive to Covid then track and trace is easier and means that less researchers have to self isolate for 14 days. The worse scenario would be isolating the whole of R&D.
|Its easier to manage small groups of researches in similar clusters.
|Maintain a noticeably clear and continually updated calendar maybe managed through a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS)[iii] or an R&D knowledge-based system.
|Software systems to manage data and information, equipment condition and communicate it to staff will be very useful when opening up labs.
|When there are staggered rotas make sure that there are structured handovers to avoid loss of important experimental, prototype or citation information. Good practices can be learned from nurse shift handovers in hospitals or on factory assembly lines. This will mean changing opening and closing times of the labs which will also affect lab support services.
|Handover of experimental details, safety issues etc are crucial and good time should be given for this.
|Remote Desk working
|Review innovations outside lab times to avoid bottlenecks: Spend some time reviewing ongoing research and development projects. Are there any developments that provide a commercial advantage? Protecting these innovations could give you a valuable edge over your competitors. Time spent reviewing results might also open new avenues and approaches to take R&D when there is a return to the laboratory.
|Work not needed to be done should be done remotely. Work of R&D reports, plans etc are still important.
|Progress existing patent applications: Now could be a good time to make some good progress with these patent applications. For example, taking time to review prior art cited in a search report could help to guide your decisions about future patent filings internationally. Examination of IP maps could also identify which patents focus R&D intensity on.
|Work on background, foreground IP doesn’t need to be done on-site. Useful to do a patent mapping exercise.
|Remote team working
|Be more active with team ‘on-line’ discussions, colloquia, and brainstorms. Make sure that you use an experienced facilitator with knowledge of the best practice tools available for specific tasks.
|Good facilitation and use of right tool is important.
|Zoom has for example become popular in recent months, but there are other specialized tools such as: Zip-Zap Ideas[iv] MURAL[v], RemoteHQ[vi]. Confluence[vii] is a cloud-based team workspace where R&D knowledge and collaboration meet to solve R&D problems or develop new innovations.
|Try other more focussed on-line tools.
|Due to split times of rota working some R&D managers are looking at ‘asynchronous’ interaction and extending the scope of a brainstorm session to involve much larger R&D groups not bound by one time. In an asynchronous on-line session, participants aren’t boxed in to contribute at a specific time. The session or exercise is “open” over a longer period, and the team can take part at any time during that window. Members can drop out have time to think and then contribute more as they re-enter.
Miro, the online collaborative whiteboard platform, works well for this purpose[viii] One R&D manager I spoke to uses the social App Marco Polo[ix] to avoid R&D confusion and improve innovation before and as labs are reopening. She said it was unconventional, but allows simple asynchronous video clips as a round robin ideation. It is also popular with younger scientists in separated R&D Groups – both in location and time.
|Asynchronous working is an emerging and developing tools from the e-learning sector and is useful for staff on different times who also want thinking space before building ideas and solutions to problems.
To conclude: in my discussions with lab researchers and directors, two things are clear: “it may have been easier to close labs than it will be to reopen them, and finding the new normal may be a multi-layered complex process”. To make a success of this R&D management needs to be structured, have a good top-level strategic message to staff and a disciplined approach to people management.
[i] UK Government guidance for people who work in or run indoor labs and research facilities and similar environments. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19/labs-and-research-facilities#labs-5-5
[ii] ‘Oxford study proposes new strategies for social distancing’ – http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2020-06-04-oxford-study-proposes-new-strategies-social-distancing-lifting-lockdown-social)
[iii] What is a LIMS?: https://www.thermofisher.com/blog/connectedlab/what-is-a-lims/
[iv] Zip-Zap Ideas, online brainstorming tool: https://www.zipzapideas.com/how-it-works/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwiYL3BRDVARIsAF9E4GdLPD5qLhxZ0m-HAT7nyt-l9JoCsf2N1FWUrMq8df8GRbZSjg8ABCIaAnzwEALw_wcB