Ms Samantha Ludolf , Chief Operating Officer, and Professor Doug Hilton, Director Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research write:
New digital technologies and platforms are emerging every year. These present many opportunities to improve productivity and communication in the workplace, yet many employers struggle to upgrade IT policies to keep pace with technological advances.
We recently attended a forum that presented the many benefits of investing in a mobile, creative and connected workplace. The event highlighted Deloitte Access Economics’ 2013 report, The Connected Workplace , commissioned by Google. The report focused on private sector businesses, and it has been exciting to contemplate how medical research organisations such as ours can best incorporate new digital technologies to improve our researchers’ opportunities and outcomes.
The essence of the forum was about creating an IT environment that is accessible, everywhere by everyone, giving people freedom in how they work. Conceptually this is wonderful for any industry. The challenge is to balance this with good governance and risk management.
Winning the ‘war for talent’
A key finding of the study was the importance of workplace IT policies for employee satisfaction and retention. At a time when competition for skilled employees is increasing, employers must keep pace with staff requirements for IT tools and policies. Tellingly, across a range of businesses, employees who are dissatisfied with their workplace’s IT policies are more likely to plan to change jobs than those who feel their workplace meets their IT requirements. This applies as much in the medical research sector as other areas. Our employees are well informed about what technology is available, and we must encourage open dialogue about how new digital technology can improve our workplace.
Research organisations such as ours need to aim for IT policies that are nimble and adapt to our researchers’ needs. These could relate directly to research outcomes – such as the storage of very large data files – or may enable our researchers to access and share files beyond the institute. Much of the institute’s research is highly collaborative, with projects often spanning several organisations. Sharing digital information easily and securely is critical for doing the best research possible.
We are also well aware aware that, when possible, giving our staff the option to work from home can improve an individual’s work-life balance. Guidelines for working from home are an important part of our institute’s family-friendly policies. While we want to be flexible about how our researchers work, our working from home policies also have to maintain the requisite considerations of research integrity and data security. We also need to ensure researchers working from home do not miss out on contact and collaboration with their colleagues, which often create new research opportunities and advances.
Collaboration, productivity and innovation
The Deloitte study also focused on the potential of using digital technologies, in particular social media, as a communication and engagement tool in the workplace. Online communication is increasingly important to reach our employees who are working outside the workplace – those who work from home as well as those attending conferences or conducting research away from the institute. Some of our staff also work within the institute building, but are separated from their colleagues by physical boundaries, such as barriers designed to prevent the spread of infectious agents. Our challenge is to ensure that our communications can be accessed by, and engage, all employees, without being cumbersome or introducing security or privacy risks.
Our institute is also using social media to improve how we communicate our research to the community. Our Facebook and Twitter accounts provide new opportunities for our researchers to connect with a diverse worldwide audience. This includes people living with disease, patient support groups, funding bodies, and people with a general interest in science, as well as other researchers. It is genuinely motivating for our scientists to hear how their research has benefitted people, and we are delighted by the messages of support we receive through social media.
Communicating our research widely is not just a passing trend, but an obligation for our institute. Our researchers depend on funding from the community, either from philanthropy or from taxpayers, via federal and state government research support. Therefore it is imperative that we keep the community informed about the progress of our research, and social media is one important element of this.
Keeping pace with digital trends
Improvements in digital technology are also changing the way scientists can do medical research. Research progress, particularly in clinical studies conducted outside our institute’s labs, can be accelerated by giving researchers the freedom to apply new technologies to their research.
For example, the rapid uptake of mobile phones in the developing world presents many new opportunities. Our researchers are considering how web-based and mobile-based apps could improve malaria surveillance in remote areas of Papua New Guinea and the Pacific, and whether text messaging can be used to improve treatment compliance for people with malaria and tuberculosis. In the future, the development of more portable research technologies, such as mobile phone add-on microscopes coupled with better image recognition software, open new horizons for conducting medical research outside the lab.
We have no doubt that our researchers will continue to find opportunities for how their research can be improved with new digital technologies. Into the future it is our challenge to ensure that our use of technology is optimised, and that our organisation’s IT policies can keep pace with our researchers’ requirements.