It's a New Hybrid World for Biopharma
The hybrid workplace is here, and by most accounts, biopharmas - medium and small - appear to be embracing it. At least, that is the case with the cross-section of companies that participated in BioSpace’s The New Hybrid Workplace: Creating Fair Policies panel on September 15.
The life sciences industry is unique in that some work must inevitably be done onsite in the lab as it would be impossible to conduct experiments or manufacture products to GMP standards from one’s couch. But besides scientists performing these tasks, these companies trust their employees to know what their jobs require.
“We’ve really left it up to our employees to determine what makes the most sense for them based on the needs of the business, based on the initiatives that they’re working on at the time,” said Alison O’Sullivan, senior director of human resources at Athersys Inc., a clinical-stage biopharma focused on the treatment of conditions where there is a significant clinical need, particularly in the regenerative medicine space.
Of Athersys’s 105 employees, O’Sullivan said 50–60% are currently in the office at any given time.
San-Francisco-based Bolt Biotherapeutics, a biotech developing immune-stimulating antibody conjugates (ISAC) with a workforce of 90, is of the same philosophy.
“For the most part, people are coming into the office when there is a need to do so, either for collaborating with their team members or simply to get out of their houses,” shared Bolt VP and Head of Human Resources Wesley Burwell.
While most panel participants keep the doors to their offices open, they are doing so with the utmost caution.
“We are requiring anyone who goes into the office to be fully vaccinated and also wear a mask and follow social distancing,” said Julie Green, vice president, human resources at Massachusetts-based Flexion Therapeutics, which, according to Green’s LinkedIn profile, is “differentiating the employee experience.”
Flexion has required all employees to share their vaccination status to make essential business decisions better.
For Athersys, there is a psychological component to its flexible workplace strategy.
“Empowering our employees to make the decision in terms of whether or not they would like to be in the office was something that was really important to us,” O’Sullivan said.
DeAnne Reid, director, operations and business development at Aristea Therapeutics, shared that she lost her husband to COVID-19. This experience has given her a unique perspective on the mental health implications many people are dealing with.
“We have to keep in mind the mental health aspect of it as well. Different individuals have been affected in different ways and we need to be cognizant of that when we’re making broad policies,” she said.
Companies also need to manage the fear factor still percolating with the Delta variant still raging and breakthrough infections picking up. When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, it enabled companies to set vaccine mandates. Many are doing so, if only when it comes to admittance to the office.
Flexion, which requires all employees hired after July to be vaccinated, insists on proof before anyone comes onsite.
Green stated that they have employees sign an attestation form and attach a picture of their proof of vaccination.
“The safety and health of our employees and their families is, first and foremost, and that is really at the core of the decisions that we make,” she said.
Britt Byers, senior vice president, human resources for North American specialty pharmaceutical company Kyowa Kirin North America (KKNA), pointed to the reassurance having robust safety measures brings to its workforce.
“For us, it’s been really constantly focusing in on health and wellbeing. We’ve tried to put really good, strong rigor around COVID and safety protocols, temp screening at the entrance of our facilities, health screening questionnaires before people go out to the field,” Byers said. Kyowa Kirin, with a North American workforce of just over 400, is also considering requiring proof of vaccination.
KKNA has also introduced several new mental health programs offered through its benefits providers. The company implemented meeting-free Friday afternoons where employees can catch their breath at a time when people are managing myriad personal and professional responsibilities.
Time and time again, COVID-19 has beaten back the best-laid plans of the corporate world. This time, the Delta variant has forced companies who had planned to welcome their workforce back to the office to rethink those plans.
KKNA has pushed back its full reopening to November 1 to allow working parents to deal with the potential fallout from unvaccinated children returning to school, and Bolt has pushed its reopening back indefinitely.
“We don’t actually even want to give a date again, because we’re not sure that that’s actually going to be realistic,” Burwell said.
So how do companies manage this relentlessly fluid situation?
Flexion conducts monthly virtual company huddles over Zoom to communicate changes. Bolt is continuing to hone its meeting practices, holding many events outside under the sunny California skies. KKNA makes sure to stay in constant communication with its field team to keep it anchored to the larger company while leveraging its insight as eyes and ears to assess trends in the broader community.
As it’s beginning to look like the hybrid and virtual work model will be around for at least the foreseeable future, companies are also looking for the best way to maximize it. Flexion created what it calls the “virtual hackathon” as a development opportunity for its strong performers and high potential talent.
“It was a really fun three-week process where we had two teams compete in this virtual hackathon. We gave them things to think about, like office space, culture and technology,” Green said. “They came back and presented their ideas, and we’re using those as we create what our hopeful eventual solution will be.”
All the while, HR leaders are reckoning with retaining staff during a hiring boom the likes of which the life sciences industry hasn’t seen in twenty years. According to a recent report by trade group MassBio, Massachusetts is seeing a growth that will create demand for 40,000 new jobs—a number that would represent growth of nearly 50%.
In this competitive landscape, a more broadly focused recruitment strategy could be fortuitous. Aristea has doubled in size, from four individuals to eight, over the span of the pandemic and has done so entirely remotely.
“We were really focused on local candidates; that was always our intent, that they would be in the same room together and dealing with the business in that way. But given what we've been through over the last 18 months, I think we've all really had our eyes opened that we don't need to be in the same room. So, we are much more open now to hiring people who are located elsewhere,” Reid said.
Bolt has also more than doubled its workforce, and Burwell shared that in hiring several remote employees, the question has pivoted from one of the potential hires needing to be local, to one of a workable time zone.
“I think one of the silver linings really that has come out of COVID, for us in our talent strategy, is the positive impact on diversity and inclusion,” Green said. “The ability or the openness to look further has really allowed us to expand our network and expand our pool of candidates. We have been able to really focus much more on diversity and inclusion and hiring from all backgrounds, hiring different perspectives, different experiences, where we didn’t do that before.”
One constant throughout the conversation is that the industry is at a different stage of adapting to the new normal. Burwell acknowledged this, saying that his company is now embracing the change in a way it didn’t when COVID-19 first hit.
“Because we know that this is not going to end tomorrow, we now are leaning into it,” he said. “I believe that in the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of us were like, well, this will blow over soon, so we don’t have to learn new things or put into place new processes, and that is gone.”
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