How to Implement Flexible Employee Scheduling in Your Lab

While employee scheduling can challenge water lab managers during the best of times, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced an array of considerations that can make developing an effective work schedule and keeping your lab running smoothly feel like a never-ending game of three-dimensional chess.

From social distancing requirements to intensified lab sanitation requirements to the potential for reduced staff due to illness or absenteeism, it's likely more complicated than ever to keep your lab staffed and functioning efficiently. Here are some tips for structuring your employee scheduling in a way that successfully balances the demands of the pandemic and your staff's need for support during this challenging time.

Stagger Shifts

Concern for staff safety will likely lead you to consider changes in how you manage employee scheduling. For example, depending on your lab's overall workload and project delivery schedule, you may want to consider staggering your employees' shifts from day-to-day or week-to-week, incorporating alternate break schedules into each day, and increasing spacing between workspaces to ensure social distancing.

Other steps to consider include designating traffic flow patterns for employees to follow when moving about the lab and evaluating your lab's air and ventilation systems to reduce the chance of spreading the virus via air circulation.

Schedule Cleaning Breaks

While maintaining a clean lab is a baseline responsibility at any time, it's significantly more important during a pandemic. You may want to consider incorporating added cleaning breaks into your day, which would also affect your scheduling considerations.

At the very least, you need to abide by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19, which advises you to use disinfectants approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and discourage your employees from using their colleagues' phones, work spaces, or other work tools and equipment when possible.

Prepare for Absenteeism

Given the potential consequences for your lab should a significant number of your employees get sick simultaneously, you need to ensure you have a business continuity plan in place for the duration of the pandemic. You should be prepared to develop and implement an array of contingency plans for your lab's operation in the event of increased absenteeism due to illness. These plans could include a range of responses, from delegating responsibilities and coverage to preparing to relocate to alternate facilities.

Offer Mental Health Support

While the logistical impacts of COVID-19 on your lab are likely to be top-of-mind as you develop a range of operational and contingency plans, it's important to remember that the pandemic can have a significant effect on your employees' mental health, too. Both you and your employees are likely feeling a level of stress that may well be unprecedented in your lives, and it's likely that your employees' stress levels will also be impacted by the changes you make in the lab and the frequent schedule adjustments. Consequently, it's critical that you clearly communicate any leave and flexible working policies, including potential PTO mental wellness days.

Communicate Openly and Often

Your skills and responsibilities as a communicator may never be more important than during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Consistently go the extra mile in making sure the lines of communication are open with your employees.

In addition to sending regular updates to lab staff, whether they are via emails, voice messages, or more frequent staff meetings, remember to communicate any updates or possible changes to your lab's schedule as early as possible. You should also request feedback from your staff about how they're affected by the changes and how you could adjust the schedule to address their requests or the overall needs of the lab.

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced unprecedented complications into how you schedule and manage your lab. Keeping your employees up-to-date on the steps being taken to keep them safe and working effectively should go a long way toward gaining their cooperation. Together, you'll work to keep your labs operating smoothly until the pandemic is behind us.

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Jeff Rowe
Writer and Editor

For the past 25 years, Jeff Rowe has worked as a writer and an editor for the nonfiction and professional markets, including researching, writing, and editing feature articles, blog posts, speeches, project reports, and magazine essays. He has published numerous articles and essays on developments in health care and health information technology, the home medical equipment market, natural resource and environmental issues, and food topics. He has also been editor and community manager for numerous industry-targeted websites, as well as author of a developing series of novels set in medieval Spain.