As we continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, labs that have shut down should be making plans now for how to reopen their operations once allowed to do so. After all, pandemics are not the only laboratory disasters that could result in staff being kept away from the lab for extended periods of time. The same could happen following a fire, flood, earthquake, tornado, hurricane, or even a severe blizzard.
How does a lab go about re-opening after a disaster that has forced staff to work from home for an extended period of time, in isolation from each other, and potentially caused staff a great deal of trauma?
Here are a few items to consider as you make plans to reopen:
- Phased reopening. It’s very likely that lab staff will be brought back in phases, with staggered work schedules, as scientists continue to work on a COVID-19 vaccine. So, during this time of stay at home orders is the best time for managers and leaders to turn to their disaster preparedness plans for guidance as to what functions are most critical. These functions, and the staff performing them, should be prioritized in terms of returning to work.
- Social distancing at work. Since social distancing is going to be in our lives for a while, this is also the time for leaders to evaluate what functions can reasonably be done from home for the long term as efficiently as they can be done at work. The people performing those functions should stay home initially upon reopening the lab to allow more space for the staff who need to return to on-site operations to social distance.
- Safety. As the lab reopens, special consideration will need to be given to the safety of people working on-site. Until a vaccine for COVID-19 is available, the CDC is going to be key in issuing guidelines for safety. Some questions for lab leadership to consider, with guidance from the CDC, are:
- Is distancing necessary anymore?
- What policies should be adopted for common spaces such as break rooms and restrooms to allow for social distancing?
- What about door handles? Should foot pedals to open doors be installed, especially in bathrooms? Or is wearing gloves the preferred method of protection?
- Are there any shared computers that are used by multiple people throughout the day? If so, what policies need to be adopted to protect staff from spreading illness through these shared computers? Should staff wear gloves when handling these computers? Should washable keyboard covers be purchased instead? Should special software be installed on individual computers instead of on only one central computer?
- Team connection. Teams need to reconnect. Leadership should consider allowing staff ample opportunities to sit down and talk as a group in the early weeks following re-opening. Renewing the sense of membership in a team that cares for each other is going to be very important as we all move forward. Some people will be dealing with tremendous loss, grief, and trauma. Others who are not dealing with issues that are quite so serious can offer their help and support. Lab mates can be critical in providing coverage for staff who need to leave the lab early to deal with family issues and other problems that are the result of the disaster. Teammates can also be critical in offering each other emotional support in times of crisis.
- Disaster preparedness plan. The lab’s disaster preparedness plan will be crucial for resuming laboratory operations. The point of disaster preparedness is to allow for a quick recovery after the disaster passes. If labs have done all of the necessary preparedness in advance of the emergency/disaster, there should be little problem getting the lab back up and running. The trouble will come into play when labs were not prepared prior to the disaster.
- Identify your lab’s most critical functions. If this was not done in advance and added to your lab’s disaster preparedness plan, then lab leadership must make this a priority now. Identify these critical functions and create a plan to assign staff to these functions as soon as possible. Share the plan with the lab staff and add to your disaster preparedness plan.
- Provide training. Discuss the most critical functions identified for your lab together with your lab staff as a group, prior to returning to work. This will allow staff to identify any needs they have for additional training in the event they are needed to provide support in a capacity they are unfamiliar with. Lab leadership can then assign staff to work on training each other prior to returning to the lab. It will not be possible to train someone at the bench while working from home, but protocols can be shared and reviewed, questions can be answered, seminars on the new technique can be viewed, safety information for the new procedures can be reviewed, and staff can even perform mock run-throughs of techniques from home, via video conferencing, using items from around the house as stand-ins for the real thing.
- Adjusting to going back to work. Lately, I have been hearing concerns from staff about adjusting to commuting to work again. It was tough to adjust to being at home but once we all figured out how to access our records remotely and use video conferencing programs, despite the isolation, staff settled in and adjusted to working from home. As much as the transition to working from home was tough, the transition to working from the lab again will be tough too. People with young children will have to deal with kids who may resist getting ready for daycare because they liked being home with their parents, causing delays for parents getting on the road in the morning. Staff who have adjusted their sleep schedules to accommodate the ease of a non-existent commute will need to readjust to getting up earlier and driving in traffic to work. There will also surely be a sense of fear and anxiety for many workers as they venture out into the world again. Lab leaders should take all of these factors into consideration and think of creative ways to ease the transition back. Perhaps staff can have a period of time where they work half days from home and half days from work. Perhaps policies regarding tardiness could be relaxed in the first week or two. Each lab leader will need to decide what will and will not work for their group while being mindful of the stress and anxiety that will come with returning to the lab.
- Determining work schedules when reopening the lab at a reduced capacity. Some groups may reopen their labs at a reduced capacity, allowing only one or two team members access to the lab at one time, in an effort to allow space for social distancing. I recently had a meeting with my own team to discuss exactly this issue. One of my teammates made a comment that whatever schedule we create for staffing onsite operations in the initial weeks after reopening should be “fair,” meaning we should share the task of physically going into work. Pandemics aren’t fair, and labs will need to reconsider what is fair given the current circumstances and their individual work environments. Traditionally, we think of fair as each team member taking their turn doing an undesirable activity; in this case, that activity is commuting to work for the day. But every single time a new person enters an environment, they risk becoming infected or infecting someone else. Many infected people are asymptomatic. You never know who may have vulnerable family members at home that you come into contact with while at work, or who might have contact with healthcare professionals at home, who in turn have contact with vulnerable patient populations. Right now, public health has to take priority over fairness. Is it better to avoid multiple people coming into work to avoid extra exposures for the community by designating just a few people to come in initially when the labs reopen, while the rest of the team continues to work safely from home? Or is it better that team members take turns coming in to avoid putting all of the burden of commuting on just one or two people? We are facing unprecedented times right now and the solutions we put into action need to be well-thought out with unconventional options being considered. I would like all labs to consider that designating certain staff to come to work and certain staff to stay home may be a better option for the sake of public safety than going with our initial instincts towards fairness.
Taking time to review all of these concepts with your lab now, and getting plans into place, will allow for a smoother transition when the time comes for us to all come back together.