How life science work will be done in Pandemic

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.

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