Remote Employees: Lessons Learned from COVID-19

Access to equipment, lab deliveries, and staff morale must be considered

Tracy Wieder, MBA

COVID-19 is not the first pandemic we have faced in modern history, and it will not be the last.1,2 It’s therefor important for us to take stock of the lessons learned so far so that we are better prepared for laboratory operations continuity and recovery during the next pandemic. Many of those lessons apply to having laboratory staff work from home for an extended period of time—an unusual situation, but one that has become far more familiar this year. 

Shut Down Sooner

If there’s any lesson we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that social distancing works. An interesting example of this is illustrated in studying the difference between infection rate growths in San Francisco vs. New York City. On March 16, 2020, the San Francisco Bay area had 300 positive cases of COVID-19 and New York City had 450 cases. On that same day, Californians received stay-at-home orders while New Yorkers waited four more days. As of March 25, 2020, the Bay Area reported just over 1,000 cases while New York City was up to more than 17,850 cases.3 Employers are critical in protecting the health and welfare of their employees during a pandemic. Any laboratory operations that can be shut down without compromising critical functions need to be shut down sooner, rather than later. This allows space for the labs that cannot shut down to spread out, allowing critical workers to distance from each other as they perform their daily tasks. 

Zero Tolerance for Sick Workers

Americans have a strong work ethic and there is a culture of coming to work when sick. Many workers, as well as their supervisors, consider this to not only be acceptable, but even admirable behavior. COVID-19 has taught us that it’s time for a cultural change. Spreading illness to our co-workers is simply not acceptable. Maybe you will fight off that cold you have like a champ, but how do you know your co-worker doesn’t have an elderly family member living with them? That very same cold could potentially cause dangerous illness in others. Now is the time for lab leaders to create policies that support sick workers staying home. Cross-training of employees can ensure needed coverage when employees are home sick and ease the pressure employees feel to come to work when ill. 

Laptops Do Not Equal Desktops When It Comes to Employee Productivity

It’s important to make sure that remote workers have access to the same or equivalent equipment that they have at work in terms of size and number of monitors and speed of computer connectivity. I have learned the hard way how productivity can be negatively affected by not only problems connecting to work files from home, but also the difference between working on a large computer monitor and working on a small laptop monitor. Consider the possibility of allowing workers to take their work desktop computers and monitors home with them to improve productivity. If this isn’t feasible, perhaps monitors, keyboards, and mice can be sent home with staff to allow them to connect their laptops to larger screens and to keyboards that are easier to use. 

Conduct Work at Home Drills

There will be technical problems with connecting employees at home with their work resources—this is a certainty. In my case, it took an entire week to get my computer at home to connect to my computer at work so I could access work documents stored on shared drives. This was the case for most of my coworkers as well, representing a huge amount of lost labor hours. My team is now working on moving all of our documents from the shared drives to a cloud-based storage system, hoping to avoid connectivity problems in the future. To this end, work at home drills conducted twice a year can be extraordinarily valuable. Consider designating two days a year, spaced every six months, for employees who have been identified in advance as candidates to work from home to participate in work at home drills. Allow these employees to work from home on these days, using the equipment you have designated for use by work at home employees. These drills will identify critical problems that can then be addressed in advance so that if employees are sent home in the future to work, they will be able to hit the ground running. An added advantage of work at home drills is that you may just discover additional functions that can be performed from home.

Organize a Central Receiving Point for Lab Deliveries

When labs are required to shut down quickly, many have orders for perishable reagents already in process and on their way, preventing them from being canceled. Critical labs that remain open also require uninterrupted deliveries. A plan for receiving shipments centrally, and what to do with them once received, is critical to avoid loss of expensive reagents as well as to ensure critical labs are still able to get the supplies they need. In the case of the institute where I work, our loading dock receives all packages for the labs but do not have resources to store reagents long term at the proper temperature. Labs are therefore required to pick up their deliveries within 24 hours of receiving dock staff notifying labs that items have arrived.

Take Care of Staff Morale

The importance of video conferencing to maintain team cohesion and employee morale cannot be overstated. Working from home is isolating, and for staff that did not sign up for it and are not accustomed to working from home, the isolation can be overwhelming. The sense of fear and doom that is already part of a pandemic is only heightened by working remotely and any mental illness that already exists is at risk of becoming worse during a stay at home order. If your team normally meets once a week, consider doubling or tripling that frequency via video calls and allowing time at the beginning of the call for people to just interact and report on how they are doing. Taking care of employee morale during uncertain and isolating times is extremely important not only because it shows staff that leadership values them, which leads to employee loyalty, but also because low morale leads to low productivity.

Be Creative When It Comes to Fulfilling Staffing Needs

Research laboratory staff often possess the skills required by clinical laboratories. Clinical labs that are associated with academic research centers can reach out to the research lab staff for support during a pandemic. At my university, most of the research labs shut down during the pandemic, sending staff to work from home, while clinical laboratories that were performing critical hospital functions found themselves with more work and less staff than ever. Hospital leadership reached out to laboratory research leaders with a list of staff skills they were in desperate need of. Many of the lab staff sitting at home possessed these exact skills and were more than happy to lend a helping hand. If you are not associated with an academic research center, there is likely one nearby, or a biotech company, or a pharmaceutical company. Consider which skills are critical to your operations and explore where you might be able to identify staff who have these skills in nearby institutions. Establish a relationship with these institutions now so that you will be able to turn to them if the need should ever arise. Your institute’s leadership should also consider putting together a database of all existing laboratory staff ’s skills to be used as a reference.

References:

1. History.com Editors. Pandemics that changed history. https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/pandemics-timeline, April 1, 2020.

2. CDC. 2009 H1N1 Pandemic (H1N1pdm09 virus). https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/2009-h1n1-pandemic.html.

3. Fernholz, T. The US can bring people back to work safely if it follows these steps. www.qz.com, March 25, 2020.


Tracy Wieder, MBA

Tracy Wieder has worked in the field of biomedical research for 30 years, starting as a lab technician, then moving into lab manager roles, lab director roles, and finally into her current role overseeing all research laboratories at the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.