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Pfizer and SHRM CEOs Discuss COVID-19, Value of Culture

A Q&A with Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM president and CEO, and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla

A line of bottles on a conveyor belt.

​Albert Bourla, Ph.D., chairman and CEO of Pfizer, recently sat down with Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management, for a wide-ranging question-and-answer session. They discussed the COVID-19 vaccine, the future of remote and hybrid work, the return of business travel and the importance of HR during a pandemic, as well as Pfizer's culture as employees worked feverishly to create a vaccine for COVID-19. Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer of SHRM

Pfizer was first on the market with the vaccine it co-developed with German biotechnology company BioNTech and which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized under an Emergency Use Authorization after a 44,000-person clinical trial showed it was 95 percent effective at preventing COVID-19.

The vaccine, which is delivered in two doses administered three weeks apart, was approved by the  World Health Organization in December for emergency use.

Bourla became CEO of Pfizer in January 2019. He has been with the company for more than 25 years and has held several senior global positions including chief operating officer.  

SHRM Online has edited the following Q&A for clarity and brevity. The interview also may be heard here.

Taylor: What is the atmosphere around the Pfizer workplace these days? Did the experience of successfully bringing the vaccine to market so quickly change or enhance your employee culture in any way?

Albert Bourla, Ph.D., chairman and and chief executive officer  of PfizerBourla: Before the pandemic, the recognition from society was not that high. This reputation has changed dramatically. Our employees' pride skyrocketed after we were able to bring the vaccine. Right now, if you say you're working for Pfizer, you're treated almost like a hero. It sparks a passion and a commitment for the company.

The culture needed to be a culture that forced innovation, creativity and equity as core values. I think this is what prepared the company for COVID-19. When the occasion came, we had already embedded a culture to be able to accomplish what we accomplished.

There are four values to our culture, and they all played a critical role in our success: 

--Courage. To be decisive, to think big. This mindset is what made us able to make the impossible possible.

--Excellence in Execution. It's not about us, it's about them—the patients hoping we will bring the solution. We must execute perfection. Who would think that a very big company like Pfizer, that is considered to be bureaucratic, would start later in the vaccine race but would finish first because we have this excellence in the way that we execute our work?

--Equity. Everyone deserves to be heard, to be taken care of. This value made our decision very easy when we priced the vaccine—a product we knew everybody would love and would pay gold to get it. We priced it at the cost of a meal; we did this in the high-income countries. In the low-income countries we priced it at cost. This is because equity, in our mind, does not mean we give everything the same to everybody, but we give more to those who need more.

The experience of COVID-19 changed the culture of our company, enhanced it dramatically. This demonstrated to our people that this culture works and will bring us where we hope to be, which is to bring constant breakthroughs that change patients' lives.

--Joy. We define joy not only to have fun but also taking pride and enjoying what you are doing, because what you are doing brings good to humanity and changes other people's lives for the best.

To be able to do this whole project in nine months, thousands of people were working day and night. This is not something that you can demand someone to do. This is something you can inspire someone to do, and the pride they were taking—that we could bring the solution—is what inspired them. This joy was beyond imagination.

Taylor: How did you keep your employees motivated and how did you reward them?

Bourla: The real motivational driver was the importance of their mission. You could promise them five times their bonus, and it would not motivate them as much as news that people were dying every day.

There were people who didn't visit their family because they had to stay here for months, working. There were people working on the vaccine while their spouse had COVID-19.

Also, we had to make sure we adapted very quickly to a remote way of working, and that went surprisingly well and provided everyone much needed flexibility.

Taylor: We know in a manufacturing environment many employees could not work from home. What are the drawbacks of working from home, and what are some of the benefits?

Bourla: There is a significant number of people who had to report to sites every day. These are the manufacturing workers and the people who are in our laboratories. They couldn't work from home. For them, we took special measures to facilitate their presence there. We demanded a very rigorous safety plan within the facilities, and we provided financial incentives—and more importantly, we had a constant flow of information. We kept talking to them about what is happening in the pandemic, how our efforts to develop a solution are moving, the challenges.

People working on the manufacturing side, they had this feeling that "What I am doing here is to produce an injectable product that will save the life of someone in the ICU." They knew that maintaining the operation of this manufacturing site means that people with cancer will receive their medicine, that people with heart disease will not suddenly go without their medicine. As a result, we had less than 2 percent absenteeism in manufacturing. The pride people were taking was enormous.

We awarded them with extra bonuses, but this is not what drove the behavior. They were inspired by the mission of the company.

Taylor: We're hearing employers talk about what their work model will look like going forward. Some plan to bring employees back onto the physical site after having worked remotely during the lockdown, some are considering a hybrid model and others plan to keep an all-remote model. What are your thoughts and what approach will Pfizer take?

Bourla: We debated a lot as to the best option. We will maintain offices. We believe the offices, the headquarters, the building where people are gathering together helps to create a sense of belonging. They are acting as a "super-spreader" of culture, to use a COVID expression. It helps interpersonal relations.

But people don't need to come in every day to get the benefits of an office. Those who need to work with specific equipment that exists only in the workplace—scientists, lab workers, manufacturing workers—will come to the physical site. The rest could have a flexible arrangement where they come to the office two or three days a week.

Also, we need to think about how we conduct meetings. The reason Zoom meetings or WebEx meetings were proven to be so successful and so engaging was because everybody was on Zoom, everybody was on the screen. Before COVID-19, you forgot about those connecting remotely to a meeting with people sitting in a room because the remote workers weren't on a screen, you couldn't see them. They felt isolated.

The benefit of flexibility allows a mother and a father to be able to organize work around errands and attending their children's school without worrying they need to be in the office. And many hours of commuting, for the majority, was lost time and tiring; now that flexibility is making them happier and much more productive.

Taylor: How are you going to continue to maintain Pfizer's strong culture when some employees work remotely and others are at the physical site?

Bourla: I'm not that fearful, particularly in the hybrid model. I believe there is a reluctancy and skepticism around the hybrid model because it's very new. Progress and technology are allowing us to do things very differently, to not be afraid to try things.

Taylor: What is Pfizer's current policy on business travel, such as attending conferences and international meetings? When do you think you're going to have travel again for your colleagues?

Bourla: This experience taught us we don't need to travel as much. Right now, we have excellent collaboration among scientists that are sitting from their homes in different parts of the world. We're not now allowing people to travel unless it's business-critical. I don't expect we'll ever go back to the level of traveling we were doing.

I didn't need the COVID-19 situation to appreciate the importance of the HR profession. It is one of the most critical functions within a corporation.
--Albert Bourla

Taylor: I have heard a number of CEOs say this pandemic has highlighted the importance and criticality of the HR function and HR professionals. Is that true? Tell me about the value of HR at Pfizer.

Bourla: I didn't need the COVID-19 situation to appreciate the importance of the HR profession. It is one of the most critical functions within a corporation, and I always believed that. It is one of the functions I am getting personally involved with more than anything else. Sometimes I'm getting more involved in discussions with my HR heads than with my research heads.

HR was always important but with the flexible work and this new world of opportunities and challenges opening in front of us, HR needs to find and develop employees with new skills and find and develop new processes to optimize what is expected from them, which is to make sure the human capital of a corporation is seriously engaged, inspired, is productive, feels safe, feels joy.


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