Reimagining how life sciences work will be done in the next normal

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many changes in how life sciences work is done. It may be a misconception that this is the next normal.

COVID-19 has accelerated new ways of working in the life sciences industry that have been talked about for years—chief among them a shift to patient and customer centricity, digital interactions, and workforce agility. Almost overnight, R&D teams reprioritized new research, plant and network experts rallied to ensure clinical supply continuity, and go-to-market leaders shifted to enable at-home medical field force. According to data from Netskope—a provider of cloud security services—by the third week of March, around 60 percent of employees started working remotely, up from around 25 percent in the months prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. 1 Even now, after some suspended clinical trials have resumed, more than half of the interactions between the lead physician and patients are done virtually, compared with 8 percent pre-crisis.

While much uncertainty remains, the forced experiments that life sciences companies have been conducting in response to COVID-19 have paved the way for reimagining how they might operate after the crisis subsides. Manufacturers, regulators, and other healthcare stakeholders have made substantial changes to how they conduct clinical trials, manufacturing, patient engagement, and other undertakings. Looking ahead, they should consider which changes to keep and which ones to roll back.

Successful innovations in new ways of working

Since the pandemic first hit, life sciences companies have been highly responsive and agile in their practices. Many clinical operations leaders were redeployed in Phases 2 and 3 to meet COVID-19 program demands. Numerous trial innovations have been widely adopted including in-home nurse visits, telemedicine for trial visits, and digital tools for remote monitoring. Biologics plants completed tech transfers in under four weeks by doubling down on a single priority, organizing into cross-functional teams, and encouraging bold, innovative thinking without compromising on quality or safety. Medical professionals shifted to use healthcare-provider platforms to facilitate medical information transfer.

Many life sciences companies have noticed a spike in employee efficiency in office workers without long commutes and the flexibility to work when they can be most focused, even for their most senior leaders. Others are seeing the benefits of removing hierarchy and empowering frontline leaders particularly for critical product launches and return to work decisions. Other benefits of remote working have included increased organizational resilience, a larger and more dynamic talent market, lower costs, and more satisfied employees.

However, we are also seeing costs in the form of burnout, erosion of work-life boundaries, and attrition. These forced experiments should not continue unchecked. If life sciences leaders continue with business as usual without a set of guiding principles to make decisions about which new working models to adopt, they risk losing productivity, employee engagement, and valuable talent.

The need for deliberate action

COVID-19 has jolted business leaders into action, and life sciences organizations have mobilized in record time. But this mobilization has also upended well-established business norms about how and where people work. Some leaders are already seeing the strain on their employees and beginning to think about what needs to change. Others are planning for a “back to normal” if and when there is an effective vaccine.

Both need to consider the following risks of failing to take deliberate action:

  • Reduced creativity and collaboration. Working remotely, especially in cross-functional teams, makes collaboration more difficult because it takes remote teams longer to convene for decision making, makes it harder to consider diverse perspectives, and creates a lack of clarity that can result in duplication and rework.
  • Loss of connection with customers. While connecting remotely with healthcare professionals (HCPs) saves travel time and costs, it’s not as personal or, sometimes, as effective an interaction. Most companies reported lower frequency of engagement with HCPs, and the objective of the interaction was on coordinating the delivery of care versus generating interest in new products or therapies.
  • Lower productivity. Findings from recent surveys and roundtables with R&D leaders estimate productivity has fallen by between 25 and 75 percent due to remote working. 2 From our experience in working with pharma clients, we found that some companies have been able to maintain manufacturing throughput with much-reduced headcounts. One was able to maintain production with 65 percent fewer employees onsite. 3 But a third of their manufacturing employees reported that they did not think the approach was effective, indicating unsustainability, possible lower-quality outputs, or misunderstandings over the number of full-time equivalents (FTEs) needed to complete a task.
  • Compromised well-being. Employees are working longer days and feeling more isolated and anxious. In a recent workplace survey of biotech employees, respondents cited feeling disconnected whether working from home or in the lab. 4
  • Attrition of top talent. Employees are also becoming worried about the lack of visibility that remote working creates. In a recent pulse survey conducted by a diversified healthcare company, 50 percent of employees said they were concerned about their career progression in a new virtual world.
  • Risk to diversity and inclusion and business performance. When faced with a crisis, leaders often revert to relying on the core team of people they already know and trust. This disproportionately affects women and minorities because they are often not part of that group. Differences in perceptions and experiences of inclusion results in individuals or communities being disenfranchised, which can be devastating to careers and create a two-tiered culture. In a pulse survey of diversity and inclusion (D&I) leaders, 27 percent said their organizations have put all or most of their initiatives on hold because of the pandemic. These risks have significant impact on a company’s bottom line. Extensive research shows that the most diverse companies outperform their less diverse peers on profitability. And yet, as the pandemic continues to make jobs vulnerable, diverse talent is most at risk.

