Research intelligence: how to run a research team remotely

As campuses and labs close amid the coronavirus crisis, Jack Grove hears how senior scientists are managing their teams and research projects

March 31, 2020
Source: IStock
Many campuses and labs are closed to avert the spread of Covid-19

Even before the coronavirus crisis struck, managing a team of 65 researchers in six research groups was a daunting task for Lee Cronin, Regius chair of chemistry at the University of Glasgow.

But the shutdown of his laboratory has made that task yet more demanding, with researchers confined to their homes to help suppress the spread of Covid-19.

“A third of my team do practical work, a third focus on theory and a third do engineering, so I already have a very organised project matrix,” he explained – stepping away from a group Zoom call to speak to Times Higher Education.

Some of the guiding principles for Professor Cronin’s team will prove particularly important during the lockdown and aid them in working remotely.

Build team spirit

“We already have a good team spirit which, in part, comes from total transparency within the group, but keeping that spirit going is important,” explained Professor Cronin, who added that if a team can “share a vision then they can, even remotely, discover what they can do to dial into it.”

In practical terms, team members are checking in with their team leaders via Zoom at 9.30am every morning and using data on a shared server. “No one is allowed to keep data on their personal computer and instead must use a server that is constantly backed up, but that allows 12 people to look at information at the same time,” Professor Cronin said.

“I am a bit of control freak in this way, but it actually allows people to work more freely,” he added.

Slow down research

With researchers adjusting to the new working patterns, it can be easy for research leaders to become overwhelmed by communications from those seeking guidance.

“I can often be the bottleneck anyway, but if 65 people are at home and not sure what they are they doing they can drown you [with messages],” Professor Cronin said, adding that research deadlines had been relaxed and researchers asked to account for between 50 and 75 per cent of their time.

For those with new caring commitments, such as children at home, Professor Cronin said that he was happy to make allowances.

“I am not expecting them to do anything like a full-time job – I just want them to be honest about how much they are doing so I can claim it back [from funders] when the time comes,” he added.

Make time for research

With communication now consuming so much time, it can be easy to lose touch with science itself, suggested Professor Cronin.

“I’m making myself available in the mornings to listen to anyone but I try to do science in the afternoon, whether it’s looking at theory or checking calculations,” he said.

Look out for each other

Uppsala University computational chemist Lynn Kamerlin admitted that she has not been as affected by the lockdown as other groups. “I travel a lot, so my group is already used to working while I am not around,” said Professor Kamerlin, who added that this situation could change if the supercomputers on which her team relies are affected by the shutdown.

“At present we can operate relatively normally, but people in isolation for long periods of time do not tend to do well, so people need to watch out for each other,” said Professor Kamerlin, who urged team members to look out for each other’s mental well-being as much as possible.

“Everyone is worrying about the coronavirus,” she said. “As scientists [who are drawn to] reading papers on Covid-19, this is not exactly relaxing and can have a disruptive impact on the group’s well-being," she added.

Lower your expectations

John Tregoning, reader in respiratory infections at Imperial College London, believed that scientists needed to be realistic about what can be achieved in lockdown.

“Of course I have grandiose dreams about all I am going to achieve: 10 papers, two reviews, a book, the next big grant, collaborative research on the new virus, managing a group, seeing my children more, teaching my children, getting fit, working on my social media presence, writing wiki pages, staying in touch with my family, supporting my students, learning to code and not eating all the chocolate,” said Dr Tregoning.

He warned, however, that the next few months are going to be “unprecedentedly weird.”

“In the end, it is OK to not achieve as much as you hoped,” he said, urging people to “dream big and stay occupied, but [that] looking after yourself and those around you is more important than your output in the time of coronavirus”.

"Yes, there will be hyperproductive people smashing out papers and shouting about it on Twitter,” Dr Tregoning continued. “But there will also be lots of confused, scared, tired and stressed academics and that’s OK too.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Tips on how to run a team of researchers remotely

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