Several pharma majors have started pondering in this space. This is evident from several recent developments, both in India, and also in other places of the world. One such articulation can be heard from the very top of the domestic pharma industry, which could be a pacesetter for many others.
The founder and Managing Director’s Message of India’s top pharma company – Sun pharmaceuticals, was released to the media on June 02, 2021. This speech is a part of the company’s Annual Report 2019-20. It is indeed interesting from overall pharma business operations’ perspective in India amid Covid-19 pandemic. It is also in sync with what many of his global counterparts have also expressed in recent times. To give a sense of Sun Pharma Chief’s reading and understanding of the fast-changing business dynamics, I am quoting below a few critical points of his above message:
- There is a gradual realization that the COVID-19 virus is here to stay and that all of us will have to learn to coexist with the virus till an effective treatment or vaccine becomes available.
- There will be far-reaching changes in the way in which organizations are likely to operate going forward.
- Consumer behavior and consumption patterns are also likely to change due to the global pandemic.
- Social distancing and maintaining individual hygiene (like using masks and hand sanitizers) have become imperative.
- Work-from-home (WFH) option has been exercised by most organizations for certain functions and there is a likelihood that it will continue for some more time till the viral infection comes under control.
- There is a possibility that WFH may become the new-normal for certain categories of corporate work force even after COVID-19 comes under control.
- Also, there is a higher focus on automation, digitalization as well as an increased dependence on analytical tools for decision making.
Overall, in the global pharma and biotech arena, one can now witness a varied response to opening-up – some quite bold, others are flexible and cautious – as the scenario unfolds. In this article, I shall dwell on the importance of framing a well-thought-out plan, with clearly stated Plan B, C and D in this area, to prevent any business opportunities to slip by due to delayed action.
Key questions to answer – what to open and when to open:
It goes without saying that remote working or WFH for all pharma employees can’t remain in-force for any indefinite period. It will mostly depend on two critical drivers, mainly to avoid any reckless decision with grave consequences. One – how fast several – reasonably strong preventive measures, such as, vaccinations, can provide a reasonable herd immunity to most people around. And also, how most other similar businesses successfully start carrying out their commercial operations in the same environment.
Pharma players would then need to have a clarity on the business functions where selective personal presence of the qualified staff is necessary, as no extent of technological interventions can compensate it. Then follows the question, when to start opening – without being reckless and following all prescribed Covid related health norms. The answer to these questions should be addressed along with Plan B, C and D ready – just in case something doesn’t work out or because of competitive reasons.
To elaborate this point, let me first give an example of what an Indian tech behemoth is planning to get back some employees in the workplace, based on a sophisticated digital model. Thereafter, we will have a glimpse on how several pharma and biotech players are planning in this space. The basic assumption is – the grand show must go on – with collective scientific learnings on how to coexist with the virus, for an indefinite period, if inevitable.
Integrated digital plan to get back more employees at the workplace by TCS:
Lilly, Amgen, PfizerAs reported on June 02, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) are working on a plan to get back more employees to the workplace. The tech giant is focusing more ‘on increasing talent fungibility as global clients increasingly require associates with niche skills to be deployed on projects at short notices.
Thus, to evaluate how it will get a certain percentage of people back, TCS has drawn up a risk assessment model, Intelligent Urban Exchange (IUX). To effectively address the new requirements for employees’ safety, regulatory compliance, and operational efficiency, the company has devised this system. It will help TCS to get real-time insights that will help restore operations and ensure safety, while becoming nimbler and more resilient in the new normal.
What some global companies are planning now:
One will witness a mixed approach of global pharma players to get back employees at the workplace, soon. This will be evident from a few examples, as below.
A Bloomberg report on April 27, 2021, highlighted: ‘As vaccine drives ramp up and open the possibility of a return to the office, a growing number of companies have pointed to a continued role for remote work — and less of a need for pricey office space.’ It quoted Novartis CEO saying: ‘“We’ve all learned from the pandemic that we can work from home and work from the office, and it will always be a combination going forward.”
