It’s the new normal: online meetings instead of face-to-face, texting/emailing to get a meeting with your students instead of them stopping by your office, and how the heck do you run an experiment when they shut down the campus?
In my brief forays into social media (more on that another time), I have seen some great examples of PIs supporting their research groups. I have also seen some less than great examples. For those that fall in the latter category, we need to extend them some amount of grace as they (hopefully) work towards improving their methods.
The following are common themes that I have found in working with clients recently (and some tactics we have implemented in our own group) that I’d like to share.
Set your group up for long-term success
We all hope that this new normal will be brief. The best-case scenario has us all back on campus by the start of the summer (I have no scientific data to back this up, just my own hopes and dreams). The worst-case scenario has this going on for well over a year as the virus comes back at us in the fall without a vaccination on the horizon. As the leader, it’s best to plan for both scenarios, plus one that straddles the middle ground.
Take out a piece of paper (or whatever you plan best on) and start sketching out what your group needs in terms of resources and support to be successful under each of the three scenarios. When my clients do this, they find a lot of overlap across these three scenarios, which is a good thing! It means that (1) there is less to do to implement any of these individual scenarios and (2) they are more likely able to accomplish any of it.
While you plan, ask yourself these questions* to find ways to support your group beyond what you did in the “old normal”:
- What can you do to provide the members of your group with an incremental sense of certainty?
- What can you do to help the members of your group establish a sense of autonomy?
- What can you do to engage any sense of relatedness within your group?
- What can you do to provide a sense of fairness within your group?
Let’s unpack these things one at a time:
1. Sense of certainty
In this climate, you may not feel you can provide absolute certainty for anyone. But what about incremental? How often are you communicating with your group as a whole and individually? What can you do to take an implicit understanding of your availability to an explicit statement? How often is your group expecting your communication?
What can this look like in the new normal? This week, I placed a daily 30 minute “stand up” meeting on my group’s calendar using Zoom. We talk about what our goals are for the day or week and what we are working on and may need help on. This is not a research meeting and I made them optional. Spoiler alert: people showed up. Sometimes for the whole 30 minutes and sometimes for 10. Because I set the meeting to enable “join before host”: yesterday they showed up and had their own conversations for 15 minutes before I arrived.
In the world of “social distancing”, we need to enable explicit space for people to connect.
Other options? Scheduled research meetings, coffee hours, happy hours, yoga moments, and walk-n-talks (if that’s still permissible where you are). You might not have explicitly interacted this way as a group before, but again making implicit things explicit moves the “needle on certainty” for your group.
2. Sense of autonomy
Depending on your style, your group members may feel or know they have autonomy in their work. Right now though, they may not remember this because their brains are entirely overloaded by what they can’t control. Have conversations with them to help them identify what they can control both in their work and their non-work lives. Take the time to have conversations with them about how much they sleep, how they are caring for themselves in terms of diet and exercise. This may be a new ground for your relationship with your group.
3. Sense of relatedness
Social distancing is isolating, especially if you’re not living near family or with anyone. Within your group, how can you remove this sense of isolation? In addition to our 30 minute morning stand up, I put a weekly social hour on our calendar. This is a no-work zone and also optional. For our first one, every single member attended, which spoke volumes to me as to how much people are craving connections right now. The second one we had a trivia game using a very old deck of Trivial Pursuit cards I found in my closet. I’m pretty sure we haven’t laughed that hard in weeks as we figured out how much “pre-2000 knowledge” we MIT researchers don’t know.
4. Sense of fairness
This is a hard one for me to write. Most of the work in our group is computational and our “experiments” don’t require us to physically be anywhere specific. So basically, outside of an overloaded MIT VPN between the hours of 9-5, our work has been continuing without significant disruption. You may have a group that is all experimentalists or a blend of types. For the members of your group whose work has literally come to a halt because of this new normal, what can you offer them to alleviate their fears? How can you reframe their work so that they still have something to focus on? What can other members of the group whose work is not severely impacted contribute?
Most importantly, set expectations and respect variations
There are going to be days where people can’t do things because of their situation. You may have group members who are balancing homeschool/e-learning/caring for their children with their research load, or sharing a single computer or workspace with a spouse, or have an incredibly slow internet connection. Productivity is going to ebb and flow and you need to set the example of respecting people’s variations.
Set clear expectations (another incremental dose of certainty) and principles for work to get done. However, remember that these are not (and should not be) rules. Set the tone that we all want to help each other move through this new normal.
As the PI of a research group, you are the de facto leader of a diverse tribe of people who are effectively only connected by the common goal of working in your group. Now more than ever it is important to be mindful of the virtual environment you create for this tribe.
If you’d like to be coached through this process, contact me to set up a session. I am a personal and professional coach (in training) and a Ph. D. researcher, co-PI, and academic and have a baseline reference to the world in which you’re operating.
*This post was written after listening to a webinar on what science says that leaders should do in a crisis from the NeuroLeadership Institute. I’ve drawn my ideas heavily from this content and want to acknowledge this. The recording is here. And I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the neurobiological responses that we are all going through right now.