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Achieving Success with a Small Team

by | Feb 23, 2024 | Essential, Inside the Lab Industry-lir, Lab Industry Advisor

These seven strategies can help your small laboratory team overcome challenges to not only succeed, but also thrive.

Small teams can be very powerful. Team members are often quite close to each other, considering themselves a family. But, small teams can also present efficiency challenges when one or two team members are out, and such teams can sometimes become overwhelmed with large workloads. Here are some approaches to help small teams not only succeed, but also thrive:

1. Cross-train

Cross training is critical for small teams. Ensuring all members of the team can successfully perform the critical duties of all team members allows small teams to continue to function successfully when staff are out sick or on vacation. This also ensures staff can take the time off they need to recuperate and avoid burnout in a setting where, otherwise, individual team members might be performing activities that only they know how to do.

2. Allow each member of the team to be experts

Allowing team members to take the lead with projects and/or techniques that they are good at and act as the team expert for these projects can be very powerful. First, when a small team has limited leadership, and the team leader is away, team members leading their own projects, with their own expertise, will be able to continue to function successfully. Secondly, this approach can take some duties off the team leader’s plate, helping leadership balance their own workload in an environment where there might not be any leadership back-up. Finally, this approach allows team members to feel important and valued, which can lead to a lower turnover rate. Retaining team members on a small team is important as there may not be enough coverage if a team member leaves, and the team may have limited capacity to train new staff.

3. Cultivate a positive and friendly work culture

This is important for small teams as having a cordial work environment will allow team members to ask each other for help when they feel overwhelmed with their workload or will be out. When the culture of the team is friendly, people will be happy to help each other. One way to encourage this kind of work culture is to plan some activities outside of the lab. This can be as simple as team lunches or drinks after work, or more complex such as rewarding the team on occasion by taking an afternoon off for team-building activities such as going to a movie, escape room, ziplining, etc. Anything the team is interested in doing together is fine, if they are doing it together.

4. Lab leadership should step in as needed to help

If there is a time when the team’s workload is going to significantly increase temporarily, leadership should be prepared to step in and help out if the team is too small to absorb that increase. Having leadership help the team when needed will also go a long way in cultivating the friendly and helpful environment that can be so valuable for a small team’s success. Leaders must also help their team by protecting it. Shielding the small team from tasks that are not related to their work, but could pile up and become overwhelming is critical.

5. Collaborate with other teams

Collaborating with other teams is a great way for small teams to achieve success by increasing access to equipment and techniques. Members of other teams may be able to provide training on equipment and techniques as well as allow access to expensive equipment that would be prohibitive for the small team to buy themselves.

6. Leverage institutional teams

Leveraging the skills of institutional support teams, such as facilities, environmental, health & safety (EH&S), and purchasing, is a great way to relieve staff of some of these duties and allow them to focus on their work. Sometimes small teams can be overwhelmed by managing administrative duties such as purchasing and following up on delayed deliveries, returns, etc. Working with your institutional purchasing team can help take some of these duties from the lab team, allowing them more time to focus on their work. Purchasing can often assist with issues such as missing deliveries, incorrect deliveries, and returns. Checking with the purchasing team at your institution is important to see how they can assist. The same goes for facilities issues. Let the facilities team take on small issues like burned out light bulbs, cabinet doors that need tightening, etc., instead of staff doing these things themselves. EH&S can help to train new staff on the use of safety equipment and train them to understand the rules and regulations associated with their work. Consider creative ways that institutional support teams can assist to help alleviate workloads, so the small team can focus on their work.

7. Consider hiring a person shared amongst multiple small teams to perform management and administrative duties

This model, which can be very successful, involves a group of small teams coming together to hire one administrative person to perform administrative duties for the entire group. Each team by itself would be too small to justify the expense of hiring, for instance, a lab manager, so instead, multiple small labs come together to hire someone who can be a lab manager for them all. This person would know the field well and could assist with everything from getting light bulbs changed, to safety training of new staff, training staff on new and existing equipment, placing and following up on orders and returns, scheduling meetings, managing timecards and staff time off, arranging for equipment and furniture repair and maintenance, managing regulatory protocols and applications, safety inspections, etc. This is a great way for a team to hire a manager without having to pay for the manager’s entire salary, knowing they don’t have the capacity to keep a full-time manager busy.

Though small teams face many challenges, following a few, or all, of the key strategies outlined above can help them overcome obstacles and be successful. In fact, when properly supported, small teams can be more focused than their larger counterparts, and they often create close relationships with their teammates, allowing them to be very productive.

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