Making 'work from home' work in pharma

Aug. 4, 2021
For many, remote work is here to stay. Here’s how the shift could improve pharma productivity and employee satisfaction

After over a year of working from home, companies are grappling with their workforce’s potential return to the office. Developed countries are approaching herd immunity with the distribution of COVID vaccines, as countries like Canada, Israel, the U.S., and France have vaccinated nearly 50%-60% of their populations.

However, as with most industries, the return to the office for pharmaceutical workplaces will not look the same as it did prior to the pandemic. Pharmaceutical companies faced unique challenges last year when they were forced to enable the remote execution of critical drug research, development, safety and regulatory functions. Now, as they are exploring re-establishing their workers in the workplace — whether it is a full return to the office or a hybrid setting — they are experiencing concerns on how to do this successfully. There are significant benefits for companies that can effectively navigate these transitions to the next work model whether it is a hybrid, remote or in-office environment without compromising employee experiences or regulatory compliance. 

The challenges of remote work for pharma

First, pharmaceutical organizations must determine if a remote work environment is logical for various operations and teams. For example, any pharmaceutical processes that require labs, such as clinical research or toxicology, are not viable for remote work due to security and ethical concerns surrounding animal and human trials. Nearly all other pharmaceutical processes can be executed remotely.

On-the-job training is another consideration for potentially remote pharmaceutical workforces. Many pharmaceutical professionals possess degrees in biology, medicine or other health care disciplines. However, much of the job-specific education received by professionals with specialized duties — such as pharmacovigilance (PV) — is received in the workplace. There isn’t a college course that professionals can take to understand pharmacovigilance, especially if the worker is an IT professional that supports PV functions.

Personal interactions between coworkers also suffer because of remote work policies. People who work together, face-to-face, have noticeably better relationships and understanding of one another than those who only become acquainted through a conference call screen. Some people may view this as an advantage, as fewer personal interactions in the workplace means more time is being dedicated to work. However, in the pharmaceutical industry where teamwork is critical to achieving results, workplace relationships can be significant drivers of productivity if they allow people to work better together. 

As a result of reduced personal interactions, mentoring remote workers to provide job-specific training is very difficult. Mentors are unable to show them step-by-step processes in person, which makes building a relationship between mentors and new workers difficult — ultimately impacting the effectiveness of new workers’ training. Mentoring is critical in the pharmaceutical industry, where processes and regulatory requirements vary depending on the organization and location, and new workers must be trained in established processes to ensure smooth operations. 

Regulatory requirements aren’t the only factor that should be taken into consideration depending on the location of pharmaceutical workplaces. Time zones are a crucial consideration for globally dispersed teams that must work together to execute their duties.

Certain time zones, such as the U.S. West Coast and India, have no overlap. The lack of overlap is typically fine for workers who only need one- or two-hour meetings once or twice a week. But when workers are fully remote, there aren’t any workshops — instead all meetings become virtual and must be held at times that work for all parties involved, regardless of location or time zone. Pharmaceutical professionals have become accustomed to these shifting meeting time frames over the past year of remote work, which are an especially significant problem for professionals with families and extra responsibilities outside of work. 

The benefits of remote work for pharma

For smaller companies, one of the largest benefits of remote work is the dramatic expansion of their market. For example, Boston is a well-known hotspot for biotech companies. Smaller companies must compete fiercely to recruit and retain professional talent. But, if smaller companies in Boston enable remote work, suddenly they can recruit highly skilled professionals from anywhere within a reasonable time zone discrepancy of two hours or less. While time zones can be an issue for coordinating meetings between workers, if workers are only one or two hours apart in their time zones it shouldn’t cause any significant scheduling issues.

The expansion of the workforce market for pharmaceutical companies not only benefits recruitment efforts, but also improves the overall employee experience. Existing employees, when enabled to work remotely, now have the freedom to move to other places. This means that employees don’t have to live in the middle of a busy city like Boston if they want a different lifestyle. It also enables pharmaceutical companies to secure professional workers at lower salaries thanks to lower costs of living in less dense areas.

Better employee experiences and relationships result in higher productivity at reduced costs, especially if employees can relocate to an area of their choosing to take advantage of lower living costs or be closer to family.

Remote work also eliminates commutes. For workers that live in crowded commuting areas like the New York Tri-State area, commuting may add an additional three hours each day that are better utilized for productive work or even relaxation rather than sitting in traffic. Commuting is one of the major stress factors for in-office employees.

Best practices for engaging remote and hybrid workers

There are two major categories of new practices that must be put in place if a pharmaceutical company decides to enable remote workers: technical practices and management practices.

When it comes to technical practices, organizations must make sure that technology used by pharmaceutical workers does not act as a limiting factor on workers’ ability to execute their duties. Ensure that all workers have fast computers, large screens to work with, and stable network environments to prevent connectivity issues. 

Security is also a concern for remote workers. The latest cyber-attacks have sensitized the workforce to the dangers of social hacking. In the pharmaceutical space, we not only have to be concerned about trade secrets, but also about the very damaging loss of personal identifiable information (PII) of patients.

When professionals operate from the office, companies have tight control over document security. When professionals operate remotely, companies must make it clear that any sensitive documents must be stored in secure virtual vaults. Any printed documents workers reference at home must be shredded when workers are done using them.

Securely storing documents inherently necessitates the conversion of physical documents to digital formats. Paper documents have historically been leveraged by many companies for regulatory compliance purposes. Now, companies must implement the necessary infrastructure and training to enable secure sign and storage applications for e-docs. This involves significant changes to worker behavior, as they have become accustomed to in-office document security processes.

Establishing these kinds of workplace process changes is much easier when employees have personal connections with one another, which are more easily facilitated by face-to-face interactions. Pharmaceutical companies can overcome this challenge of establishing personal relationships by mandating one-on-one meetings between co-workers. This enables co-workers to get more one-on-one face time with one another, as well as potentially discuss topics they wouldn’t touch in larger workplace meetings. 

This can be challenging with larger workforces, as individuals can typically only have meaningful relationships with about 35 people. The number of deep relationships individuals can manage is between five and 10. This means larger pharmaceutical companies must make an extra effort to make sure one-on-one meetings are taking place, and that workplace relationships are being developed at a personal level.

The technology partner pharmaceutical companies use to enact these organizational and policy changes will have a huge impact on the success of remote and hybrid work initiatives. A partner that builds solutions specifically for the pharmaceutical industry will enable pharmaceutical organizations to trust that their partner will confidently guide them through remote work transformations. For larger pharmaceutical organizations, engaging a partner that also operates on a global scale will allow the partner to provide suggestions and best practices for how the pharmaceutical organization can manage its own global operations with a remote workforce.

Once the U.S., Europe and the rest of the world have largely achieved significant immunity via COVID-19 vaccinations, there will be those industries that will return to the office and resume pre-pandemic business operations. However, the pharmaceutical industry is not one of these markets. The shift to remote work for pharmaceutical professionals has proven to be more productive and had left employees with a higher level of satisfaction with their work/life balance. In redesigning the work environment of the future, companies must ensure that they do not compromise the quality of worker education, worker relationships or the technology solutions that individuals use to execute their responsibilities. Those companies that can smoothly allow for a transition to hybrid most efficiently, and without compliance issues, will be best positioned to continue growth in the post-COVID pharmaceutical landscape.

About the Author

Uwe Trinks | Global Practice Lead for Pharmacovigilance Technologies