By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
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When the coronavirus lockdowns swept the globe, many of us found ourselves thrust into working remotely. For most this was a completely new experience. And for many, it proved very eye opening, as once jet-setting biopharmaceutical executives suddenly found that not only could they successfully conduct business in a remote fashion, but do so just as effectively as if they were in person — without all the travel hassles. In addition, many executives found working remote to be highly beneficial to striking a better work-life balance. While we touch on remote work in Life Science Leader’s annual outlook issue, the below responses from four biopharmaceutical CFOs to questions on the subject shed additional light on the challenge that lies ahead for employers. Because while remote work proved doable during our darkest days, there is a sentiment that team building, and various corporate culture initiatives, could ultimately suffer.
IS GEOGRAPHICAL PRESENCE OR PROXIMITY RELEVANT FOR EMPLOYEES OF BIOPHARMA ORGANIZATIONS GOING FORWARD?
KEN MYSZKOWSKI, CFO, ARROWHEAD PHARMACEUTICALS
Geographical presence has historically been very important. Setting aside for a moment the “work from home” policies created by COVID-19, geographical presence has been beneficial in recruiting management and scientific personnel. The three key U.S. biopharma hubs of Boston, San Diego, and the Bay Area are home to strong biopharma talent. Otherwise the ability to find or relocate talent can be largely based on location. Although Los Angeles is not known as a biotech hub, it is home to several major pharmaceutical companies. These companies provide a source of well-trained personnel for smaller biotechs. Further, the amenities of a large city like LA make relocating an option, if you can overcome the cost of living adjustment.
Now that we have largely operated effectively during the pandemic, it has yet to be seen how much working from home will continue. Certainly, the notion of working remotely had been growing pre-pandemic, and the pandemic has further bolstered the work from home argument. Employees will likely demand it continue, and employers may have to embrace it. I still believe there are huge benefits to interacting personally with your co-workers, and believe we will see a return to normalcy post-pandemic.
When it comes to the heart of a biopharma operation (i.e., the laboratory), working from home is not realistic. Occupations that rely on the lab (and those related jobs) will continue to work on-site. Accordingly, geographical location is important.
ALLAN SHAW, CONSULTING CFO, SPECIAL ADVISOR, AND BOARD MEMBER
In a nutshell, no. The “new-norm”, post-COVID, has ushered a paradigm-shift in the way business is resourced and conducted going forward. Conventional thinking and legacy business practices are “going the way of the dinosaur.” Technologies, such as Zoom, facilitate real-time/virtual/multifunctional-international/collaboration, while providing significant productivity gains. While building a great team is one of the most formidable organizational challenges, representing a fundamental element for stellar execution and navigation of industrial jeopardies, the “new norm” enables companies to go outside their zip code, providing a competitive advantage for attracting the best talent. Of course, losing the water cooler/coffee chit-chat increases the challenge of maintaining “community connectivity.” This in turn, puts greater emphasis on leadership actions and communications to continually convey/message core values, as well as develop programs to keep everybody engaged and, “rowing in the same direction.”
DO BIOTECH’S NEED OFFICE INFRASTRUCTURE, AND IS AN OFFICE ENVIRONMENT CRITICAL TO MAINTAINING/CULTIVATING CULTURE?
MICHAEL ARENBERG, J.D., CFO, DURECT
Office interactions are definitely an important way to foster relationships between coworkers, establish and maintain a corporate culture, and foster creative thinking. This is particularly relevant when a company onboards new employees. However, new technologies, such as the wide-spread use of high-quality video meeting platforms, have enabled us to replace the in-person interactions to some extent and have made most of us more efficient and organized at times. While I don’t envision a future business organization that lacks an office environment entirely, I believe now that everyone has been forced to learn how to get things done in a virtual environment, and that biotechs will adopt a hybrid model of in-person and virtual interactions.
HERB CROSS, CFO, ATRECA
Speaking for myself, and I know for many of my (non-scientist) peers, possibly the single largest appeal of working in biotech is the culture. Biotech is a rare industry where most people come to work with a passion to help people in need by advancing life-changing therapies to treat terrible illnesses. It’s also an industry where timelines can be measured in decades, and the likelihood of success is very low. Thus, the excitement generated by a team collaborating around a shared vision is critical to maintaining enthusiasm. So, while in the strictest sense office space isn’t necessary for a biotech company, aside from any necessary laboratories and related support space, I believe having a physical location for employees to work together and develop professional relationships is absolutely essential to cultivating the culture that tends to be a critical strength of biotechs. During the pandemic, companies have leveraged video conferencing and other technologies for virtual one-on-ones, staff meetings, all-hands meetings, and even virtual happy hours to try and maintain their cultures. But there is no substitute for actual personal interaction in the workspace.
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