A 'springboard' to the future: Genentech, Sanofi and Alnylam execs sound off on pharma's evolving back-to-work plans

Pharmaceutical executives discussed the industry's back-to-work plans during interviews over the past couple of weeks. (Getty Images)

As waves of pharma employees headed for the home office last March, countless others stuck around, staffing labs and research facilities to handle work that demands a human touch. That, in fact, is why the world now has drugs and vaccines helping defeat the pandemic.

And now, as drugmakers plot courses back to to the office for thousands of employees, they're looking at ways to expand flexibility for those in-person staffers, too.

Employee input will be key, top human resource executives at Sanofi, Genentech and Alnylam told us, as pandemic lessons drive development of future-focused workplaces.  

And while remote work has proven effective, campuses are still vital to collaboration and even to employee well-being, the companies said. All three are looking at slow-and-steady approaches to bring back staffers in tranches.

Raj Verma 
Sanofi chief diversity and experience officer 

Sanofi is following a “hybrid” working model going forward, but its approach will vary from country to country.  

Raj Verma (LinkedIn)

Sanofi’s Raj Verma, chief diversity and experience officer, said the global "experiment" in working from home has brought plenty of lessons. For his part, he’s been with the drugmaker for six months and hasn't yet met another Sanofi employee in person. 

While technology allows workers to interact with a broader range of colleagues, there’s a downside, Verma said. From his perspective, it’s tougher to ensure employee well-being.  

"Not everybody is comfortable or happy working at home for different reasons,” he noted. The drugmaker has heard a “mix of feedback” from employees about their pandemic work situations.

In formulating back-to-work plans, Sanofi looked at “how work is organized, what work is done, when it’s done and where it’s done," Verma said.

RELATED: Roll call: How Big Pharma is charting a path back to the office in 2021

While some jobs require in-person duties and others don’t, “we wanted to be able to offer something for all," Verma said. For instance, lab workers might be able to take a day and write a research report from home. Manufacturing workers might be able to pick their hours.

On the hiring front, the company is thinking about how different global roles can be fulfilled by experts in various parts of the world. That's also part of the company's diversity push, he added.

RELATED: 2021 forecast: 'We will not return to the old ways of working': Drugmakers weigh in on returning to work, post-COVID-19 life

And on business travel, the pandemic has taught everyone that you can “get work done without physically traveling everywhere,” Verma said. While remote interactions don't give people quite the same opportunity to connect, Verma predicts travel will be “nowhere close to what it was before.” 

“We know that we can do things remotely, but there’s a fine balance,” he said. 

In all, the pandemic was a “huge accelerant” for Sanofi’s efforts to “create the workplace strategy of the future.” It has brought together experts in real estate, finance and HR and has served as a “springboard” to accelerate changes that wouldn’t have happened as quickly otherwise, Verma said.

Kelley Boucher
Alnylam chief human resource officer 

Kelley Boucher (Alnylam)

If there’s anything Alnylam has learned during the pandemic, it’s that the company can’t predict the future with precision.

That’s why the RNA biotech is taking the summer to return employees back in phases and will let them experiment with new schedules rather than lay out a clear-cut blueprint for them, said Kelley Boucher, Alnylam's chief human resources officer. 

“We know there will absolutely be more flexibility, but we feel like we want to learn experientially through the summer and listen to folks who are starting to come in and give us the feedback before we ultimately determine exactly what our model is going to be,” Boucher said in an interview. 

Of the 950 U.S.-based Alnylam employees, up to 300 of them now work in the company’s Cambridge headquarters or one of its 11 manufacturing sites, Boucher said, while the remainder work from home. The company brought back 50 at-home employees this month and plans to welcome another 60 in June. 

RELATED: 2021 forecast: Targeted delivery, oral vaccines and mRNA 2.0: The next generation of drugs and prophylactics in the fight against COVID-19

The idea of the summer pilot program is to let employees decide their own schedules—whether that means coming in full-time or just a few days—with the goal of establishing a set routine by September, Boucher said. 

Alnylam will require those returning through the pilot program to self-attest that they’ve been vaccinated. The company is still working out what to do for those who aren’t vaccinated or choose not to disclose their vaccination status by the fall, including whether to provide a diagnostic testing option. 

“Even though it’s a positive change to start seeing your colleagues again, it’s upending people’s ways of working,” Boucher said. “People need to start experiencing coming into the office again, or not, and determining ultimately what it will look like for them.” 

But that flexibility will have limits, Boucher added. 

“We're not a company that is promoting the majority of our organization going remote. We are promoting flexibility of managing all parts of our lives, and we know that's going to look a little bit different for us,” Boucher said. “But we also want to maintain our vibrant in-person culture as well.” 

Cynthia Burks
Genentech senior vice president, chief people and culture officer

Of all the pandemic lessons learned, challenging the assumptions around how, when and where people work will be among the most crucial to carry forward, said Cynthia Burks, SVP and chief people and culture officer at Genentech. 

Cynthia Burks (Genentech)

COVID-19 is teaching the company's leadership "to examine the assumptions they make about how work has to be done," she said.

While there will always be certain pharma jobs that require an in-person touch, such as manufacturing or research, Genentech has discovered that other roles are perfectly well suited to the home office.

Still, collaboration at the Roche unit's campuses is key, and the company in June will welcome back 280 volunteers to a designated building at its South San Francisco site, Burks said. 

The employees coming back this summer fill a variety of roles, and Genentech's executive team will also be among those filing back into the office, Burks said. This initial wave will need to be fully vaccinated to help protect "the group that's here onsite that has to work here," she added. 

Then, the company plans to "welcome the rest of our employees back later this year," she explained.

RELATED: With fewer COVID-19 cases expected this summer, Eli Lilly to welcome all employees back to Indianapolis HQ

Throughout the pandemic, the company has kept its campuses open to designated personnel doing essential research and manufacturing work. Right now, around 4,200 employees a week visit the company's South San Francisco HQ out of a total U.S. workforce of about 13,500, a Genentech spokesperson said. 

Genentech will use this first cohort of returnees to draw up plans for the months ahead. Until then, it'll allow employees to work remotely until Sept. 30. 

“I think remote work, to some degree, will be an option that’s available for employees,” Burks said of the future. The company doesn't want to limit its idea of flexibility to full-time work-from-home, either. 

RELATED: Even with the pandemic easing in the U.S., Amgen will let most employees keep working from home

For those whose work is tied to the campus, one of the most important considerations was implementing "flexible start and stop times," Burks said. And when those workers are doing "heads down" work such as report writing, they won't necessarily need to come into the office, she said. 

Genentech in February officially rolled out its Future of Working approach, which aims to give staffers more flexibility in how they work while also emphasizing the value of on-campus collaboration. 

Meanwhile, Genentech has cleared fully vaccinated employees for non-international travel "where it makes business sense," Burks said. Still, the company has learned—and is pushing its employees to recognize—that the old way isn't necessarily the best. Sometimes, a virtual face-to-face is perfectly sufficient. 

Editor's note: This is the second story in a two-part series about pharma's back-to-work plans. The first can be read here