Guest Column | July 3, 2023

How Sponsors Can Help Clinical Sites Recruit & Retain Staff — And Why They Should

By Jimmy Bechtel, Society for Clinical Research Sites

At the Society for Clinical Research Sites (SCRS), we know and hear quite loudly that coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, sites need ways to retain their existing staff and find ways to recruit new hires.

Recruitment and retention of site staff are more challenging today than ever before. Due to micro- and macro-economic trends and geopolitical situations, the cost to recruit and retain good staff is expected to continue to rise at historic rates in the foreseeable future.

Many of these trends (e.g., inflation, geopolitical uncertainty) are outside of a site’s control. However, a site’s reaction to them to mitigate any negative effects is within its control.

What’s more, sponsors can have a helpful hand in ensuring sites are staffed fully and properly. Aside from sites asking sponsor and CRO partners for relief in the form of additional funds and/or alleviation of uncompensated burdens, there are several tactics sites — and their sponsoring organizations — can adopt to address clinical research site staff turnover.

Reapproaching The Budget

As a result of inflation and other modern factors like increased protocol complexity and patient recruitment efforts, we often see costs increasing to do the same amount of work, as well as what is necessary to retain or attract talent to our organizations. For instance, record retention costs continue to rise as sites are being asked to store documents for longer and in a higher quantity yet aren’t being reimbursed commensurately. Additionally, sponsors are asking sites to conduct more training every time a trial comes along. New technology and new ways of working come with every new trial. It’s not like the times when once you knew the EDC, you could provide your certificate and be done. Now, implementing new technology requires retaining or new training for every study, even with studies from the same organizations.

Sponsors can help by being open and receptive when sites need to renegotiate budgets. Simply closing the door on this process in today’s day and age is not an acceptable business practice. Receive and review the justification from the sites and understand them as being real, necessary costs. At times, sites don’t know some of the hidden costs because they don’t have all the information they need upon execution of the trial or until after budgets have been finalized.

Getting Paid

Sites should also reduce accounts receivable issues by getting payments and working to remove any withholds on current agreements.

Sponsors can help by ditching the outdated practice of quarterly payments and switching to monthly payments. Also, consider removing withholds and holdbacks contracts. Full stop. There is no alternative way to do business any longer. If you value sites and your relationship with them, this is the easiest, highest impact thing you can do.

Evaluating Recruitment And Retention Costs

This is a step beyond just increasing salaries and encourages frank conversations about how to retain employees. Those conversations might include direct dialogue asking what their employees want, if they’re happy, and how the site can increase their satisfaction. Sites might have to exercise humility to recognize that they might not be meeting employee needs and they need to make genuine efforts to learn how they can.

Sponsors can help by understanding where your job candidates are coming from. If you are poaching them from a site, you are potentially harming a site’s ability to execute your trial — a little “robbing from Peter to pay Paul” situation. Consider the impact their leaving might have on the site. By all means, hire a site employee if it makes sense, but don’t actively seek out staff from sites without knowing how it may affect the sites you work with or their trials. If you do recruit a site employee, developing a staff contingency or support plan with your site may be extremely helpful for all parties.

Exploring Options For Incentives

Also, sites should understand what other sites, or even competitor organizations, are using to successfully recruit to their organizations beyond salary increases. Examples include increasing or modifying benefits like PTO, paid holidays, 401ks, or options for career progression. Also, sites might also consider ways to improve work-life balance, rewarding staff with more flexibility in and outside of work, and enabling ways for staff to grow and develop. The offer is up to each individual site to decide. The important part is to understand the desires and needs of the staff and how to make it happen. That could mean 10-hour workdays, or it could mean shorter work hours on Fridays, for example.

Sponsors can help by being willing to share some of the things it is doing to attract and retain valuable employees. Sometimes, sites may not know what sort of innovative ways organizations have leveraged to retain staff. Finding outlets and opportunities to share hiring and retention best practices could be helpful learnings for sites.

Minimizing Staff Onboarding Costs

When posting a new opening, sites should prioritize targeted and more high-yield job postings, focusing on more high yield sources (LinkedIn, Indeed, Monster, and others) to post those opportunities. Some carry additional fees for more job posting features. It’s important to do one’s homework to figure out which job posting resource is right for the circumstance.

It is also valuable to revisit the training and onboarding experience, looking at ways to streamline the experience and improve the outcomes. Employing adult learning techniques, staggering and restructuring the curriculum to focus on important things first, and pacing the training schedule so as to avoid overwhelming the new hire are all ways in which sites can change their approach to onboarding in pursuit of better retention.

Sponsors can help by sharing best practices and techniques for recruiting, onboarding, and training. Consider partnering with industry organizations, colleges, or internship programs to increase the industry talent pool. Collaboration is the key.

Successful staff recruitment and retention at the site level is crucial for successful outcomes of a clinical trial. And sponsor companies have a vested interest in helping their sites succeed. After all, how can clinical trials be successful without a fully functional, and fully satisfied, clinical site workforce?

About The Author:

Jimmy Bechtel is vice president of site engagement for Society for Clinical Research Sites (SCRS). He is in charge of developing and executing the company's site-facing initiatives and works closely with key industry partners to build out various SCRS partnership programs. Bechtel brings experience from both the site and sponsor sides of the clinical research industry. In his site experience, he served as a data specialist, patient recruiter, and operations manager. In his pharma experience, he worked in innovation project management, encouraging a site-centric environment and creating ease for sites working with a major sponsor company.