Taking an intentional and segmented approach to the future of work

Even without COVID-19, we’ve already seen what happens when companies aren’t deliberate in how they change their operating models. For example, when a notable high-tech firm moved to what appeared to be a hodgepodge of flexible work arrangements to attract more women to the technology field, they had to backtrack. Shortly after, they rescinded their virtual-working policies and abruptly called everyone back to the office to regain a sense of collaboration and innovation that leaders felt they had lost.

What we’ve learned from these mistakes is that having a deliberate strategy and taking a segmented approach to work, the workforce, and workplace planning is the best way to avoid the risks of moving too quickly or trying to continue business as usual. The following questions can guide that process:

  • What work may be critical for creating value in the next normal? The first step is to reassess strategic priorities in light of the current health and economic crisis and either cease, accelerate, or identify new areas for growth (such as expanding digital partnerships or presence in a key market) and productivity (such as streamlining portfolios). We see a number of areas to potentially prioritize and investigate further as part of this effort (detailed in the exhibit).
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  • How has COVID-19 potentially changed how we do this work? The next step in this segmentation process is to identify the specific activities that merit reengineering, given the degree to which the pandemic has changed the way the industry and companies have changed their approach. This process evolution can leverage a range of capabilities including lean, agile, automation, and design thinking, depending on the nature of the work and company objectives. Examples include establishing remote, analytics-enabled clinical trials at scale, resetting a more localized supply-chain model to serve demand, launching agile campaign management to be more responsive to customer needs and market changes, reimagining the customer-facing model to drive better engagement and revenue growth with improved efficiency, and redesigning the hire-to-retire talent life cycle for greater flexibility and employee experience.
  • Who should do the work? Once leaders have a clear picture of the work to be done, they should consider assessing their talent supply to determine how to best meet their needs:
    • For the next six months: Leaders should continue to assess the health of their workforces and shift healthy employees to the highest-priority work. For example, this could mean shifting medical professionals to testing activities and facilities, moving training staff to emergency response lines and call centers to help field calls from customers, or refocusing lab professionals on bolstering research efforts. During this assessment, it’s essential for leaders to be mindful of how the pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color in their workforce. Leaders should pressure test reintroduction plans with D&I experts and take care that temporary changes do not inadvertently become permanent.
    • Six to nine months from now: Leaders should reevaluate whether they need different capabilities to sustain this new work, then identify and fill those talent gaps by upskilling, reskilling, hiring, contracting, or further redeploying. The first two are preferred; recent McKinsey research suggests that employers who have initiated skilling programs are improving performance while others are likely to fall behind. In the wake of COVID-19 and driven by expectations of increasingly restricted access moving forward, a large pharma company is redeploying customer-facing teams to better address customer needs and reduce number of touchpoints, including the creation of a new “customer service” or “customer experience” role. As the crisis (and the automation it has accelerated) continues to make jobs vulnerable, it’s critical to retain top talent. When reimagining their operating models for the future, companies should be sure to maintain a D&I lens for hiring, making promotions, and placing people into new roles. And bear in mind that women and minorities who left during the crisis may need help to return.
  • Where can we potentially do this work most effectively? As the last step, consider creating work archetypes of existing teams and roles based on what work they do, and where the work can be done. Example archetypes include entirely virtual or remote teams such as shared services; hybrid teams, where the work employees do on-site fluctuates based on demand or necessity; and on-site teams, such as facilities management and lab research. After you’ve segmented the critical work to be done and your talent supply, survey your employees to determine their preferences for working remotely, in a mix, or on-site. Taking their individual needs into account and determining which norms work best for which teams will help boost employee engagement and reduce attrition.

How leaders envision and chart a path for the future will shape the organization’s performance, health, and reputation.

Shaping the next normal

Although there’s no set playbook for how life sciences organizations should operate in an uncertain future, now may be the ideal time to identify the right ways of working and the right people for your most important work. Besides answering the previously outlined questions, life sciences leaders can consider taking the following four fundamental actions to navigate the journey ahead:

  1. Align top business leaders on their aspiration for what the next normal will look like and communicate that to the rest of the organization. In these unprecedented times, how leaders envision and chart a path for the future will shape the organization’s performance, health, and reputation to internal and external stakeholders alike.
  2. Develop specific practices, policies, and norms for each work archetype (for example, remote, hybrid, on-site) to ensure it meets the needs and preferences of the groups adopting it, while maintaining an inclusive culture. Leaders should expand their perspectives on how their organizations can emerge stronger from the crisis through new ways of working.
  3. Identify and launch lighthouse examples to pilot and learn. The new model is going to be different by business unit or therapeutic area , geography, and team.
  4. Rapidly scale the new workforce plan across their organization, using change programs to support it. Most commonly, organizations invest in communications for new work practices. A range of change interventions will be needed to reinforce behaviors needed for safe and inclusive ways of working.

In response to the pandemic, life sciences companies have mobilized impressively to meet the needs of their employees, patients, customers, and communities. Many are finding that being forced to change isn’t necessarily a bad thing and that some changes should become permanent. The road to the next normal will be long, and the work has just begun. But there may be no going back. Now is an excellent time to reflect and find a way forward that will help the organization adapt to the next normal.

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