I was inspired by a recent Planet Money podcast on tweaking the world and am adapting some of their suggestions and including a few of my own below with reference to the scientific laboratory. Playing the science game can be grueling work - and often unrewarding (what!? I've got to repeat that experiment again?!). Being that we wade in a bog of negative results and criticisms daily, I like to think of ways to make the process more pleasant for my people. After all, happy people are more productive, so it's really entirely in my own interest, as a PI, to create a good work environment.
(1) A place to eat as a group: (doing this now)
At Harvard, it's called the "tea room", at IU it's called the "break room" -- whatever you call it -- the space that people in your lab can use to congregate around the water cooler/coffee machine/microwave is sacred. This space not only provides a safe place to eat (esp. for those in BSL2 labs) but also provides opportunity for interaction between lab members. Before we got our break room renovated, if you wanted to eat in my lab you had to sit...alone...in front of a metal lab cart in front of my office door. We called it the "time out" chair. Thankfully, we gained access to an office next door to mine (contiguous with the lab space) and now everyone can eat sitting down! Now, I'd like to say that all my people interact daily about science, but even if they don't, this space helps the group to become cohesive socially.
(2) Sign at the top: (plan to try this)
In every legal form you've likely encountered, your signature is required at the bottom, or end, of the form -- after you have completed it. But according to research, you are less likely to lie if you sign your name before -- at the top of the form. I routinely have students fill out a questionnaire when they join the lab to help me understand their background, their interest, their expectations. I'm considering adding a signature box to the top as well.
(3) Hedge your bets: (plan to try this)
As academics, we routinely deal with rejections - of manuscripts, proposals, etc. How many times is a paper accepted on first submission? Here's one idea from the Planet Money podcast I plan to implement immediately. When someone in the lab submits a manuscript (or a proposal), everyone in the lab pitches in 1-5 dollars in the bank. If the person's manuscript is accepted, horray! We go out for TGIF with the money. If their manuscript is rejected, they get the condolence prize of the entire bank. This might be the "sugar" that helps the medicine go down.
(4) Bring the pain:(doing this now)
I know, I know, wasn't I just saying how important it is to create a positive environment for your people? Bear with me. Research shows that shared pain brings people together. I hadn't thought of it before but our preliminary exam in Microbiology is pretty much the pain the entire cohort goes through. This learning experience is also a bonding experience and ties these future colleagues together like nothing else could.
What are some things you try in your lab? What's worked and what hasn't? Would love to know!