Hybrid labs piece went up on Friday

March 14, 2022


11 March 2022

How hybrid working took hold in science

Two years since COVID-19 forced labs to shut down, group leaders describe how academic research has changed, perhaps forever. Kendall Powell



Principal investigators (PIs), including those who started research groups during the pandemic, are now incorporating the best parts of pandemic flexibility into the future of research. “It’s hard to see any good when we are heading toward six million deaths,” says Mark Gerstein, a computational biologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. “But the pandemic has taught us new ways of thinking about things.”

For example, Gerstein has learnt that some group members work most efficiently at home, whereas others really need to come in to work. “I have been a little surprised that the tails of that spectrum have been so wide.”

Gerstein says that increased flexibility should also help to ease some of the thorniest problems that early-career researchers can face, such as childcare support and the two-body problem — the challenge of two partners needing to find a job in the same geographical location. “I want to be very flexible,” Gerstein says. “That’s what talented people want in their workplace.”

Hybrid lab working has also changed the dynamics of groups. Gerstein’s weekly Zoom meeting with his 40-strong team can last for several hours, but he’s fine with a healthy dose of zoning out, turning cameras off and multitasking for those who don’t need to engage in the main conversation. His group uses a Google Doc to draw up the agenda and the members share screens to annotate it in real time. He then saves the final document to the lab’s Dropbox account.

Science-ing from home

“It is efficient and works even better than in-person meetings,” says Gerstein, who plans to retain video meetings to accommodate childcare responsibilities, illness and scheduling conflicts. “Now, everyone is equal, even our collaborators in Europe or China. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to a large in-person lab meeting.”

Gerstein has also been rethinking his computational group’s workspace. “Do we want that same traditional look where people come in every day and sit at desks?” he asks. “I’m sceptical — no one wants to be in open-plan cubes.”

Instead, he sees his lab of the future as being one in which, ideally, researchers have their own office and can close the door when they need to think, code or write. There also needs to be a room big enough for three or four people, to host meetings or conference calls. Hybrid working could mean a lot of unoccupied space on certain days. He’s considering a ‘hotelling’ option, with lab members booking larger office spaces in advance as needed, alongside everyone having a smaller dedicated workstation in the group’s shared space.