The COVID-19 pandemic presents us with a crisis of significant magnitude with no clear end in sight. There are numerous stressors affecting our healthcare system, economy, and social lives. In the midst of all this, we face new challenges to our mission to advance the field of IO, particularly in regard to research and education.
We can utilize a set of guiding principles to navigate this time. This requires ingenuity and the ability to learn and adjust as we go. This is an opportunity to take stock of our organization and sharpen our focus and skills. Several actions can help us prepare our teams to weather this crisis and our endeavors following it:
- Set the Tone: work with your team to determine shifts in key priorities and redefine goals
- Sharpen Your Focus: organize your team and outline actionable plans to achieve key priorities
- Embrace and Accept Failure: failure rate is higher during crises – use this as a learning opportunity
- Mentorship and Education: mentorship and education remain critical; continue to leverage to ease anxieties and boost morale
Set the Tone
The tone set by leadership dictates our ability to persevere, our flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances, and our creativity to innovate. This requires open communication and setting expectations. Before we can find solutions to the challenges we face we need to be guided by our overarching goals and purpose.
Empower your team to examine and adjust your current scope of operations. What needs to be modified to keep things running? What new problems have arisen? What new opportunities have emerged? This is a time to observe strengths and weaknesses and determine the best ways to redirect efforts and maximize resources.
Due to restrictions in place, secondary to the pandemic, we have had to adjust our own team’s priorities. We have had to shift to a more remote work focus, and thus, in-person experiments have been delayed. This has required redistributing outstanding work that can be completed while off-site. Priorities have shifted from overseeing daily operations to personnel and budgetary management. We have used this time for new member recruitment and onboarding. This has included online interviews and remote research educational coursework. From a budgetary standpoint, we have had to discuss our progress with our funding sponsors to ensure secure funding once restrictions on labwork are lifted.
Sharpen Your Focus
With the day to day changes occurring in our operations, it is easy to lose sight of how to achieve our overarching goals. This is a time to re-evaluate priorities and streamline action plans. This requires open communication with your team to decide what is feasible and essential vs what is “nice to have”.
This is an ideal time to revisit your work and conduct interim analyses. What have you learned? How can your processes be refined? We often only have these insights at times of grant or manuscript submission. This is an opportunity to revise your experimental design and address any issues you may have encountered. This is also an opportunity to engage with your team—have them prioritize their duties, and determine what they need to be effective in their new roles. This will entail your group to learn new ways of operating moving forward, with expected failures. These are opportunities to pivot to a new strategy and refine processes altogether.
During our own experiments, this has allowed valuable time to analyze our data sets to date. From this we have learned we have needed additional treatment groups to round out or data sets. Additionally, this time has allowed us to refine our imaging protocols and analyses so that procedures are streamlined once we can re-initiate future experiments. Finally, our team is using the extra time to take a proactive approach to begin crafting abstracts and manuscripts with a clear picture of what data we need to acquire prior to submission.
Mistakes and failures are inevitable in this time of rapid change and unanticipated challenges. With new challenges and limitations, our emphasis should be on experimentation rather than efficiency. Criteria for success will, therefore, need to shift to continue to meet our goals. From this we can generate best practices to eliminate experiments that were not effective and work towards new strategies.
This requires determining which goals are realistic and achievable given various constraints. This requires open communication with your team to determine feasibility of your plans and possible stumbling blocks. What can we do remotely? What has to be done in person? This also requires communication with administration to determine if exceptions can be made in certain scenarios—patient care, or in translational work, animal care and safety. Certain activities will be critical to maintain, hence open communication between all stakeholders is key.
During this time, we have found the goal-line to be constantly shifting as the pandemic progresses. As such, we have adjusted our operations in the face of this uncertainty. The best way to manage this time is through open communication and transparency ahead of various deadlines. This has required communication within both our group and the larger university research organization to determine a timeline for animal experiments, scanner time, and resource and capital expenditures. This has been a major key learning for our team - Open communication between all stakeholders and our team is critical to improve efficiencies and minimize the scale of possible anxieties and mistakes. Furthermore, we encourage our team to speak up at all levels for potential concerns such that we can anticipate and mitigate issues before they arise.
Mentorship and Education
Mentorship remains critical during crises and uncertainty. Mentorship is critical to train and retain high potential talent and ensure downstream trainee success. Additionally, mentorship facilitates mutual learning and career development. During these uncertain times our students and trainees look to us to ease their anxiety and guide them through the challenges of the current training paradigm. This can take the form of not only academic or career counseling, but also psychosocial support. The commitment we demonstrate now will equip them with tools to utilize themselves throughout their careers.
Reach out to your team and ask them what they need to navigate at this time: What tools and resources do you need to continue? What are the obstacles and challenges you are facing to complete our tasks? What are your concerns? What can I do to help you?
To ease the impact on our operations, and continue our research and educational mission, we have instituted several changes. Our residents and fellows have transitioned to a web-based teleconference platform for didactic lectures and multidisciplinary tumor boards. For our research fellows this has included adjusting their presentation plans, shifting from preparing for annual meetings to preparation of manuscripts. For our medical students their curriculum has shifted away from clinical rotations to online learning. We have enabled ad hoc research electives to maximize their time away from clinical duties.
Currently, we have transitioned to an online platform for communication. This has included individual and group meetings to discuss progress and challenges. We have also utilized web-based platforms for recruiting new students, training, and onboarding. Certainly, shortcomings are present when some of these activities cannot happen in person, however stakeholders at both the department and university level have assisted us in making this transition as smooth as possible. Gaps still exist for boosting team morale in this virtual setting, but we are working towards overcoming these challenges.
As we begin to think about the months to follow, we must plan for the long term. Things will likely be different following Covid-19, and not a return to “normal.” We must continue to look for ways to transform, considering the changes we have made to respond to the Covid-19 challenges. While we cannot predict what the future will look like, having a contingency plan, or at least a methodology for developing one quickly, gives your team something to focus on and makes the tasks at hand seem less overwhelming. These preparations give your team confidence to overcome hurdles as they arise, and a framework for how to adapt.