Aoife Brennan

Coming Together While Staying Apart

Posted March 23rd, 2020 by Aoife Brennan, in From The Trenches, Leadership


This blog was written by Aoife Brennan, CEO of Synlogic, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.

I have never participated in trench warfare and I am sure it was pretty grim for those who lived and suffered through it. I have spent plenty of time however ‘in the trenches’ in biotech. Just like the stories of war, I have made it through the tough times because of the comradery of colleagues who are right there beside me, covered in mud and blood, fighting. We tend to find the presence of others comforting so one of the most difficult things about the current COVID-19 pandemic is that we need to deal with it while being physically separated from our team.

Like many small biotechs, at Synlogic we value informal team interactions as an important part of our culture. Our weekly team breakfast is called a commensal meeting- a reference to our science as a bacteria-based company and also the latin derivation of the word com- sharing; mensa-a table.   We use the meeting to introduce new colleagues, share updates and discuss science. Our commensal meeting and other team activities are also an important opportunity for us to get to know each other a little more, to share personal struggles and to celebrate successes.

That all ended recently with the dawning realization that we needed to practice physical distancing to help minimize the rate of increase in cases of COVID-19 in our local area. Evidence of community spread in the Boston area was a big wake up call. At the end of February, we had issued advice on hand-washing, staying home while sick and canceling work travel but, like many others, realized that these measures would not be enough. Our last team event was on Wednesday 11th of March. Thereafter, we needed to cancel in-person team meetings, work remotely and severely limit interactions for laboratory staff.

So how do we individually think about being good commensal organisms in the era of COVID-19? How do we maintain our team culture while taking care of everyone’s health and contributing to the collective effort to limit the impact of the virus? How do we continue to run the business and take consideration of everyone’s unique needs? Finally, how do we help others as a good commensal organization? We are still learning how to adjust and the only thing we know for now about our plan is that it will definitely change as time goes on and we learn more. Today, I wanted to share some of our learnings following our first week as a largely virtual company.

  1. A lot can be performed virtually– probably more than we realized pre COVID-19. We have performed a virtual investor conference complete with Q&A (thank you Chardan for leading the way here); a virtual advisory board meeting (thank you advisors for being 100% engaged throughout); a virtual all company meeting (thank you kids and dogs for saying hi) and even a virtual site initiation visit (thank you UPMC and IQVIA for making it happen).
  2. Physical distancing does not have to mean social distancing but you do need to plan a bit more. We have lots of modalities at our disposal, just not the opportunity to bump into someone in the break room. We need to schedule and then create space for informal interaction at team meetings and consciously work on ways that people who do not work in the same project or function can interact. One of our earliest and most active new Slack channels is ‘#kids at home’ where parents can share activity ideas and pictures of art projects. We are looking into hangouts and other technology enablers. We are bringing in some social competition (did someone say Great Synlogic Bakeoff??) I think that after a week, we have gotten everyone OK with using a camera as well as audio for 1:1s and group meetings. I am hoping that learnings during this incredibly difficult time will pay off in the future. We will get more comfortable with hiring staff from different parts of the globe and be able to apply our COVID lessons to collaborate more effectively when not everyone is in the same space at the same time.
  3. We are fully utilizing our IT tools. Most of these were tools that we already had available pre COVID-19 but were not really fully utilized because there was no impetus to overcome the activation energy and learn. In the first week in March, we started to offer training ‘just in case’ and to test the robustness of our systems to handle more volume. Following our March 11th meeting, volume of emails, Slack messages and individuals accessing our servers from remote locations increased dramatically. 
  4. It takes a little time to establish a work from home routine but there are ways to help. The current pandemic is a particularly challenging time to start a new work from home routine. Kids and partners around the house can make it difficult to take a video-call or to find a quiet corner to work. For those who do not have the set up to do so, we have been trying to help in any way we can. We also realized that it helps if trust has been established in a relationship or team, if not, those are the first areas to show cracks. Clear work planning, setting detailed expectations around deliverables (versus hours worked), communication when things are off track, as well as being flexible on scheduling of collaborative meetings are critical. We have provided equipment and training as well as creating forums where team-members can share tips and tricks.

While it is early days in very unsettling times of unknown duration, I am positive that as an organization, we have the potential to build resilience and learn new skills that will set us up well for the future. The fantastic Synlogic team are certainly rising to the occasion. It will be some time before we all share a table but we are working well at coming together while staying apart. Just like my grandfather’s stories of war, my memories of these days will inevitably be a mix of sorrow for those lost but also respect for those who served with me in the trenches.

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