How should my research group prepare?

Editor’s Note: These guidelines were developed prior to University of Nebraska President Ted Carter’s announcement that remote work would begin March 23.

Take precautions: Employees who are experiencing symptoms such as coughing, fever or difficulty breathing should stay home. View UNL’s leave policies. Limit physical contact with others, including shaking hands and sharing food. Wash hands thoroughly and frequently.

Identify emergency personnel: To ensure research is able to continue, identify key personnel and potential backups in the event employees become ill and/or the impact of COVID-19 interrupts campus operations. Emergency personnel will need to carry out specified duties. In the context of research, mission-critical positions include those necessary to support or maintain:

  • Research animals, specimens or equipment.
  • Human health, welfare and/or safety.
  • Information technology services or security.
  • Building or property security, safety and integrity.
  • Critical infrastructure.
  • Critical business, contractual or legal obligations including employee payroll.

Open the lines of communication: Identify a point of contact for your research group who can disseminate information as needed, on a timely basis.

Follow laboratory guidelines: The Office of Research and Economic Development has developed a research continuity planning document (updated 3/16/20) to assist research groups and laboratories with identifying essential equipment and supplies or vendors. Make sure this information is available to key personnel.

Plan for researchers’ time: Principal investigators and research group leads should discuss approaches now, in the event that personnel are unable to come to work. Such planning will make future decisions straightforward and minimize disruption to research activities.

Set up remote access: Update your research group’s plans to work remotely when feasible. UNL policy allows staff to work at home or off-site. This is a good time to ensure employees have set up access to the university’s virtual private network, or VPN, to log onto University of Nebraska networks. UNL encourages employees to use Zoom, a cloud-based service, for virtual meetings. Supervisors are encouraged to be flexible during this time. Depending on employees’ ability to work remotely, supervisors are urged to identify projects and tasks that can be completed off-site. Visit the Human Resources website for complete information on alternative work sites.

Prioritize workloads: Depending on the nature of your research, consider prioritizing work that can only be carried out in your research facility. Consider postponing work that is feasible to complete remotely, such as data analysis. Prioritize gathering results and data now that could be analyzed from a remote location in the future. This also would offer flexibility for your research teams.

Save samples along the way: If you are carrying out a long-term experiment and it’s feasible to freeze samples at specific steps, consider doing this more frequently.

Continue to heed proposal deadlines: The Office of Sponsored Programs will be able to continue submitting proposals even if employees are working remotely. Typically, federal agencies are flexible about deadlines under difficult circumstances beyond anyone’s control. However, if agencies are officially closed, proposals will likely remain in a queue, pending resumption of agency operations. This has been the case during budget-related shutdowns. Information will be posted here and on the OSP website. General questions may be directed to unlosp@unl.edu.

Keeping labs and research sites in operation while making sure staff are safe: While research labs remain open, we must ensure we’re supporting and protecting our faculty, staff, students and postdoctoral students who manage/work in our research laboratories and research workspaces. If you haven’t already, please work with your research teams to discuss how you can promote social distancing and slow COVID-19’s transmission while still getting your important work done.

Some suggestions:

  • Consider schedules that would allow people to work in shifts or on alternate days to accomplish necessary research tasks while reducing density in your research workspace.
  • Allow individuals who must share research workspace to arrange personal interactions so they can maintain a comfortable, six-foot distance from each other. If they have to be in the research space at the same time, perhaps they can separate themselves in some way and keep total laboratory or workspace time and density to a minimum.
  • If it’s possible, allow staff to work from home on a rotating schedule, following established university guidelines. We know this will be disruptive, but we want to ensure personnel remain safe and healthy.
  • Postpone elective activities or experiments that are not time-sensitive.
  • Develop a research continuity of operations plan by March 20. In this plan, consider how your groups’ work could be slowed for the coming weeks, so you’re prepared for a reduction in operations. Consider, too, what steps you would need to take if your work had to be placed on hold with short notice.

 (This material was adapted from the University of Michigan.)