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Pandemic Turns Pharma Industry Upside Down

A scientist working on a computer in a laboratory.

​Getting medication to people is essential business, and the pharmaceutical industry has faced enormous pressure during the pandemic to deliver. 

Employees who work in drug manufacturing generally have no option to work from home. When the public health crisis hit, companies that rely on face-to-face drug sales couldn't send out reps to meet doctors at their offices or over lunch. In addition, many clinical trials had to be halted due to exposure restrictions. These challenges were made all the more daunting by pandemic-related problems whacking every organization—supply chain shortages, employee stress and workplace safety modifications.

For Philip Dana, vice president of human resources at Dendreon Pharmaceuticals in Seal Beach, Calif., the most significant pain point has been staffing. Before the pandemic, applicants were lining up at the door, he says. By the end of 2020, production at the 600-person company had slowed a bit. "We've had to scramble and cast wider nets," Dana said about the effort to find people willing to work onsite. "You can't do manufacturing remotely."

To maintain staffing, "we cranked up the referral program and turned our workforce into recruiters. Employees tell our story better than an ad," Dana said. Dendreon offered $3,500 for successful referrals. "While the company used to recruit mostly on the West Coast, [it] started combing other parts of the country for talent, too.

Dendreon also beefed up retention strategies. The focus turned to employee engagement, workplace culture, wellness programs, rewards and recognition programs, and promotions. Flexible work schedules and sick-leave policies were introduced.

Suzanne Giordano, vice president and head of field medical at Sunovion Pharmaceuticals, headquartered in Marlborough, Mass., said the industry remains fluid and unstable as the pandemic approaches its second year. "HR is worried about retention. There is still a lot of movement and people looking for other opportunities. We lost some employees after misreading the competition and the market."

Sunovion has taken steps to enhance benefits, compensation, time-off policies and promotions to retain its 2,300 employees and recruit more. It is now offering more-inclusive benefits for same-sex partners and surrogate parents.

In addition, Sunovion announced that employees who are not involved in manufacturing no longer have to work onsite. "This makes recruiting and retention easier," said Giordano, who works closely with HR. Senior people who might have retired are sticking around, and the company now has a larger geographic pool to hire from for remote positions, she explained.

Conducting an employee engagement survey during the pandemic was another critical move at Dendreon. "You need more communication in a crisis. It was important that employees felt like they had a voice," Dana said.

From the survey, he learned that child care issues were a major concern. "I wouldn't have guessed that 57 percent were struggling with that." Having that data, the company quickly introduced flexible schedules, he said.

Retraining for the Virtual World

The pandemic fast-tracked companies' plans to adopt more virtual tools and services for customers. They rolled out online channels to engage business partners and adapted communication strategies for sales reps.

Rob Dickerson, director of commercial excellence for medical science liaison Idea2Outcome, headquartered in Montreal, says virtual calls require different skills than face-to-face meetings do. Dickerson worked for 25 years in the pharmaceutical industry, most recently at Novartis, and is now a consultant and sales management trainer based in Argentina. Common problems Dickerson sees are not getting the lighting or audio right or wearing something not suited for the camera.

In many cases, HR took the lead in assembling tools and resources to help employees with any upskilling required for new tech. Today, most trainings are conducted remotely, which has proved to be more convenient and less expensive for companies with multiple locations.

Trainers taught reps how to compensate for cues they miss when meeting remotely, such as a customer looking at his watch.  Voice projection, looking at the camera, facial expression and storytelling become vital to a lively interaction during remote meetings. Some reps learned the ropes of virtual interaction from their call centers, Dickerson said.

Dendreon launched a learning management system with a selection of 2,500 courses to improve digital skills and even receive certifications. "Employees were screaming for personal development as we turned to these tools," Dana said. "This was a key addition, and we had a high adoption rate."

Managing Change

Employees have been out of their comfort zones over the past 20 months. "Nobody has had an easy day. We all had to struggle through it," Dana said.

Employees have had to cope with as many as eight or nine back-to-back virtual meetings per day, Dickerson said. He thinks HR could relieve some of this stress by providing guidelines on meeting length and recommends that all company meetings be set to 45-50 minutes by default so that employees always have downtime between them.

At the same time, Dickerson's sense is that no one wants to go back to the daily commute. Whether to offer work-from-home arrangements or require in-person attendance is a difficult decision for HR, he said. As a consultant, he advises that working from home should be an option if an employee has proved he or she can do the work effectively outside of the office. "Teams need HR support for a policy that works for the company and employees. You can't just leave it in the hands of managers; some will be dictatorial."

Giordano doesn't see the workforce ever going back to the way it was after seeing that business could be conducted virtually with the same success and at less cost. Sunovion provided training for managers on how to keep employees engaged and productive while managing remotely.

But it may take years to fully adopt new ways of doing things. Future hires at Sunovion will be screened for a different set of technical competencies and more role specialization such as data analytics, Giordano said.

The new hybrid environment will require greater collaboration for teams rather than the siloed approach they are used to. "The answer is not to get rid of people but to bring them along in transition," she said. We have to move forward, take a pulse on things and retain the right people."

Eve Glicksman is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.


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