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7 questions to help life sciences companies bounce forward to the future of work

By Sridhar Karimanal

COVID-19 has accelerated a stunning transformation in workplace dynamics. Roughly 70% of employees within large life sciences firms are currently working remotely, while the remaining employees have already returned to working in R&D labs and manufacturing facilities. As per recent studies, 70% of companies say they are planning to reopen in Q3-Q4 of 2021.

Returning to the workplace is not without hazards: Employees who tested positive for COVID-19 were almost twice as likely to have been at their workplace full time than those who tested negative, according to a November 2020 report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In recent weeks, the CDC warned that a possible spring surge of COVID-19 cases could lead to a fourth wave of virus activity, potentially stalling return to work plans for companies. 

Identifying the right model for bringing employees back to the workplace is a central question facing businesses today. Given life science companies’ focus of on-site R&D, manufacturing, commercial, sales field services and other core operations, a hybrid working model offers the most compelling solution. The hybrid model is geared towards providing the greatest chance of maximizing productivity, collaboration while being fully responsive to the needs of employees.  Once determining a hybrid working model, the question becomes: “how do we bring our employees back to the workplace while ensuring compliance in public health regulations and best practices, and ensuring our employees’ safety and well-being?”

Undoubtedly, the availability of vaccines to employees is a key factor in the return to work timeline, and recently released updated CDC guidelines for companies interested in vaccinating employees through workplace vaccination centers will undoubtedly help increase the pace of COVID vaccinations as more supply is available. The guidelines address on- and off-site vaccinations centers and provide recommendations for instituting vaccination programs. 

The widespread availability of vaccination, however, is not the magic bullet. Employers may find a portion of the working age population will opt out of COVID immunization for personal, health, or religious reasons. Employee expectations may complicate distribution and return to work planning further: According to our own recently conducted Vaccines and the Workplace Survey, more workers believe that employers should incentivize – rather than mandate – employees to get vaccinated against the virus. 

Considering the constantly shifting public health challenges, return-to-the-workplace planning at life sciences companies should start by evaluating what an organization can currently do safely, and make plans to address what it cannot. Reviewing and understanding readiness across the business is key for organizations’ future of work planning.  

Critical readiness factors for future of work

Communications

Workforce management & performance

Systems & technology

Workspace & facilities

Employee health & safety

Risk management

Core services

Programs & policies

To start, companies in the life sciences industry can benefit from aligning their return to workplace based on the following considerations and questions:

Physical and digital workspace: Many organizations are reconfiguring and redesigning physical and digital workspaces. 

How should we seamlessly integrate physical and digital workspaces to improve business performance, productivity, and collaboration?

Leadership and governance: Organizations are evolving their operating models to align to business model and regulatory changes. 

How do we align leaders and managers to be successful in an agile operating model of the future? 

Workforce talent: With tremendous pressure mounting on organizations to retain star performers, the pandemic has also accelerated the need for developing new skills related to digital automation and alternate workforce models. 

How do we re-skill and re-train our employees to address talent gaps? How can we attract and retain the best talent?

Employee experience: HR, IT and Facilities are working collaboratively to reimagine employee experience as part of the shift to hybrid working models.

How do we improve communication, engagement, and the end-to-end experience of employees in the future hybrid working model? 

Culture: Employees report their organization’s culture has changed since starting to work remotely.

How do we make sure there is no dilution of culture and alignment to purpose and vision as we shift to the hybrid working model?

Employee health and wellbeing: Studies report increases in mental health issues, employee burnout, and change fatigue. 

How do we use workplace flexibility and benefits to support our employee health and well-being?

Diversity, equity and inclusion: The pandemic is having an uneven impact on the diversity of our workforce (e.g., working moms).

How do we continue to build and support a more diverse and inclusive workforce in our future working model?

As you pursue answers to these questions, remember to seek input from your employees, and recognize that their view may change over time. Eagle Hill’s timeline of employee workplace sentiment – which captures the sentiments of U.S. employee over 10 months of last year – shows that employees’ opinions about their employers’ management of the pandemic’s impacts shifted over the course of the year.  

Further research indicates employees have low trust in their employers to manage through this crisis – a problem that can further hamper an organization’s ability to effect the changes necessary to thrive as the pandemic recedes.  Ongoing communication with employees to gather their concerns and opinions provides rich insights for employers, as well as demonstrates concern for their well-being, often resulting in improved trust that leaders are considering employees’ best interests. 

When there is meaningful employee engagement, employers may discover new, effective approaches to help overcome the many challenges ahead as life sciences companies chart a new path to future workforce. 

How prepared is your organization for the new ways of working?

Eagle Hill helps clients assess their readiness across the business, providing plans for the
immediate return to work and preparing them for sustained success in the future.