Q&A on how COVID-19 has changed the pharmaceutical and life sciences workforce

Lisa LaMotta Editor-in-Chief, Risk & Regulatory, PwC US May 07, 2020

HRI spoke with Luna Corbetta, PwC partner in the firm’s People & Organization practice, and Anthony Waldron, PwC director in the firm’s Human Resources Transactions Services practice, about how pharmaceutical and life sciences companies are adapting to changes brought by the pandemic and how these changes may continue after the crisis passes.

PwC Health Research Institute (HRI)

What are the key shifts to workforce mobilization and ways of working that have been necessitated due to the challenges presented by COVID-19?

Luna Corbetta, PwC Partner

We are seeing pharmaceutical and life sciences companies taking a closer look at their operating model during this interim state we are in. They are thinking about whether there are restructuring measures that need to be taken or expanded workforce capabilities for companies making vaccines and right-sizing salesforces.

Companies need to evaluate the what-if scenarios around an immediate return to work by looking at safety, type of work, employee preferences and needs. Those that have invested in the employee experience, digitalization and an agile operating model will be better positioned to emerge from this crisis. Instill purpose-driven leadership that connects employees to the shared goal of saving patient lives.

Anthony Waldron, PwC Director

In the short to mid-term, pharmaceutical and life sciences companies need continued focus on employee engagement and capability. The need to invest in safety and social distancing measures for employees who return first is underscored.

For other employees, who are working remotely, it is a good time to consider and test optimized ways of working, which may include digital and other upskilling, introduction of accelerators to improve productivity and collaboration, openness to how and where various types of work are executed, cultural understanding, and acceleration and empowerment of leaders and individual contributors.

HRI: What are near-term workforce considerations for the most disrupted functions, for example, research and development and commercial?

Luna Corbetta: If you look at a medical device company, for example—versus a company that does primary care—it is about looking at workforce composition and size, the employee experience overall, and how you prepare for different scenarios: for example, furloughs, workforce flexibility, outsourcing, offshoring implications, use of gig economy workers and so on.

On a practical level, companies need to think about how to design the workspace in settings such as manufacturing. Are you going to increase automation or AI to decrease interactions in a manufacturing environment to keep essential workers safe? Can you redeploy the clinical trial workforce while those trials are on hold?

Anthony Waldron: Pharmaceutical and life sciences leaders should be sensitive to the looming spike in research and development activity that is sure to follow COVID, as consumers look to the broader healthcare system to provide therapies and protect them from similar viruses moving forward.

Companies should prepare for the increasingly virtual research and development function of the future needed to accommodate increased consumer demand as well as the new needs of workers. If properly leveraged, lessons learned from this time of remote work could lead to significant differentiation in the research and development function.

The workforce transformation within the pharmaceutical and life sciences commercial function has been accelerated overnight. Sales reps will have to navigate entirely different sales cycles as they attempt to engage new stakeholders on new timelines and through increasingly digital platforms.

Digital acumen will be a priority for commercial leaders as they try to match essential capabilities to the transformed sales function. Commercial leaders should use this downtime to develop new ways of deploying, engaging and incentivizing employees to align with long-term strategy.

HRI: More broadly and longer term, how will the role of the workforce in pharma’s operating model evolve?

Anthony Waldron: Prior to the crisis, we had been seeing a number of changes to pharma’s operating model to save workforce costs while simultaneously improving performance. These changes included investing in the war for hard-to-find, industry-agnostic talent—for example, data scientists.

They also include improving collaboration and digital acumen, making better use and improvement to facilities and digital infrastructure, and introducing efficiency through other-sourcing and automation, such as enabling functions and research and development. Finally, pharma should use cultural accelerators like diversity and inclusion. We expect to see these trends accelerating in response to the crisis.

Luna Corbetta: After the pandemic, companies will look at how they can emerge stronger. There are going to be trade-offs: How are you going to measure sales productivity after months in an off cycle? How are they going to retain and attract talent? How do you encourage and reward employees differently? How do you retain highly specialized talent and keep the motivation levels up? Organizational lines are going to have to blur. As part of the return to work, companies will need to deploy technologies to ensure engagement while also keeping employees safe and healthy.

HRI: How can companies optimize their response during the crisis?

Luna Corbetta: While keeping safety and health in mind, some companies will have to rethink efficiencies. They will have to ask questions like, “What are my revenue streams? Am I spending in the right places?”

Companies need to look at the whole employee experience and think about what employees are going to need, what incentives essential workers will need. It’s important to manage the personal and family circumstances of those that have to go back to work first.

Anthony Waldron: Companies need to sequence the return of segments of their workforce, deciding the degree to inject more flexible or virtual roles while considering whether the optimal work location is remote or otherwise changed. They need to remain vigilant in maintaining employee safety and engagement.

In the longer term, companies should be validating their strategic vision and tailoring their actions to move in lockstep with it. To stay on target, data-driven methods tend to be most effective. Workforce KPIs demonstrating alignment with vision should be baselined, benchmarked and set against targets. Metrics that center on areas like spans of control, layers, use of variable compensation, functional headcount per revenue, productivity, engagement and well-being are all natural candidates.

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