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Digital Talent & Real Estate


Biopharma companies hungry for digital talent must evaluate their real estate portfolio and workplace strategies to access new talent pools, says Joanne Henderson.

Biopharma companies hungry for digital talent must evaluate their real estate portfolio and workplace strategies to access new talent pools, says Joanne Henderson.

Digital technologies have the potential to transform biopharma and several key players in the sector have already hired high-profile Chief Digital Officers to spearhead their digital ambitions and tap into the advantages of the data revolution. 

The opportunities across the pharma value chain to accelerate drug development, improve operational efficiency, personalize patient experiences and engage more effectively with key stakeholders will be very welcome at a time when industry operating margins are generally in decline. 

But one area that plays a key role in the long-term success of these digital transformations is often overlooked: real estate. Major tech players are familiar with using real estate as a strategic tool to attract top talent in a fiercely competitive market, however, many established pharma companies start disadvantaged given they are located in out of town campuses while the new generation of young digital experts is concentrated in cities. 

Competition for digital talent is fierce across all industry sectors, and the skillsets of computational biologists map closely to those of data scientists. Not only is biopharma fishing in the same pool as other industry sectors for general digital talent, but there is growing rivalry for specialist sector expertise as the tech giants such as Google (Verily Life Sciences), IBM Watson and Amazon ramp up their healthcare presence. 

For millennials, who make up the majority of the current digital talent pool, 79% consider workplace quality as a key consideration in selecting a new employer and 69% say they would trade other benefits for the right workplace experience. 

So far, the biopharma industry has been slow to act on this. According to PwC’s latest CEO survey, 60% of life sciences CEOs are very concerned about a digital talent shortage, yet the same study also found they are doing less than the global average to address the issue. From a real estate perspective, less than half reported that they were modernizing their workplace environment (39%) and only 6% were relocating their operations to be closer to talent.

Digital transformations are not easy, even for tech-savvy companies and the failure rate is high. There are many different reasons for this, but accessing and retaining the right skills and driving the cultural changes required to transition to new ways of working are two of the biggest obstacles - location and workplace are an integral part of addressing both.

The newly emerging innovation clusters, providing access to the right technology platforms, collaboration zones and amenities are likely to appeal to digital natives, but adopting a strategy of acquiring permanent fixed physical locations in key cities may not necessarily be the whole answer. 

So, what real estate and workplace strategies can be adopted to attract and retain digital talent? 

Firstly, understand your future talent requirements and where these skills are located. This includes digital immersion programmed to embed the new ways of working at the most senior level. New digital practitioners will also be required as efforts ramp up, so understanding the profiles that bridge the gap between existing capabilities and a future operating model is key.

Create a workplace that aligns with an agile culture. Forward-thinking organizations are designing more fluid workplaces, balancing space for open collaboration and private focus, allowing people to personalize their workday. Inclusion of project space makes it easier to connect multi-disciplinary teams quickly and efficiently.

Thirdly, acquire capabilities and talent through M&A and partnerships. Acquiring small innovative biotech companies is still favored over digital M&A activity where companies favor partnerships over equity investments.

Create your own digital innovation hubs. This can be done by selectively introducing new property formats designed to nurture start-ups and fast-growing innovators - for example, the separate incubator/start-ups created by J&J (JLabs) and Novartis (Biomes). These environments are purposely situated in geographical locations rich in scientific and digital talent.

And, finally, collaborate with broader groups in emerging innovation clusters and ecosystems. Having a presence in a geographical hub with a start-up feel can drive new collaborations and positive brand associations, providing access to new talent pools either directly or indirectly.

Understanding the needs, workstyles and preferred environments of digital natives is only the start, but it is absolutely central in preparing biopharma for the future.

Joanne Henderson is Executive Director of Life Sciences, EMEA at CBRE.


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