Are you available to your team?

When your group grows, two trends make being available to the team more difficult: you are more often gone from the lab, and an increasing number of team members multiplies the requests for your time. It can be difficult to find the balance between making yourself available, following your calendar, and getting your own stuff done.


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book
[about] [read more]

I recently interviewed candidates for a Postdoc position in my lab. One of the questions I ask is what the candidate expects of me as a supervisor. To my surprise, two candidates replied that they would like to get a response to email within 3 to 5 days. One of the candidates paused, looked out the window, and then carefully said: “Yes, that would be nice.”

Why it’s important to be responsive to your team

Advancing a science career not only brings with it a team that works for you. At the same time, we are more and more absent from the lab, sitting in administrative meetings, giving talks, visiting conferences, or finding some quiet to write.

As the head of my team, I hope that my team members will make the right decisions when I am not there. Yet, from the day to day experience in the lab, I know that there are often situations in which a PhD or Postdoc would ask my opinion if I were available. On the one hand, it’s nice if they don’t, and leave me to concentrate on the stuff I’m doing. On the other hand, it’s hard to know when it would actually be critical that I make a decision myself, and detrimental if the team member decided not to ask, fearing to disrupt my work.

First and foremost, not responding to a team member’s inquiry communicates that your priorities are elsewhere. People quickly feel disrespected, whether this is what you intend or not. Beyond that, holding off responses for several days can delay important work of the team, make you miss opportunities, or force your team members to make potentially disadvantageous, if not right-out wrong, decisions.

Some tools you can implement to help you being available

Even if availability appears unproblematic in your group right now, it could prove helpful to install some tools before your schedule becomes unexpectedly busy. Here are some ideas.

  • Regular meetings hold off ad-hoc disruptions. Many things don’t need to be solved at once; but they also can’t wait several weeks. Similarly, many potential questions are foreseeable. If you schedule short weekly meetings, or have open time slots that can be booked by your team, then you’ll have less interruptions during other times.
  • Make your cell phone number known. If you are regularly gone from the lab, give people the possibility to call you. If you don’t like to be called, you can ask to be notified by SMS when you are needed. This gives you the possibility to respond when you have time. If you won’t be reachable or don’t want to be called, let your team know.
  • Separate team email from other email. Email is one of the hells of today’s working world. I try to check email only twice a day, and have notifications turned off on all my devices. But when I open my Inbox, I can have a fear-inducing number of new email.
    • To prioritize your team, you can use the filter functions that most email apps provide. For instance, you can have email by your team members display in bold, or in a different color, so they pop out.
    • Organize your email notifications. Some email clients allow you to specify for which kind of email you want to be notified. For instance, Mac and iOS allow you designating your contacts as VIPs, for which you can set up separate notification rules.
    • You can set up a separate email address just for “emergencies”. Ask your team to use this email when it’s urgent. If you use this approach, consider turning on notifications for that account, and make sure you check it regularly.
    • An easier way might be to use keywords in email titles with your team. This combines well with filters. For instance, ask that urgent emails start with URGENT, and filter such emails to be displayed in a different color. To avoid spam being filtered incorrectly, you can use an additional keyword, for example your lab name’s abbreviation, e.g. MyLab URGENT. Keywords also help you scan for important email more generally. For example, it can be very helpful to always mention in the title the project the email is about.
  • Use Evernote for offline communication. My lab uses Evernote with notebooks shared by all project members. Following up on critical projects, or checking on a designated “what’s up” note in the project notebook relieves everyone from writing emails, and automatically documents the project progress.

It’s worth playing around with these different methods to find the combination that best works for you and your team. In my experience, putting these kinds of tools into place takes a bit of getting used to for everyone. Some people will tend to call too often; some not enough. Some feedback will help tuning.

What are your stuggles with availability? Have you found well-working solutions? Let us know in the comments!

Related Resources

Mashable has some helpful tips on filtering in Gmail.

Find out about how we use Evernote in the lab in my Evernote Hacks series.

I’ll write about regular meetings sometime, but until then, there’s some interesting stuff to learn in the Manager Tools Basics podcast. Look for posts about One-on-One meetings; also see their website. Warning: these guys talk a lot. Helpful. But lengthy.

Photo credit: KaylaKandzorra / Foter / CC BY


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].

Leave a comment...