Thus, in Novartis, “hybrid-based working environment” – at-home and in-office work, will persist for the long term – extending beyond the pandemic. The Company CEO also reiterated: “We think this is the future.” The flexibility should allow Novartis to “access talent pools we would not have been able to access in the past,” he believes.
Similar approach, but with specific dates for returning to the workplace:
By an open announcement on Linkedin, the Chairman and CEO of Eli Lilly declared the Company’s plan at the current stage of Covid pandemic. He said: “More than a year later, I’m pleased to say that we’re actively planning Lilly’s return to our workplace in downtown Indianapolis, and other facilities around the world.”
He further said, on June 1, 2021, Lilly will begin reopening their Indianapolis offices, inviting 25 percent of our workforce back – with masking and distancing indoors, and a requirement for vaccination. Barring a change in the steady downward case rate in the community, the Company will then open to all Indianapolis-based employees on July 12, 2021.
The company’s new work model will be based on the requirements for each job. Some employees will be on site all the time, others most of the time, and some will have even more flexibility. As ‘individual work’, and some ‘transactional work’, is easier done remotely, employees in those roles can choose that option in consultation with their supervisor. But collaboration, innovation and learning are best done in-person at the Company facilities, the Chairman and CEO said.
He reiterated, Lilly is not taking these steps casually, but based on a data-based approach, and will continue to do so. If external factors change, Lilly will adapt. In other countries, the Company offices will continue to follow local guidelines and open as they are allowed based on local circumstances, the Company clarified.
More remote working being planned by many other global majors:
According to another report of May 07, 2021, many other global pharma and biotech majors are now planning in favor of long-term remote working for several critical business than ever before. For example, on May 07, 2021 Amgen announced that the Company will make working from home a permanent policy for much of its international workforce, including locally.
It said, “Most of our employees who are currently working remotely will continue to do so for a majority of their time, even after the pandemic ends. Our intent is to create a more flexible environment that intentionally combines the benefits of remote and in-person working.” The statement further added. “We are not initiating any changes to our Thousand Oaks campus at the time. Though some staff may come to campus less frequently.”
As reported on April 27, 2021, Pfizer has put its large Philadelphia-area campus up for sale, as it considers the future of work. According to the company, as revealed by Fierce Pharma, “The decision to do so is primarily being driven by the company’s evolving – flexible working model, providing employees with greater flexibility to work remotely while still maintaining the ability to connect and collaborate regularly on-site.”
It’s over a year of business disruptions within the pharmaceutical industry, at varying intensity and in different phases, though. For example, after more than a year since the pandemic hit India, Covid 2.0 has, reportedly, pushed up Indian pharmaceutical sales to a new high. It recorded an exponential growth of 59% year on year in April 2021, against 16 per cent – year on year in March 2021. This is obviously an outlier and is apparently unsustainable. Thus, for a sustainable good growth with greater certainty, Indian pharma players would require working out a well-researched digital blueprint of the future working framework of business operations with ‘what if’ options.
As has been revealed, remote working, wherever it makes robust business sense, will help getting hard-to-reach talent pools regardless of geography. This opportunity needs to be leveraged. However, it’s also a fact that for various reasons, everyone may not be too comfortable to work from home. Thus, the future work plan may call for a balanced and employee specific approaches.
Which is why, the process will require in-depth analysis of key functions where the personal presence of qualified staff is necessary, mainly because, no extent of technological interventions can compensate the human presence. Then follows the question – when to start opening in a responsible way – following all prescribed Covid related health norms. A representative pilot trial may help in this area.
Some of the key factors to consider will include speed of getting the staff vaccinated. Besides, arrangement for quick identification of breakthrough Covid infections among staff through quick tracing, testing, and provisions for appropriate hospitalization, if necessary, need to be put in place. Thus, I reckon, it’s time for the domestic pharma companies to diligently plan for unleashing the new potential of the respective organizations – amid the pandemic-triggered changes in market dynamics.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.