Owed largely to COVID-19 – as well as improvements in technology, globalization and changing attitudes from employers – there are now a greater number of home-based pharmaceutical and biotech jobs than ever before. And since working from home can have benefits for both companies and workers alike, it’s likely that home-based pharma jobs will persist and grow post-COVID-19.
Many employees in the field, however, were forced to quickly transition to working from home with little notice. So how has pharma and biotech adjusted to this shift and what will workplaces look like as the pandemic persists and eventually subsides?
Major Shifts Within the Workplace
“Candidly, it changed about two-thirds of everybody’s jobs immediately,” said Philip Dana, VP of Human Resources at Dendreon Pharmaceuticals, a California-based pharmaceutical company specializing in immunotherapy for prostate cancer. “We manufacture a product that’s essential to our cancer patients, so how do you maintain business continuity and continue to serve your patients?”
Like many pharmaceutical and biotech companies, a large portion of Dendreon’s work occurs in the lab as they develop a treatment for prostate cancer patients. Lab workers are essential and at Dendreon, they were unable to work remotely. In addition to those who work inside the lab, there are supporting staff that has to be in the building such as IT, facilities and quality assurance. But just because they could go into the office, doesn’t mean it was business as usual.
“The other impact is all the extra stuff you do, so those folks that have to go into the building have to check for a screening, use extra hand sanitizer, maintain distance from others in the lab and breakroom and abide by all social distancing rules,” Dana said. “There’s quite a long list of seemingly little changes, but for us, I could say it’s worked,” adding that Dendreon did not have a single COVID-19 infection in the workplace at the time of the interview.
Transitioning to Working From Home
For pharma and biotech, a large part of adjusting to pandemic protocol was understanding how much of an employee’s role could be done outside of the workplace to reduce risk while complying with all applicable regulations. Due to the nature of some roles, certain positions within the sector are more likely than others to have the opportunity to work from home. While lab workers were – and continue to be – essential, employees in human resources, finance, marketing and other supporting staff transitioned to working from home.
“With about 80 to 90 percent of our employees now working from home, there has been a huge demand for online learning,” said Katelyn Hokenberg, Head of Global Learning and Development at Merz Aesthetics, a specialty pharmaceutical company headquartered in Frankfurt, Germany with offices across the globe. “It was so important to develop health and safety training for office and field staff so that when we do return to work, our employees are safe.”
Additionally, pharmaceutical sales reps that would normally travel by car or plane to visit doctors’ offices and hospitals found alternative strategies to conduct business. Dana and Hokenberg pointed to the prevalence of telemedicine, video conferencing, texting, emailing and creating more video and digital content to effectively replace face-to-face meetings.
“Those within operations that would either be in or near the lab, such as quality assurance and research and development, could do about 80 percent of their job from home,” Dana said. “If a part of your job has to be in the office, that’s okay, but as soon as you’re done with that part, grab your laptop, go home and plug back in.”
Depending on the company, some supporting pharma and biotech jobs may be able to continue working from home once the pandemic subsides. However, some companies may still choose not to allow home working, believing that their staff will work better together in a central environment. Although many great ideas and insights often come from working side-by-side with colleagues, research suggests that allowing employees to work from home can be beneficial for businesses.
“There has been a lot of data on productivity that shows if a job can be done remotely, employees will find their groove,” Hokenberg said. “We have seen how well people have adjusted to the technology and remote work and we have been providing more learning and development opportunities than ever before.”
The Critical Roles of Technology and Education
Over the past few years, the benefits of having all employees under one roof have been weakened by cloud computing and video conferencing. In companies whose workforces are distributed across the country or worldwide, the time and cost associated with traveling have become both unnecessary and uneconomical with the technology at their disposal.
“We have been able to connect more people in more regions at far less cost,” Hokenberg said of online learning tools at Merz. The company has made use of LinkedIn Learning to connect staff in Europe, Asia and the Americas, as well as online classrooms via Zoom. “It’s different than classroom learning, but it’s not worse… good technology really works,” Hokenberg added.
The shift to working from home – which Dana and Hokenberg believe will persist post-pandemic – will allow pharma and biotech to continue leveraging available technologies. Dana specifically cited DocuSign, which allows documents to be signed digitally, as well as Microsoft Teams, which allows for the sharing of large files without scanning or printing.
While today’s technology has been an enabler for many businesses to connect their global workforce (while also saving costs on travel and desk space), the number of people doing clinical research work from home is likely to increase further as mobile health (mHealth) begins to change how clinical studies are conducted.
The Future of Pharma and Biotech Jobs
While pharma and biotech were not immune to the financial implications of the pandemic, the life science space as a whole is experiencing an unprecedented level of global growth. Individuals entering the industry are doing so at an important and pivotal time, especially in the race to develop and test a vaccine for COVID-19.
Both Dendreon and Merz were able to continue supporting their staff through the pandemic, with neither company being forced to furlough, or lay-off employees. Hokenberg maintains a positive outlook for those in pharma and biotech, both now and in the future, citing the unending need for good communications, planning and support to keep employees safe.
For those entering the industry in the era of COVID-19, Dana had this to say: “It is an exciting space to be in right now, but the standard things that have been in place haven’t changed at all — things like having a great LinkedIn profile and engaging with employers rather than just applying to a job are still important.”