Enabling environments support the development of diverse teams

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For the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to work with enabling technologies that free scientists to do more with their time. This role with the robots suits my preferred working style exactly. I love the combination of an extreme fast pace, working on 10 different chemistries at once, and the opportunities to constantly interact with an international web of colleagues from different walks of life.

A great working environment has the same effects on scientists as the enabling robotics do on the research and development work. Opinions on what constitutes an enabling environment represent every extreme of personality type, but diversity typically signifies a favourable one. I benefit from discussing plans with colleagues as we try to develop the strongest possible final product, and there’s little point in bouncing ideas off further clones of myself. The best projects appear to come from collaboration between those with completely different backgrounds and ways of working. This brings up an obvious issue: is ensuring a strong and supportive environment for every member of a diverse team the same as trying to please all of the people all of the time?

One of my strongest mentors, a senior leader, told me that the most important part of his job is ensuring his people mesh well together. To facilitate this, companies harness psychometric tests designed by psychologists. These tests allow fast insight into team members’ personality styles and preferences, with a ‘no wrong answers’ approach. Even some academic departments now use them to provide students with career guidance. The tests are not like the computer-based careers test I had to take in high school, which suggested I become either a music therapist or an electrician, and had my extremely shy friend dissolve into tears of laughter by suggesting she might develop into a diplomat. Instead, depending on the test you take, you’ll likely get a series of insights into yourself and your approach to life, and – if your company’s put in the big bucks – a longer list of actionable proposals to make the most out of your own mind. But these proposals are useless if your workplace doesn’t enable your development.

 In a truly diverse team within chemistry, colleagues seek me out for work more suited to my specialism than their own

The enabling workplace (or lack of it) is one of the most talked about issues between chemists off the job. The two most common themes I hear discussed are the interlinked concepts of intellectual freedom and a support network. As a student, I heard the myth that an industrial job allows no freedom over how you work. I’ve found the opposite to be true. I’ve never had more freedom than when I’ve had a lab full of my equipment, with requests for wildly different chemistries coming in from every angle. In a truly diverse team within chemistry, colleagues seek me out for work more suited to my specialism than their own. This gives me much more joy than if they outsourced a well-defined subproject to me that they already know how to do. Hopefully there’s a similar sense of pride across the team when they’re needed for what they do best.

I’m not advocating that everybody move to a hands-off approach, though – far from it. Naturally, different people prefer different amounts of structure, and this preference also varies across career stages. And while my latest psychometric test results claim I work best without micromanagement, that means nothing without amazing colleagues and a high level of trust. This is where the support network comes in. Being left to flounder without any help is the opposite of enabling! Likewise, a lack of comrades with shared experiences or identities can be isolating, and an equal measure of infuriating when you are then treated differently to what would ordinarily be expected. A chemist with any reason to feel like an outsider can’t do their best work. As a result, everybody loses out.

The well-oiled machine is real, but there is no Maxwell’s demon

Getting the best out of someone isn’t about pushing them till they drop – it’s about having a happy and healthy team with high concentration, motivation and a drive to help others towards both cohesive and individual end goals. The well-oiled machine is real, but there is no Maxwell’s demon. The greatest results from a team require tailored effort so every individual can be constrained only by the limits of their own minds. It does mean that if you’re a leader, you have to let go of control. But with so much to gain, why wouldn’t you?

Having said all this, I thought I’d look up my shy schoolfriend online. Not quite a diplomat, but she is now a hardworking local councillor. Now I think about it, I’m no electrician but I do spend a lot of time fixing and tinkering with instruments like my robots and LC-MS. Maybe there’s more to those tests than I knew.