Leading my research team from home
The start of 2020 has been challenging for the higher education sector. Students are unable to enter Australia, teachers have adapted to online learning quickly, and ‘hands-on‘ learning has halted altogether. All thanks to the growing chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I lead Griffith University‘s Healthy Primary Care team. We are 18 researchers, 12 of whom are PhD students. Our funding, made possible through success in the first round of the NHMRC Investigator grants, started on January 1st; right when COVID-19 made its entrance. My team promotes healthy living and wellness in primary care to benefit people with chronic diseases. However, with our primary care workers already overwhelmed by COVID-19, it turns out this year is not the time for showcasing our focus on non-communicable diseases in primary care.
What to do when your research suddenly seems less relevant?
Conducting our research in the current health care system suddenly became unimportant. To combat this challenge and avoid a drop in team motivation, I decided business should continue as usual, and kept consistent with all meetings and deadlines. We then faced the uncertainty regarding whether or not Australian University campuses would remain open. I decided swift action was what we needed, as recommended by Dr Michael J Ryan, WHO Executive Director (see this short video).
Working from home early
Rather than wait for our campuses to close, I recommended my team start working from home as soon as they could. We are lucky that the majority of our work is independent of labs and campus-based equipment. We have access to University software systems, and most of my team have laptops. However, even with a vibrant and proactive team, this week hasn‘t been easy. Here‘s what I have learned:
- I‘m a people person, and my team need access to one another.
My style is to work collaboratively, so it was essential to keep this ethos going while working from home. I encouraged my team to use University chat systems, as well as texts for prompt responses. We currently connect across multiple platforms, so I keep myself accessible in all communications. To stay consistent, we converted all regular meetings to videoconferencing.
- Continuing to progress research (in any form) is vital
Even though COVID-19 is infectious, so is anxiety, malaise and loss of motivation. I needed to make sure that my team stayed healthy and focused. I have maintained our schedule as much as possible, including our weekly “huddles.“ “Huddles“ are short meetings where the team state their immediate goals and seek advice. As I do each week, I check in to make sure everyone is achieving their goals, as I believe this feeling of satisfaction in their research is vital for motivation and progress.
- ‘Life‘ still happens and needs flexibility
Many in my team, including myself, have families and external responsibilities. The challenges of life remain in any crisis, and it is essential to be understanding of all situations. My approach to leadership is to be open, humble, flexible and not to make assumptions. These qualities are even more critical now that the team are distanced. My constant task now that we are working from home is to respect individual priorities and support each member’s contributions to our team goals.
Supervising a team from home is a new challenge for me. With our first week down, I understand there are still a lot of lessons to be learned, and I know this journey may get even harder in the coming weeks. However, with consistent communication, hard work and flexibility, I‘m confident my team can ride this out and continue to produce the world-class research we are renowned for.
Author: Dr Lauren Ball, Healthy Primary Care team lead