HANOVER, NH –When the COVID-19 pandemic started in the early months of 2020, the entire nation had to make decisions about how they would continue to operate. The Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) shifted from a primarily in-laboratory work force to a nearly exclusively teleworking status.
This shift required new styles of work. In the middle of the maximum telework period, which was during Spring 2021, CRREL stood up a team, the Communication and Accountability Group, to help discover ways to optimize employee intercommunication. From that group came the idea for a virtual communication tool, which they named the “CRREL Exchange.”
The CRREL Exchange is a laboratory-wide team that utilizes a computer-based communication platform upon which CRREL employees can connect, collaborate, and find information. The platform is organized into channels covering a variety of topics, such as social engagement, which includes casual conversations, meet and greets, and social events, information about professional opportunities and information. There are also channels for Q&A, equipment and facilities, conferences and seminars, and announcements.
“The CRREL Exchange development was a team effort,” said Research Physical Scientist Julie Parno. “The CRREL Exchange in its current state is the result of many discussions and iterations over channel topics and structure.”
The CRREL Exchange is open and accessible to everyone at CRREL. Anyone can post and reply to posts in real time. Parno believes this will remove some of the barriers of socializing virtually and make it easy to reach out to everyone in the laboratory with questions or opportunities.
“Before the creation of the CRREL Exchange, our laboratory didn't have a centralized information hub that was completely accessible to everyone at CRREL,” said Dr. Ross Alter, a CRREL research meteorologist. “The CRREL Exchange not only fills the gap, but it also provides a means of intra-laboratory collaboration that wasn’t previously possible, since CRREL staff can now interact with each other using one central medium.”
Back in 2020, the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory developed a laboratory-wide online group called the ARL Café. It served as a model for another ERDC laboratory, the Geospatial Research Laboratory, which created a similar group called the GRL Café. Alter says the CRREL group borrowed many concepts from both the ARL Café and GRL Café to create a platform that they believe is uniquely suited to CRREL’s mission and employee needs.
“For public information, search engines have greatly improved information access, but they cannot provide search results from Common Access Card-protected websites,” said Dr. Matthew Kamrath, a CRREL research physical scientist. “The CRREL Exchange attempts to contain the most frequently used information and point to the sources of the remaining information. The search engine revolutionized information access and increased the productivity of the entire world. The CRREL Exchange is a first step in the same direction.”
“A lot of information at CRREL has historically been shared through word-of-mouth, meaning that in order to figure out how to do a certain process or to find the answer to a question, staff often need to ask around until the correct point of contact is determined,” said Parno. “We hope to make it efficient and easy to find information, removing some of the stress and time involved in finding an answer.”
Parno also said that the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more difficult to connect with others in the laboratory. The hope is that the CRREL Exchange will increase communication and collaboration and help to build a greater sense of community.
Alter, Parno, and Kamrath were all instrumental in the development of the CRREL Exchange, but they say it was an effort that could not have been accomplished without the help from other ERDC laboratories, CRREL leadership, or the input from many people within CRREL. They think the CRREL Exchange can serve as a template for other laboratories in the ERDC and possibly serve as a model for successful online-based information solutions outside the ERDC.
“In my opinion, one of the best features of the CRREL Exchange is its ability to democratize information sharing; anyone can post, react to a post, share files, schedule meetings, and find the information they’re looking for,” said Alter. “In that regard, we hope that it serves as a revamped way for organizations to structure their communications that complements other existing methods.”
The long-term vision for the CRREL Exchange is a well-connected workforce that has immediate access to the information they need to solve the problems impacting our warfighters, ultimately allowing CRREL to better fulfill its mission.