This post was contributed by Matteo Tardelli, a postdoctoral scientist at Weill Cornell Medicine.
Discussing data with colleagues can be more difficult during the pandemic era, with fewer opportunities for spontaneous conversations. What we are missing is the unmeasurable skills and productivity coming from that casual discussion on the way to the office or in the kitchen, while sipping an afternoon coffee in between experiments. The longer we are in this flexible work schedule the more we realize how casual chatter is very much missed in the virtual world. I believe this is an underrated ritual that really drives creativity and novelty in scientific research and in any workspace.
Re-design lab meetings with a focus on discussion and brainstorming
Though, we might be forced to work from home and/or be in the lab at odd times, new strategies can make socially distanced work more creative. An example could be making lab meetings more interactive and creating space for discussion at the end of each talk - time for free interaction and brainstorming. This could be achieved by asking each presenter to come up with a scientific question that they are eager to discuss with others and sending out these questions ahead of time so that lab members have time to prepare their thoughts. Then at the lab meeting, the team can discuss those ideas and build from those.
|Figure 1: Virtual lab meeting? No problem! You can still creatively collaborate and brainstorm!
Image from Joseph Mucira.
Implement new tools for creative interaction
During Zoom meetings, different tools can be used to promote creative interaction. A great tool that a few people use is the built-in whiteboard, in which participants can contribute and sketch on the board without leaving Zoom. The annotate function can also make the screen-sharing experience more interactive. The button is on the right of the Share Screen control panel on the top of the screen and every participant get to annotate things as they come up in their minds. The final screen can also be saved and exported as a picture. I believe that showing something different from time to time breaks up the monologue a little and gives participants something else to focus on.
Use collaborative cloud apps
It is a good idea to use collaborative cloud tools such as Google Docs and Sheets during Zoom lab meetings to chip in ideas and take minutes that can be accessed by anyone at any time. This document can be shared and serve as a springboard for future discussion.
Collaboration and creativity are pivotal in writing publications/grants too. As described by several works (Wuchty et al., 2007, Vicens et al., 2007) geared towards enhancing collaborative writing and this recent article published in PLOS Computational Biology (Frassl et al., 2018): “Science is increasingly done in large teams, making it more likely that papers will be written by several authors from different institutes, disciplines, and cultural backgrounds.” This work outlines the need for clear communication, fair credit through authorship, and acceptance of a diversity of work styles while work remotely. The authors stress the fact that “miscommunication, a lack of leadership, and inappropriate tools or writing approaches can lead to frustration, delay of publication, or even the termination of a project.”
Take brain breaks
Meetings can get very long sometimes, and interaction fades away the longer we are on it – so it is important to take breaks. After 1 hour (or another designated time) of meeting, someone could raise their hands or signal the approach of a brain break, where everyone stands up, disappears from the video, and prepares a coffee, or simply moves away from the desk to switch off a few minutes.
The host could also set aside Breakout Rooms to divide the audience into small sessions and do a quick break to chat. This can be done randomly or manually assigning which participants to group together. Breakout Rooms can be used as a break, but can also be used to brainstorm on data in smaller groups, where for instance the presence of the PI in the main room inhibits discussion. I believe this is a great functionality that is widely used and could bring back a taste of that casual kitchen chatter, ultimately sparking new ideas.
Social no-science-y meetings
Set up a brief bi-weekly meeting where all lab members talk no science. No data presentation will appear here, and only general chatter will be allowed with a different host each time that moderates conversations. This can help team building and bring back some degrees of belonging that was probably lost during these weird times of shift working and social distancing.
The take home message is the approaches/tools we have to foster creative collaboration remotely in science are endless. Let’s adapt and embrace new ways of working, reconnect as human beings and colleagues, eventually encouraging purposeful and creative collaboration in the workplace. There are many other ways to encourage collaborations remotely outside of the lab meeting setting. Check out the blog post “Fostering Communication in Remote Collaborations” to get more ideas.
Thank you to our guest blogger Matteo Tardelli!
Matteo Tardelli, PhD is Postdoctoral Scientist at Weill Cornell Medicine in NYC and author of the book “The Salmon Leap for PhDs: Swimming upstream a career from academia to industry”. To date, aside from doing science, he has assisted many researchers in gaining the confidence to launch new and diverse careers by taking part in career panels, and volunteering for scientific communities. You can follow him on twitter @salmon_phd
Frassl MA, Hamilton DP, Denfeld BA, de Eyto E, Hampton SE, Keller PS, Sharma S, Lewis ASL, Weyhenmeyer GA, O’Reilly CM, Lofton ME, Catalán N (2018) Ten simple rules for collaboratively writing a multi-authored paper. PLoS Comput Biol 14:e1006508 . https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006508
Vicens Q, Bourne PE (2007) Ten Simple Rules for a Successful Collaboration. PLoS Comput Biol 3:e44 . https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.0030044
Wuchty S, Jones BF, Uzzi B (2007) The Increasing Dominance of Teams in Production of Knowledge. Science 316:1036–1039 . https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1136099
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