Cover Story: Laboratory Working in a Post‐COVID Era

February 1, 2021
Kate Jones

The Column, The Column - North America - 02-08-2021, Volume 17, Issue 02
Page Number: 2–5

Incognito asks what the COVID lockdowns have taught us, and discusses how the lessons learned can shape the future of working and work-spaces, post-pandemic.

In this installment, Incognito walks us through the future of working and work‐spaces, post‐pandemic, from home‐working to keeping the laboratory safe, reflecting on what we’ve learned during the COVID lockdowns, and taking those successes forward.

Whilst the COVID‐19 pandemic is far from over, the future is beginning to look a little brighter with the arrival of effective vaccines. Our response to the pandemic can be viewed as an experiment, and we can use our “results” to focus on the future of laboratory working. What changes have worked well and what can we learn, both good and bad, from the adaptations we made to accommodate safe working in 2020.

Remote working and working remotely are different. The former, which is long‐term working away from the office, requires a whole different skillset vs. the latter, which describes what we do when we just need to focus and therefore take a day or two away from the office to get things done. Permanent (or even semi‐permanent) remote working requires excellent communication skills, a pro‐active mindset, a self‐starting attitude, discipline to avoid non‐work‐based distractions,
a suitable workspace away from those distractions (anyone using a virtual background in MS Teams should consider if this a clue to the suitability of their home workspace), improved time management skills, and a different provision of IT resources and support. There are added cyber security risks to remote working with added layers of vulnerability in home‐based IT hardware and Wi‐Fi systems, VPN and network access, and the speed with which risks can be assessed and communicated to staff. There is the perception that home working offers further flexibility, however this is often not true as scheduled calls often dictate the “timetable” of the day, the working day can be extended for meetings with co‐workers in different time zones and you are still expected to pick up your phone whenever needed. The “presenteeism” principle does not go away just because you aren’t physically present, and managers of remote workers or remote teams need to increasingly focus on outcomes vs. availability, and all employees need to decide which of the many meeting invites they received actually require their presence or whether a copy of the minutes and actions is sufficient. Further, you are never more than a few steps away from your office and therefore the temptation
to “just finish off” or “just look to see” is constant and can lead to increased levels of stress. This has highlighted the important question of mental health of everyone working within an organization and the requirement to increase monitoring of staff to ensure they are not struggling with the isolation they will undoubtedly feel if they have previously worked from an office.

As I’m sure many of us have been finding out, whilst remote working sounds great in principle, it isn’t for everybody, especially those who thrive on “office life”. We should be mindful that all communication doesn’t revert to e‐mail, as it’s often much more effective to speak directly, especially when developing ideas, investigating problems, interpreting data or dealing with conflict, and video calling can add that extra dimension of meeting “virtually” face‐to‐face. Some people simply work better and feel better when personal contact is involved and whilst the “chat” function on the popular communication platforms has somewhat replaced the “over the cubicle” dialogue, in many cases it really is “better to talk”. And what of the famous “water‐cooler” conversations, purported to have lead to so many great inventions or new ideas? Are “Yammer” or “Teams Chat” the new virtual water‐cooler? It’s fair to say both employers and employees need to be very honest when assessing the suitability of remote working for individuals, teams, and departments and any decisions resulting in the response, “will continue to work from home”, should trigger a careful assessment of this position in the longer term.

Of course, for laboratory scientists, the possibility of permanent remote working doesn’t exist, or at least it hasn’t until the recent pandemic, when necessity has been the mother of so many “inventions”.

Principle amongst the new disciplines in our own laboratories, and driven very much by the requirements for social distancing, is scheduling. A surprising mention perhaps, but the ability to assign and manage projects, work tasks, prep lab operations and instrument utilization to keep laboratory personnel to a minimum has been a real challenge, to which my colleagues have produced some very impressive results. In terms of lessons learned, scheduling software really is the key (this need not be expensive with great results achievable using standard MS Office Products), and winning the hearts and minds of staff to make a sustained effort to proactively use the software to manage schedule changes has led to significant reductions in the numbers of staff in each laboratory at any given time. This has been supported by several other very helpful recent additions. Switching to a “workflow”‐based electronic laboratory notebook (ELN) and laboratory information management system (LIMS) has enabled an unprecedented level of remote access to systems and data; I regularly see staff carrying their personal laptops into the laboratory to wirelessly control instruments or to write‐up areas (lots of space available due to the high degree of home working of non‐lab staff) to process data and compile reports. This reduction in physical connectedness has led to the degree of flexibility required to properly manage the number of personnel in any one space. We had begun the implementation of these systems prior to the pandemic, but I really do not know how we would have coped had these not been available.

