The life sciences industry had already started moving towards remote working but, as with many aspects of digital transformation, Covid-19 has accelerated this shift. The fast pace of change, both technological and operational, has been a challenge but it has also accelerated innovation and flexible collaboration.
Pressure on achieving a more flexible way of working is coming from all sides in the industry. Employees themselves are demanding a work/life balance that better reflects what they’ve – in many cases – experienced over the course of the last year. With three out of four workers wanting to work from home more often after lockdown, expectations have been forever changed. Patients similarly expect trials to be more reflective of their personal priorities, with regular check-ins to be scheduled around their daily lives. This has been particularly beneficial in clinical trials where patients have limited mobility, avoiding the need for potentially impractical and time consuming in-person meetings. In turn, this has led to improved patient retention and made it in some ways easier to run trials with certain types of patient.
With the industry irrevocably changed, the processes required to find the right people to fill roles has developed too. Both potential hires and employers have different expectations of working relationships and patterns.
RBW Consulting has seen these changes emerge in real time through our work with virtual engagement platform, Within3. The company is no stranger to remote working, having had all team members home-based for more than 12 years. Lance Hill, CEO at Within3 says, “There is a misconception that meaningful relationships and innovative collaboration can’t happen online but that isn’t true. It does, however, require the right technology and the right people who want to make it work.”
The knock-on effect of digital communication
Digital natives are beginning to outnumber their older colleagues in the healthcare industry. In fact, 70% of all healthcare professionals are expected to be digital natives by the end of this year. This younger generation has already been instrumental in changing how people in the life sciences industry network and communicate, but Covid-19 has further accelerated the shift away from face-to-face meetings and towards remote meetings, virtual events and a focus on informative online content.
Looking ahead, the future engagement model could evolve even more. In-person meetings may never return to pre-lockdown levels, meaning clinical trial professionals will need to permanently adapt their outreach models. This could see working hours adjusted, so patients can be offered greater choice and control for check-ins around their daily lives. Providing virtual options will also make participating a less time-consuming activity and hopefully improve retention.
As remote working becomes part of the norm, we can expect this to start changing how companies recruit for their teams too. We expect to see more flexibility of working hours in advertised roles for the sector, opening up opportunities for talented people with caring responsibilities that don’t fit into a traditional nine-to-five schedule.
A global workforce will open doors
Over 1.5 million UK employees are estimated to have worked from home during the lockdown. This figure is expected to increase significantly by 2022, when it is predicted that 60% of the workforce will be remote workers.
We are looking at an exciting future where job applicants will be much less restricted by their location. As a search consultancy, we have already seen companies open up their talent pool to candidates around the world. This globalisation of work does have its challenges, but Covid-19 related lockdowns have proven how adaptable people can be. While face-to-face interaction is an important way of building relationships amongst teams, the office of the future will be about providing a collaboration space where colleagues can liaise on ideas. Rather than coming into the office to sit behind a screen we’ll come in to do the parts of our role that require us to work more closely with others. This will be a balance as workforces adjust, but offers a key opportunity to meet both business imperatives and the changing expectations of employees.
To take advantage of remote talent, recruitment teams likewise need to break down potential structural barriers in their recruitment processes. This might include steps such as making initial interview rounds digital to make it easier for further-afield candidates to attend. After all, when a role is likely to be partly remote, it makes sense to gauge how well a candidate can build relationships and deliver complex information in virtual meetings. The team at RBW has certainly benefitted from introducing virtual onboarding for new team members in the past year. Candidates and stakeholders alike have had a very positive experience, while the business has been able to keep our activities low risk.
Companies recruiting in a more location-agnostic manner will (or should) result in increased diversity. Diversity introduces new perspectives and ideas which can challenge and improve existing processes. Life sciences organisations that can harness the best talent around the world will have an edge over competitors, particularly when expanding into new markets or tackling unfamiliar challenges.
Upskilling a remote workforce
The life sciences industry will need to continually train and upskill existing employees, to support them in operating confidently remotely. This will help them to make the most of the digital and data-driven technologies available and to ensure operational efficiency for the business. A core pillar of this will be empowering people to take control of their own workload and setting expectations on how they should communicate around delivery. When managers can’t see their teams in person, trust becomes ever more important and this is a two-way street. Organisations putting in place the support needed for everyone to succeed with reduced face-to-face contact, and employees taking a proactive role in managing upwards and communicating regularly on challenges and output.
It’s important not to underestimate the fact that people learn from people. Remote working makes it necessary for companies to think more about how to compensate for the positive parts of office life that are lost, with employees working from home. Virtual social events like team breakfasts or calling a colleague over a cup of tea can make a huge difference in supporting spontaneous collaboration. But there needs to be a structured programme in place too, to ensure this happens on a consistent basis. Flexibility is important but it goes both ways. Companies should manage expectations upfront about when team members are expected to be present in person, to ensure the business can continue to reach its goals.
Within3 CEO Lance Hill says: “As home working becomes a more popular option around the world, companies may have to adjust to make sure they don’t miss out on any of the ‘spontaneous interactions’ that can happen at an office. This can be addressed by making sure everyone has an equal voice and feels they can query or challenge everything. Not only does this make people more involved in what we’re pushing to achieve as a company, it also encourages more open discussions and innovation.”
Fundamentally, people want to be proud of the work they do and the companies they work for. As the working style of the industry continues to change, so too will recruitment processes. Ultimately, reflecting in your hiring practices the flexibility a new generation of pharma professionals want to see in their roles, will benefit companies wanting to source the best talent. With a wide range of untapped talent now able to share their skills and expertise through remote roles, competition will only become fiercer. Those companies who listen to their employees and nimbly adopt new technologies to optimise remote recruitment and working will be able to recover quickly once the industry settles into its future normal.