IRB Advisor: As an IRB leader, how have you helped your members and staff cope with the uncertainty and stress they have experienced because of the pandemic?
Rogers: For IRB staff, strangely, I think seeing everyone in their home on weekly videoconferences while sharing the experience of quarantine has fostered a bit of a bond and has allowed people to get to know their co-workers in a way that might not have happened otherwise. Interoffice communication through an end-of-the day debrief email has been so helpful. While probably not necessary as a daily thing long term, I think it has kept everyone on the same page and made everyone to feel that important information is being shared in a timely and consistent manner.
Newlin: A team member had the idea of meeting each morning at 9:30 for a Zoom group huddle. We usually spend 15-30 minutes talking about issues facing the office, or the pandemic generally — who has been able to get groceries delivered, from where, etc. Just seeing everyone and meeting more often has been an important way to keep some sense of normalcy.
Reuter: We have found that IRB members and staff willingly intensified their efforts in response to the increased workload. The volume of requests related to COVID-19 research and emergency use requests picked up rapidly, and we found that IRB members were ready and willing to respond to our requests for emergency IRB meetings and rapid reviews. IRB staff worked together with other BRANY departments to triage and process submissions. In particular, our New York clients were under extreme stress, and these institutions were given a high priority as we managed the work. At the same time, guidance was developed for sites that were grappling with how to submit for approval of changes for their ongoing non-COVID clinical trials.
Smith: As for leadership, we’re using this time to work on projects that we had put off as secondary, since our primary workload has dropped. It helps keep them — and me — sane, but these have no deadlines that push things. I’ve had to lay off pushing progress to avoid stressing them out, but that’s my nature.
Anding: With IRB members, our main goal has been to communicate with them frequently about meeting scheduling, attendance, and moving to a completely virtual meeting platform. We’ve been flexible from the start with IRB member schedules, knowing that members who have clinical practices likely have fluctuating schedules during this time. In addition, we reached out to IRB chairs and a few select members early on in the outbreak to ask if they could be available to assist with additional expedited reviews for studies that were moving to remote study visits only. Our office’s administrative team quickly became familiar with our virtual meeting platform and created several user guides for IRB members and administrators. We increased the number of administrative staff who attend the meetings so we could efficiently and effectively monitor attendance and quorum needs in the virtual meeting platform. In addition, we drafted a virtual meeting etiquette expectations for IRB members, so they’d know in advance what was expected at IRB meetings (e.g., muting when not talking, announcing when they arrived or needed to leave the meeting). We also remind members of the etiquette expectations at the beginning of each meeting.
Doksum: Our company leaders and human resources have been proactive in helping staff cope with uncertainty and stress. We have played an important role in helping researchers cope by anticipating their information and training needs. For example, we convened an expert panel presentation about virtual data collection options for focus groups and interviews to help researchers quickly switch from face-to-face to virtual.
Williams: The most significant contribution I can make to researchers and faculty members on the IRB is to be conscious of conflicting responsibilities and thoughtful about expectations, schedules, workload, and meetings. Subcommittee work was, for the most part, shifted to the fall. Committee members were given the option to attend meetings as their schedules allowed.
Rigtrup: The stress and uncertainty our staff have experienced during this time has been profound and of particular concern to our management team. Before social distancing protocols were initiated, we were as transparent as possible, and made sure our staff was aware of every bit of evolving information we could share with them. We assured them their leadership were following events closely and that preparations were underway to ensure their work lives could continue no matter what happened.
After the staff transitioned on March 16 to working remotely, we started an instant messaging channel for each of our teams so they could ask questions, discuss issues, and get answers from their managers quickly. We also started a “water cooler” channel where the entire staff could post fun, informal messages like memes, photos of their pets and children, personal issues and questions, and uplifting messages, and we encouraged participation in virtual socialization. We increased the frequency of our staff meetings to help ground everyone at least once per week, and help the group feel connected to their co-workers.
Moore: We are fortunate to have a mature, veteran staff. Although none of us have experienced a pandemic before, the staff and board members easily and professionally transitioned to a work-from-home environment. We have a daily call to address any unusual or controversial situations, and save a little time to decompress if needed.
Cholka: The primary way that I have been assisting members and staff is to increase the frequency of check-ins to reduce feelings of isolation. There also has been a process to manage expectations so that members and staff know we are doing our best during these unusual times, even if we feel less productive than usual. The positive result of these check-ins is an increased sense of collaboration on issues that we typically would not have collaborated on. I hope that this collaboration will continue as we return to normal operations.