Do You Work in an Amazing Laboratory?

May 15, 2018
The Column

Volume 14, Issue 5

Page Number: 10–12

Is it time to update your working practices?

Is it time to update your working practices?

I recently visited a laboratory where the working culture was different to many (perhaps any) that I’ve ever encountered. It made me reflect on the laboratories that I’ve worked in, and what makes a good working environment for the rather serious matter of high-quality analytical measurement.

The laboratory I visited struck me as different even before I entered; the sound of laughter coming from within as I donned the customarily ill-fitting visitor’s lab coat in the vestibule area caught me off guard. Why should this be? Whilst I’m no important visitor, perhaps it’s like the heads of state who think that everywhere smells of fresh paint, when visitors are expected, the analytical staff are told to “behave themselves”. The laughter put me in a very positive frame of mind before the laboratory tour even began, and it really didn’t lead me to think that the quality of the data produced would be any lower because of the jovial atmosphere.

It’s true that we often need to concentrate to produce our best work, and that the health and safety implications of “larking around” in the laboratory are grave, but it was encouraging to hear a lighter hearted atmosphere in the laboratory; it really did instil an impression of togetherness and team work. I visit many working environments where the staff look cowed by the workload or the laboratory ethos. Analysts are under so much pressure to produce vast amounts of fit-for-purpose data, often without truly understanding the fundamental nature of what they are doing, and often feeling powerless to effect change. Perhaps they are bored with the constant routine of prepping samples, loading the autosampler, building the sequence, loading the method, pressing go, checking the QC or system suitability data, ending the run, and processing the data. So many never really get to the interesting aspects of the job: setting up the method on the instrument (rather than just loading it into the chromatography data system [CDS]), developing the methods, interpreting, reporting and presenting the data, and troubleshooting problems when things go wrong. A good working environment should encourage all staff to strive for more, to allow them to grow into areas of the science in which they are currently not engaged.

 

I find that thriving laboratory environments often encourage a sense of inquisitiveness and are happy for more junior staff to challenge the accepted norms. “Our guys are happy to follow the methods and get the job done” is not a statement that bodes well for scientific excellence, yet I hear it so often. “We don’t pay then to think” or “We pay them from the neck down” are other damming statements that I’ve heard in the past, but which have been proven to be true. Truly, it doesn’t have to be this way and I don’t believe this is a good paradigm for high efficiency or good quality measurement. Senior staff should welcome and encourage challenge, and whilst not everyone will relish the opportunity to ask awkward questions, having a well-defined process in which to do so will lead to a much more satisfied staff. Whilst there will be limitations on what can and cannot be changed at the suggestion of more junior staff, understanding “why not” is much better than just being ordered to comply. A lack of openness to questions can be seen as failure to care or a shallowness of understanding on the part of senior staff, leading to a lack of confidence in the leadership, which unfortunately is often fully justified. The laboratory I visited had an electronic version of the suggestions box-an app in which non-urgent questions and suggestions were collected “on the fly” and which were thoroughly addressed in the open forum of a laboratory briefing on a weekly basis. I was shown some of the questions and they cut right to the heart of operational, technical, and organizational matters; there was no fear in the asking of a question and proper thought was given to the responses.

This laboratory also encouraged staff to undertake training of a meaningful nature every month. Yes, every month. It wasn’t just a tick box on an annual staff review form, and neither was it crushingly expensive. The training often took the form of watching vendor videos and webcasts, speaking with more senior staff within the company (who were given time for such discussions), or wider reading and research on the analytical techniques that they were using. The difference was that the time for training was ring-fenced and was monitored to make sure that staff were truly given some thinking time each month.

Further, each staff member was given the opportunity to take on a special project from time to time, in order to break the inevitable monotony of the everyday analytical tasks. These projects are always focused on outcomes that will bring improvements to the quality, capability, or efficiency of the laboratory, and are therefore meaningful and rewarding. Access is granted to more senior staff who can be used as a resource to help fuel the progress of the project and, so I was told, the projects almost always result in some type of improvement. Again, these were monitored to ensure that everyone had the opportunity to shine.

 

The laboratory also had a very different approach to quality assurance and audit. Rather than being at loggerheads, the departments worked together to improve quality and the laboratory leadership encouraged openness and strove for high performance through a programme of recognition. I spoke to one member of staff who recounted their recent opportunity to present work at an international conference, which had been gained through working on a quality improvement initiative within the laboratory.

I spoke with several of the analytical team in the laboratory and asked each of them what they appreciated most about working there. The following list contains the most common themes that emerged:

  • Budget and scope to introduce new technologies;

  • Time to properly roll-out new equipment and software;

  • High degree of automation for routine tasks;

  • Ability to take work through, from sample booking in to reporting and explaining results.

I found it striking that whilst the general working ethos, hours of work, or pay were mentioned by some, the number of times the points above were mentioned indicate that challenge and investment in technology seem to have been more motivational to the staff.

The final note in my report to this laboratory simply says the words “help and support”. All of the staff seemed to know where to go to for help on just about any problem. I asked about issues with scheduling, instrument problems, application issues, and software support and was always met with an assured answer on who they could seek guidance from and who their “expert” was on each of these subjects. I asked why there was such a great network of technique owners, subject matter experts, and fonts of knowledge and always got the same answer: the presence of a scientific leadership ladder within the business. There was the real possibility to progress in pay grade and seniority without having to leave the laboratory and be a desk jockey, which created a route of progression, filled with folks whose knowledge and skills had been retained within the laboratory (and indeed the business) and who could now be relied upon to teach and mentor the next generation.

 

For those of you thinking that this highly idealistic situation could never be achieved in a regulated modern laboratory environment, this was a contract research laboratory working mainly for pharmaceutical clients, performing product release and stability testing as well as less regulated work, including large-scale preparative chromatography.

For those managers wondering how there could be enough time for training and development projects, the answer is simple: time was made. The leadership had looked up from the grindstone and introduced a new paradigm, which had brought great success to the department and the business as a whole. They had been given no extra budget other than that required to retain scientific staff on management pay grades.

I know that this seems highly idealistic, but believe me, it’s not fictitious and the really great thing was that for every job that came through the door, there were a handful of analytical staff who were clamouring to pick up the work. So, the question remains: if they can do it, why can’t the rest of us attain this level of performance and motivation? Try to answer this question without using the words budget or time!

Contact author: Incognito
E-mail:kate.mosford@ubm.com