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

Diverse Workplace with Masks
As some pharmas chart a path back to the office, others are letting certain employees work remotely for the foreseeable future. (Getty / E+ / Orbon Alija)

With vaccines putting COVID-19 on the defense in the U.S., many businesses are grappling with the question of when, how and whether employees might return to the office.

For drugmakers—many of which had a direct hand in the shots, therapeutics and diagnostics waging war on the pandemic—a consensus is emerging that fully in-person work is going the way of the dinosaur.

Over the past two weeks, Fierce Pharma asked a range of pharmaceutical companies about their ongoing pandemic work plans. This is the first in a two-part series on the industry's back-to-work strategy, with the second featuring executive interviews set to publish early next week.

While a few companies, such as COVID-19 antibody player Eli Lilly, are looking to summon certain staffers back to the office, many others, like Swiss pharma juggernaut Novartis, are extending remote positions into the foreseeable future—and perhaps even permanently.

No matter the solution, many companies agreed there's “no going back” to the pre-pandemic way of doing things.

In-person pioneers

Eli Lilly has drafted a phased game plan to bring 25% of its workforce back to its downtown Indianapolis offices on June 1. Masks and social distancing will be mandatory, and, to return in June, employees must have proof that they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Starting July 12, however, Lilly’s offices will be open to all Indianapolis-based employees, regardless of vaccination status.

The company does expect most of its employees to be vaccinated, but “if they have a reason not to be, we’ll make an accommodation,” CEO David Ricks said in a recent interview with the Indianapolis Star. 

Over the course of the pandemic, Lilly discovered some office-based jobs were perfectly well suited to remote work. Still, "collaboration, innovation and learning is best done in-person at our facilities,” Ricks said in a LinkedIn announcement about his company’s plans.

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That blueprint could change if local case counts take a turn for the worse, Ricks cautioned, but with more than 40% of Indiana’s eligible population now vaccinated, Lilly is “starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel [there].”

Employees’ physical work requirements will depend on their role; some will be on site “all the time,” others for most of the time, while others still “will have even more flexibility,” he added.

Starting in June, Bristol Myers Squibb also plans to “very gradually” usher its office-based workers back to select U.S. sites, a company spokesperson said. BMS has pledged to take a “thoughtful” and “phased” approach based on public health guidelines and the virus’s region-to-region trajectory.

Much like Lilly, whether employees are needed in-person will fluctuate according to site and function. Meanwhile, the company says it will “prioritize flexibility” according to individual workers’ needs.

Home office heroes

On the other end of the spectrum, companies like Novartis and Amgen are looking at ways to leverage remote work for years to come. “Several months into the pandemic, we realized that there was no 'going back' to the pre-COVID paradigm,” a Novartis spokesperson told Fierce Pharma via email.

To that end, Novartis in July rolled out its new work model, dubbed “Choice with Responsibility," which aims to gives its employees more power to decide how, where and when they can best function in their roles.

Once it’s safe to return to onsite work, Novartis says it will continue using the program to help employees find the style of work that fits them best, whether that’s virtual, face-to-face or some combination of the two.

Workers whose jobs can be done remotely will be able to work from home for the foreseeable future, Novartis’ spokesperson said.

For lab, research or manufacturing roles that must be done in person, the company says it’s weighing “a few experiments focused on expanding flexibility within non-office-based roles,” which could ultimately include staggered shifts or remote options for “location-agnostic tasks within location-specific roles.”

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Meanwhile, Amgen will permit many of its more than 24,000 employees to continue working remotely for the time being, the company told the Camarillo Acorn in early May. “Our intent is to create a new, more flexible work environment that intentionally combines the benefits of remote and in-person working,” the company said.

At its home base in Thousand Oaks, California, around 2,000 Amgen staffers report for duty each day. Most of them are R&D and manufacturing specialists, while the company’s 3,000 remaining Ventura County employees can do their work from home.

Taking a similar tack to Novartis, Amgen is also looking at ways to ease the in-person requirements of certain roles. “We can envision manufacturing processes to be further automated such that workers can control the system from remote locations, providing opportunities for even further flexibility,” Jessica Simpson, Amgen’s human resources director of manufacturing, told HumanResourcesOnline.net in February.

Finding the right mix

With many pharmas juggling home office perks with the physical constraints of research, manufacturing and more, the right balance of remote and in-person work will be key. That’s certainly true for companies like Pfizer, Roche and Bayer, which are all eyeing hybrid models for their employees.

Where possible, Pfizer last March unveiled a fully remote framework for its employees, which it’s still using now as it monitors the virus’s evolution in the U.S., a company spokesperson said over email.

Pfizer's new work model, “Log in for Your Day,” helps facilitate remote work while “maintaining the ability to connect and collaborate,” the spokesperson said.

Once COVID-19 restrictions lift, the model will allow colleagues to potentially work remotely for “two or three days a week.” Much like the other companies surveyed, Pfizer noted that flexibility would hinge on specific job functions. Overall, however, it does “expect fewer colleagues coming to [its] offices on a daily basis.”

Viatris, born from Mylan and Pfizer’s generic drugs unit, has a similar strategy in mind. It’s weighing timelines for the return of its in-office workforce on a “site-by-site basis,” a Viatris spokesperson said.

The company pointed out that it also wants to give its staffers enough advance notice to plan for the care of their kids and other family members before they’re asked to return to the office. The company’s flexible and remote work arrangements won’t be going anywhere post-COVID, either, the spokesperson said.

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As for Bayer, “thousands” of workers have continued to perform “essential” work on site in the U.S. as many other teams have shifted to remote work during the pandemic, a spokesperson said. Bayer is now increasing some voluntary in-person activities for U.S. colleagues who’ve been remote based on the pandemic’s trajectory in their specific location. It will also weigh the specific business needs and functions of those staffers.

The “status of the pandemic and safety protocols will continue to guide all activities,” with the view that “additional flexibility” for certain workers may be available in the months to come. But, ultimately, Bayer aims to rely on an alchemy of remote and onsite work.

In the conglomerate’s native Germany, “practically all employees performing office work” moved to home offices in mid-March of last year. Around 12,000 Bayer staffers in Germany are working from home during the pandemic.

In a post-pandemic world, meanwhile, Bayer envisions “increased” use of home offices, with many employees switching flexibly between remote and in-person work. Its plan “expressly does not” provide for a fixed home office quota or upper limit.

Editor's note: Angus Liu, Kevin Dunleavy and Noah Higgins-Dunn contributed reporting for this story. This article has also been updated to remove the section on Roche, which will be featured in our follow-up story next week.