Field Team Leadership: Strategies for Successful Field Work

Tips for a Field Team Leader or Field Team Participant
by Erin Pettit

Generally scientists or field team leaders are not trained in management and leadership of a field team. If you have had a bad experience as a participant on a field team, please consider that it is very likely due to poor field team management and not your weakness or dislike of field work.

For women, poor field team leadership may be exacerbated by the problem that some male scientists have no idea how to deal with "women's issues" and so they just ignore them - thus leaving us on our own to deal with personal issues in field work (which is not so easy in many cases).

Similarly, anyone who grew up in a different culture with respect to outdoor activities (e.g. grew up in a big city or just didn't go camping with their families) are at a disadvantage if the field team leader assumes they already know the "culture" of field camps.

The field team leader has the responsibility to make sure everyone at the camp feels included and like they are contributing in a meaningful say.

Through many field experiences as participant and as leader, I have learned a few things that seem critical for great field work success - mostly it boils down to this: "Happy, comfortable, safe people make for great scientific results".

Anyone that is cold, hungry, dehydrated, feeling unsafe, uncomfortable, or unappreciated will stop paying attention to detail, take poor notes, mess up an instrument installation, they just won't care about doing good quality field work.

Tips for a field team leader

Below is a list of what I do as a field team leader to achieve the happy, comfortable, and safe field team - even if you aren't leading your own field team, it is good to observe and learn what you think makes a team successful. Learn from your own field experiences...

1. Choose your team with the goal of inclusion. Many students may not be able to work for free, so they will not come if that is all you offer. Instead, pay everyone a fair wage. In addition to being more inclusive of all students or early career scientists, they will work harder because they feel appreciated. Also, seek out students who are hesitant to apply because they are afraid they don't have enough "outdoor skills" because they grew up in the city or have never been camping. Don't limit your field team to those who were lucky enough to be involved in Boy Scouts, for example. Create the opportunity for them; this is especially important for increasing the number of women and people of color in field science.

2. Discuss expectations ahead of time (this means discussing everything listed below ahead of time) - DO NOT expect your team to know what you are thinking - they might be brilliant scientists, but they are not mind readers. Communication is of utmost importance! Even for a new person on your team, try to minimize surprises for them.

3. Include your team members in field preparations. They will have a better understanding and feel "ownership" of the field work as a whole if they are involved in the planning. This also allows "newbies" to learn new skills and feel included. Be specific in that planning, such as, provide you team with a list of clothing and equipment they will need, even if you think it is obvious, they may not.

3. Make everyone feel like they are important contributors. I do this by making sure everyone (even undergraduates) take a leadership role in the project. Undergrads get a small bit to bite off and chew - and I give them guidance, but also space and respect to show their leadership skills. They might make little mistakes, but under good guidance, they do really well. This again helps all field team members feel "ownership" of the field work. Make sure everyone knows each others leadership roles. For example, in addition to telling the whole group that undergrad A is in charge of data collection A, and grad student B is in charge of data collection B, also make sure they know who to go to if they are having a medical issue, and who is in charge of the food organizing. Don't be afraid to delegate both science and camp duties - and show respect and appreciation for your teams efforts.

4. Give everyone a safe space to speak up. This can be an open discussion/reminder of safety issues on the first day. Go over important safety issues, include a discussion of work ethic, communication, and set the expectations for intolerance of microaggressions or sexual harassment. As a field team leader, you set the tone and culture of the field team. Set the right tone right from the start.

5. Daily meetings. We always have a daily meeting, either morning or night, to go over the successes and challenges of the day and to discuss the next day's work. This is important because of #3. At these meetings everyone has a chance to explain what they've been doing and get help or advice from the rest of the team. This helps build good team bonding too - any time a problem or issue comes up with data collection, the whole team can contribute to problem solving.

6. Ask for input from your team for all decisions. Yes, again, this helps all field team members feel "ownership" of the field work! If there are decisions that affect the entire team, ask for their input. This makes the whole team feel like they are respected and their input is valued. This even applies to deciding how to run camp (such as #5 below). If someone on your team has a better method for dividing up camp duties, then take their advice!