A further key change which has helped us with social distancing requirements is laboratory automation. Many of our sample preparation and extraction laboratory tasks have been automated using “lab‐on‐a‐rail” type systems, including simple operations such as making solutions for calibration curves, producing system suitability test solutions, as well as performing much more advanced sample extraction and clean‐up operations prior to automated injection. Sure, these things have taken time to develop and test, but the efforts are really beginning to pay back, not only in the reduced number of personnel in the laboratory, but in the accuracy and repeatability of the analytical data. I’m constantly surprised by the complexity of operations that can be performed with these automated systems including weighing, centrifugation, and sonication. We are also considering further advances in automation and “Internet of things”, such as remote pH and temperature sensing stir‐bars, enhanced remote diagnostics for chromatography instruments, remote control for centrifuge, oven and pumping equipment, and climate control.

Whilst I do appreciate that the discussion here may lead you to believe that we have an unlimited budget and are the aspirational “laboratory of the future”, I can assure you that this is not to the case and these investments are already turning into solid returns on investment, not only in commercial terms but in the safety of our laboratory staff. I also appreciate that some readers may have an inherent skepticism regarding “automation” and, whilst this is sometimes justified, especially in early days of adoption, I can honestly say that the amount of time our staff spend physically present in the laboratory has significantly reduced over the past 12 months, even factoring in the amount of time we have spent in there fixing automation instruments when they screw up because we didn’t program them correctly or we were too inexperienced to configure them properly.

I also see other pandemic‐related changes also lasting into the “new normal” future.

Despite improvements in remote access and automation, personnel are required in analytical laboratories, and measures introduced around social distancing and cleanliness of the laboratory are, I believe, here to stay. One‐way systems within the laboratory and office spaces may not be convenient, but some form of “people flow” system will remain for the mid‐term at least as I see several “false alarm” disease threats on the horizon and we do not yet know the true effectiveness of any of the COVID‐19 vaccines within a mass population environment. We are all super‐sensitized to any new or emerging disease and I believe the more we can reduce risk by reducing contact then we should adopt these measures to help protect our staff. Further, ideas such as the segregation of clean and dirty areas, reduction in cross‐contamination of equipment by assigning items for specific personnel, and improvements in laboratory deep cleaning and decontamination are all here to stay. The amount and frequency of change//cleaning of personal protective equipment (PPE) will, I suspect, receive an ongoing focus as we emerge from the pandemic situation. I also believe the design of laboratory spaces will need to be reconsidered, certainly with more space between equipment, and upgraded heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system filtration will also be a mandatory requirement to help remove circulating virus particulates. I also predict that our attitude to having external visitors will not change too much in the mid‐term and any measures to reduce contact with or screen personnel from outside our organizations will continue until we are all very confident that the pandemic is firmly under control.

The pandemic has led to some radical changes in scientific publishing, driven by the willingness to openly share research to combat the virus and to enable remote teaching and learning in lockdown. I recently read a nicely balanced article regarding the future of for‐profit scientific publishing post‐pandemic (1) which highlights the possibilities for change in the publishing and access of scientific research, which is another area that I believe will see change in the coming months and years. A change which is long overdue, in my opinion.

Our accountants have got used to lower travel costs especially for attending conferences and exhibitions, but I caution against this as a longer‐term option. I’ve attended several virtual conferences during lockdown, and whilst they have done a great job during the pandemic, they are just not the same. We need to get back together again as soon as it is safe to do so. There is no virtual networking that can replace the buzz or productivity that comes from face‐to‐face conferences and events. No matter how much organizations like the reduction in their overhead budget, no matter how much they believe that we can achieve an enormous amount using communication technologies, there are just some things that need to remain “in‐person”, and conferences are high on this list from my perspective.

As I write, new “variants” of the COVID‐19 virus have emerged and it
feels as though the bad news just keeps on coming. However, we will defeat this particular virus, and it’s various mutations, and the recently approved vaccines and those still in development will help us to do this. We must remain vigilant though, and use the learnings from what will undoubtedly become an 18–24 month “experiment” in pandemic response to guide our future practices. Frankly, I’m a little tired of the phrase “the new normal” but whatever description is given to our future ways of working, they will be—indeed they must be—different to those prior to COVID‐19.

Reference

1. S. Moore, LSE Impact Blog (04/2020), accessed on Jan. 14, 2021. https://blogs.lse. ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2020/04/17/ without‐stronger‐academic‐governance‐covid‐19‐will‐concentrate‐the‐corporate‐control‐of‐ academic‐publishing/

Contact author: Incognito

E-mail the editor: kjones@mjhlifesciences.com

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