The New COVID Workforce: Keeping Pharma Strong Through Adversity

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-11-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 11

How an increased focus on people has helped companies survive the pandemic.

As COVID has moved through the pharma industry, there has been a reshaping of the workforce. With a new premium put on people, companies have become more in tune with employee initiatives and have made a number of adjustments. A new COVID workforce, molded by purpose, place, and protection, has come to light, and it seems pharma is embracing the change.

Renewed sense of purpose

Most pharma employees hold a strong sense of purpose based on their company’s mission to help patients. Witnessing—and in many cases, being a part of—pharma’s efforts to find a COVID cure has reignited that passion.

“The pandemic has been a daily reminder of the vital role that the biopharmaceutical industry plays in improving health worldwide,” says Frank Watanabe, president and CEO at Arcutis Biotherapeutics. “We’ve been personally and professionally inspired by our peers working at companies likes BioNTech and Moderna, who brought the world life-saving vaccines for COVID-19 in record time. Their work has also been a daily reminder to us that we must remain focused on helping to solve a myriad of other health problems that aren’t going away. In the case of our company, that means developing innovative therapies that represent meaningful advances in the treatment of immune-mediated skin diseases.”

The sentiments are similar at Sutro Biopharma, where employees have been motivated by their industry colleagues during COVID. “While much of the work force in the United States worked from home, these industry heroes came into labs and manufacturing facilities, and provided inspiration to our entire industry,” says Linda Fitzpatrick, chief people and communications officer at Sutro. “We show up every day because it matters. We think about the importance and the impact of our work every day.”

Cartesian Therapeutics’ mission was amplified at the start of the pandemic when the company realized it could leverage its technology platform and cGMP manufacturing capacity to develop the first engineered cell therapy for acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a condition often caused by COVID. “We took that program from concept to clinic in four months,” says Murat Kalayoglu, MD, PhD, CEO of Cartesian. “We did not miss a single day coming into the office. The sense of purpose in the air was palpable back then, and the same purpose has since permeated through the rest of our pipeline.”

Beyond boosting morale among current pharma employees, this sense of purpose might also lead to onboarding new, dedicated workers. “As we continue to rapidly grow as an organization, we are seeing broad interest in joining the biotechnology industry from candidates with unique backgrounds and experiences, fostering a culture that enables us to innovate through diversity of thought,” says Amie Krause, chief people officer at Atara Biotherapeutics.

Redefined place of business

Amid the workplace shake-up of COVID, many companies have been reassessing the need for office space. Though many doubted the idea of working from home before COVID, companies were forced to accept it once the pandemic hit, and many were pleasantly surprised. Allowing employees to work from home not only provided employees with welcome flexibility, but companies began to realize they could save money on office space, creating a win-win situation.

In October, GlaxoSmithKline announced it would shrink its Philadelphia and North Carolina locations by 75% and nearly 90% respectively. It expects only 50% of employees to continue working from the new offices full-time. In order to make this successful, the company says it is relying on “team connection” and “dynamic workflows.”

Among the workplace trends discussed in a January Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, flexibility also may begin to take on a new look. While many employers loosened their policies on where people worked during COVID, they should begin to ease up on when employees work. HBR called for output to be the benchmark rather than hours worked.

In order to make these changes successful, internal communication and collaboration have never been so important.

“With the need to shift to working from home, we have made a concerted effort to make sure that, not only do people have the necessary tools to do their jobs, but also to find ways to continue to foster collaboration and community,” says Caryn Parlavecchio, chief human resources officer at Scholar Rock. Her company has helped employees set up home offices, provided ergonomic assessments of their working environments, and helped to address IT and connectivity issues. IT has also helped workers get up to speed on the collaborative tools used to ensure the success of Scholar Rock’s cross-functional teams.

Atara responded similarly as the pandemic began to suggest an indefinite work-from-home situation. All full-time employees working remotely received an IT equipment bundle to ensure appropriate support and business continuity; it also enabled the standardization of IT-supported equipment. Cross-functional teams, led by Atara’s People Team, quickly built a virtual community to promote connectivity and relationships, as well as a robust offering of virtual events and trainings. The company’s annual wellness benefit was even doubled to $500 in 2021 to provide additional support, such as office furniture, to remote workers.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a multitude of challenges for communication and collaboration, forcing teams to look toward new methods through which to connect,” says Krause. “Although many of our staff members have been working remotely throughout the pandemic, our frequent and collaborative communications have enabled staff to feel supported, safe, and heard.”

Providing safety and protection

Supporting employees in their personal lives and stressing mental health were also highlighted in the HBR trends article. Atara demonstrated this by providing resources to employees who were trying to balance work while handling myriad obstacles such as economic uncertainty, home schooling, caring for elderly at-risk parents, social unrest, and personal loneliness. Its care and concern for staff members took many shapes, inclusive of individual phone calls, postcards, custom face masks, snacks sent to homes, and quick notes of care and concern. Additionally, Atara implemented periodic Recharge and Meeting Free Days to promote work-life balance and mental well-being. (A Recharge Day is a free day off for staff to relax, reset, and spend time with loved ones.)

As people begin to transition back to in-office environments, there has also been a wave of vaccine mandates intended to make people feel safe both at work and at home. Many companies have taken steps to protect employees from COVID, including proof of vaccination, regular testing, and continued remote work options.

Eli Lilly and Company is requiring vaccination by Nov. 15 for all its US and Puerto Rico employees. As of Oct. 28, 95% met the requirement or had an approved accommodation in place, according to Stephen Fry, senior vice president, Human Resources and Diversity at Lilly. “While many employees were pleased with this decision, we also know that some employees disagreed,” says Fry. “However, it was made with careful thought and data analysis and with the best interest of the company, our stakeholders, and our communities in mind. We are asking unvaccinated individuals to take a step back and consider the broader impact their health decisions may have on others.”

Bristol Myers Squibb has a similar vaccine mandate. As of Oct. 11, 94% of employees in the US and Puerto Rico were vaccinated, according to a company spokesperson, and the company is committed to implementing similar requirements globally wherever possible. Weekly testing, mask wearing, physical distancing, and regular deep cleaning are also in effect.

Novartis also has prioritized the safety and well-being of its associates, says Vicki Rawlinson, US head of People & Organization at Novartis. To ensure a work environment that is safe and where associates feel safe, the company expects individuals to be vaccinated or test negative for COVID before entering Novartis US sites but does not mandate vaccination as a condition of employment. The company has implemented additional layers of safety on all its campuses, including pre-screening, mask-wearing, social distancing, conference room capacity limits, and other resources, such as a 24/7 COVID hotline.

“We recognize the decision to vaccinate is a very personal one,” says Rawlinson. “Our efforts to create a safe environment are balanced with empowering associates to make the choices that are right for them. As part of the company’s Choice with Responsibility program, associates work with their teams to determine how, when, and where they work to create the greatest impact while supporting well-being.”

Beyond following federal and state mandates, Scholar Rock is listening to its employees to understand their concerns and determine what it can do to help them feel safe, says Parlavecchio. For example, as a result of employee feedback, the company now offers free daily onsite testing.

“We are fortunate in that there are scientists and experts worldwide who are dedicated to combatting this pandemic,” she adds. “As part of the healthcare industry, we should encourage people to listen to these experts and follow the science.”

Elaine Quilici is a Senior Editor for Pharm Exec. She can be reached at equilici@mjhlifesciences.com.