7. Share all camp responsibilities. "Ownership" of the field work - Yes, I'm repeating myself. Everyone takes a turn at cooking, cleaning, getting water, making sure camp is closed up if you leave it for the day, even keeping a camp journal if you want. Usually, I divide up what needs to be done equally - so 7 people at camp, we have 7 responsibilities that we rotate around. This ensures that everyone feels like everyone else is contributing equally. I also encouraged to ask for help if one person's responsibility is particularly big for one day. Sometimes people are afraid to cook because they aren't good cooks. The way around that is to have a Cook and an Assistant Cook in the list of responsibilities. The two can work together and learn from each other. Alternatively, that person just has to ask for help on the day that he or she is assigned to cook.

8. Personal time is important. Especially if you are out for an extended time. Everyone has somewhat different needs in terms of personal time versus hanging out with the group. If each person is contributing in terms of #3 and #6 above, then no one will mind when one person chooses to spend an evening in their tent reading if they need it. In some cases, finding person space to have your personal time is difficult. This is where it is important to encourage your field team to respect each others needs. That said - if anyone starts to show signs of not being happy, talk to them (or ask someone else to talk to them). Communication!

9. Allow for Rest days - kind of goes along with personal time. If you are in the field for multiple weeks, make sure you give everyone some rest. I usually try to arrange either two half days or a full day off each week. Sometime there are enough weather days that you don't need to formally take a day off - but they don't always come when you need them. Well rested and happy field team members are much more productive. There are of course always times when a schedule is tight due to a plane arriving to pick you up, but if you have kept your field team happy in every other way, they will be happy to pull an all-nighter when necessary. If you exhaust them before the cram time, they will be disgruntled when you ask them to work all night. Happy field team members can get an amazing amount of work done in a short period of time.

10. Discuss Medical/Bodily functions ahead of time. If you have a newbie woman on your field team, discuss ahead of time these issues (or if you are a man, recommend she talk to a specific woman who can help her with some tips), and make sure she is comfortable asking for privacy when she needs it. Respect for everyone's bodily functions is of utmost importance. When everyone is comfortable, it can become a source of great humor - but don't force the humor onto someone who is not yet comfortable in the field. If there isn't a place to pee in private - discuss this with the whole team and emphasize the need for respect of the person
who needs to pee!

11. Give each person the ability to eat, drink, and stay warm/cool during the field work. Whether your
field work is hot or cold, it is critical that each person knows how to keep themselves comfortable, well fed, and well hydrated. I usually discuss this ahead of time and make sure people know that they don't have to be "heroes" by finishing up that equipment installation with the risk of frost bite on their hands. Taking 5 or 10 minutes to get warm and eat something is not slacking. Take breaks when you need them and allow your field team members to do the same! Make sure everyone knows where to get food, go pee, get warm before you even start, so they can be in charge of their own comfort.

12. Safety, safety, safety! Everyone should be aware of the safety issues in the area. Discuss what activities are safe and what are not. Also, discuss what should be done in case of an emergency. Always work in pairs and communicate via radio with other people on the field team. Set up daily check-ins with someone back at the university or a nearby field station. I always have at least one person on the team who is a Wilderness First Responder sometimes two, and they are the go-to person for medical or safety issues (see #3 above). If there is a specific safety issue - such as crevasses on the glacier - then of course make sure everyone has the proper training before heading out. Having a respected designated safety person is important because otherwise group-think can result in accidents in the field.

13. Have fun - laughter while you work, relaxing evenings, getting to know the people on your field team. Group dynamics is very important! The field team lead needs to be a good role model for this.

Tips for a field team participant:

The challenge, of course is when you join a team that does not have a good leader and you see things going wrong that will make the experience not great for everyone. I find this situation difficult, but I have now learned to try to act earlier in the process - before leaving for the field - and offer to help with some of the group dynamics aspects of the field team. I will ask the leader ahead of time what the plan is for dividing up camp duties. If they don't have a plan, I suggest one and usually the leader is receptive, as that is one less thing they have to think about during preparations.

As a team member, always look around to see what needs to be done, ask what you can do to help. If you don't know how to do something, then ask.

As a team member, always respect the space of other team members. You might be in close quarters for extended lengths of time, be considerate of other team members needs. (for example, if your cabin-mate on a research cruise needs a few hours to herself, the give her the cabin for the evening and decide on a time that you'll need to come back to sleep).