“It may have been easier to close labs than it will be to reopen them, and finding the new normal may be a multiyear process.”
Jeff Johnson for C&EN
As governments gradually begin to reduce restrictions and businesses start to open up again, many research institutions are considering how best to get important research back up and running, whilst minimising physical contact and protecting the health and wellbeing of team members. The media continues to report that our lives will not be the same again, and that we must all adapt to the ‘new normal’. In labs, as in any workplace, additional protective measures will need to be taken and additional social distancing measures followed, as set out by both governments and individual organisations. Scientific research must also maintain existing stringent health and safety regulations, creating an added challenge for lab managers and health and safety organisers.
We have already observed the benefits of new and existing technologies to facilitate remote working and socialising. Apps such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Houseparty, FaceTime and WhatsApp have all become a core component of most workdays and shown massive user increase during lockdown. Zoom reported a maximum of 10 million daily users in December 2019 which soared to 200 million in March 2020. It is clear therefore that technology will also have a role to play in helping teams return to work and facilitating the management and implementation of new guidelines.
With physical social distancing being one of the main global tactics to minimise the spread of the Covid-19 virus, it will be impossible for most labs to function without significantly reducing their operating capacity and physically spreading out equipment and workstations. It will therefore be necessary to restrict and monitor lab access, which will inevitably impact the efficiency of research. The Center for Chromosome Stability at the University of Copenhagen (CCS) and the Center for Applied Biomedical Research at the University of Bologna (CRBA) have implemented Clustermarket’s lab booking system, to help ease their return to the lab. We’ve used their experiences to put together some tips on how best to optimise research facilities for the ‘new normal’, and how lab management software can help get you back in the lab and get your research back on track.
Scheduling access to minimise contact
Existing labs have not been designed for physical distancing so restricting access is the only viable solution for lab managers to adhere to requirements. Splitting researchers into groups and scheduling access enables the manager to control who is in the lab and ensure users get fair access. This can be a bit of a headache, but lab management platforms lend themselves perfectly to this function. Clustermarket enables users to divide teams into groups and assign different time schedules to lab members.
Even when you restrict lab access, it can be challenging to keep team members separate within the lab. It is important to design labs to give scientists room to discover, and this is even more important with physical distancing measures in place. Clusternarket allows users to divide the lab into specific areas and book these spaces/pieces of equipment at certain times. Its online interface gives the team easy access to see who is using what space and when, enabling researchers to factor this intoin to planning experiments. “I can now see in real-time who will be in the lab or office during the week, on which days, at what times and using which lab space,” commented Dr Frederick Luk, Center Manager at the Center for Chromosome Stability, University of Copenhagen (CCS).
Management and reporting
“Because our center is using Clustermarket as a control measure/system, it gives confidence to the University and health department that we are able to handle the situation and make sure our staff are able to resume work safely.”
Dr Frederick Luk, Center for Chromosome Stability, University of Copenhagen
Not only do lab managers have the responsibility of protecting their teams, but they also have to ensure – and demonstrate – that they are meeting institutional guidelines. This requires clear monitoring and reporting of lab use to provide confidence for employees, the wider organisation and regulatory bodies. Clustermarket offers an overview of all lab space bookings detailing lab use and capacity to demonstrate compliance with guidelines.
“This [Clustermarket] makes my job much easier, especially during these times for managing a research center and sending reports to the authorities.”
Dr Simone Bugani, Center for Applied Biomedical Research, University of Bologna (CRBA)
Communication in the absence of contact
In an article for Nature, Mark Denison, Director of Paediatric Infectious Diseases, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, emphasized the widely held view that researchers need to communicate constantly. This is not only important to facilitate the scientific process and share ideas, but also to uphold regulations and protect each other in this new version of the lab environment. When researchers can’t be in the same place at the same time, safety announcements might be missed by some staff members. Automatic updates and clearly displayed safety information are vital to mitigate this risk. Clustermarket’s announcement feature meets this need, as well as being able to restrict access to users lacking the appropriate training.
Planning for productivity
All of these added measures will reduce the amount of time researchers can spend in the lab, so optimising that time is important to get back on track following this period of reduced or halted research. Researchers may need to redesign studies to be less labour intensive5 and adapt equipment usage to fit with the demands of the rest of the team. Being able to book equipment and lab time when you need it as well as monitor experiments and analyse results remotely will improve the efficiency of the lab and help users adapt.
We have vast amounts of easy to operate, intelligent technology ready for use, and researchers – as well as society at large – need to make the most of this to ease the transition back into work and help researchers feel as comfortable as possible returning to the lab in the ‘new normal’. Whilst this is uncharted territory, the adaptability and ingenuity demonstrated by many gives us confidence that the research community will get back on track and might even provide opportunities to change laboratory practices for the better.
“Now is the time to use this heightened safety awareness to help sustain a stronger long-term lab safety culture”
Dan Scungio for Laboratory Manager
Find out more about how Clustermarket can help you return to the lab and hear from our users on how we’ve already helped them get their research back on track.