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

As COVID-19 vaccines are rolling out in different parts of the world, perhaps it’s finally time to talk about life after the pandemic. But biopharma companies believe it’s too early to put a specific timeline on turning that page now.

Despite all the unknowns, though, one thing seems certain: How drugmakers conduct their business will change.

After navigating the past few months, “one thing is clear to us: We will not return to the old ways of working after the corona pandemic,” Bayer spokesman Markus Siebenmorgen said.

As the virus shakes up the world, many drugmakerswhile working hard to sustain critical supply of medicines and develop drugs for COVID-19—have adjusted their policies and updated their toolboxes to help employees adapt to the turmoil. During the process, they have invited employees, many with deep medical backgrounds, into the decision-making for both returning to work and life after the pandemic.

Some companies had firsthand experience with the virus disrupting operations. Bayer had a coronavirus scare during the early days, before COVID-19 was officially deemed a pandemic. In March, the German conglomerate temporarily closed its campuses in Missouri and New Jersey after an employee was suspected of having contracted the virus. The worker later tested negative and the lockdown was lifted.

Biogen wasn’t so lucky. The biotech’s February meeting at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel has been fingered as a superspreading event, having contributed to some of the earliest COVID-19 infections in Massachusetts and an estimated 333,000 cases in the U.S., according to a recent Science study led by researchers at the Broad Institute.

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For now, the Big Biotech is still asking employees to work remotely when possible. “We are closely following the developments in this space and will continue to adjust our protocols as necessary based on local health authority guidelines,” a company spokesperson said.

A 'phased' approach

As is the case with many other companies, Bayer’s employees at manufacturing plants and research labs have been working on-site during the pandemic with increased hygienic protocols in place; after all, you can’t make or test a drug from home unless you’re running a “Breaking Bad” type of business, and that's far from the world of pharma. 

But employees who mainly conduct their work in offices have switched to home; about 40% of Bayer’s workforce in its home country worked remotely during the pandemic. For these people, Bayer “gradually arranged” a return to workstations starting the past summer, but only a maximum 40% of workspaces may be occupied at a time, Siebenmorgen said.

Many companies have taken a similar approach to returning employees to workplaces.

AbbVie, AstraZeneca and Bristol Myers Squibb all cited a “phased approach,” guided by government and medical advice, for returning office staff to their usual sites of work. Johnson & Johnson plans a return in a series of “waves,” a company spokesperson said. 

GlaxoSmithKline continues to tell those who can work from home to keep doing so, a company spokesperson said, adding that “any change to this guidance will be gradual, in adherence to local health guidelines and in line with country specific government rules.”

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All the multinational biopharma majors we polled declined to put a specific timeline to their return-to-work plans. Some high-profile companies in other industries have been forced to repeatedly change those plans as the pandemic refused to ease up. For example, Google recently extended its work-from-home period again to September 2021 from the previous end date of July 2021.

Drugmakers referred to local government recommendations as guidelines, but government directions aren't the only factors at play.

When authorities relax their restrictions, “we expect that the return to normal operations will begin in a phased approach and may depend on certain precautionary and organizational measures,” a Roche spokesperson said.

Companies also listen to what their own employees have to say. J&J, for its part, bases its return-to-work decisions on “meeting external and internal criteria, including reduced disease transmission, governmental recommendations, infrastructure openings and facility readiness,” and this approach is “informed by employee feedback,” its spokesperson said.

The company conducts employee sentiment surveys weekly to gather feedback on organizational preparedness, the spokesperson said. Virtual town halls and open mics were held from time to time over the last several months to help the company better understand the best way to support employee needs and shape its approach.

Not going back

COVID-19 is changing work tools, schedules and styles, and some of the practices implemented during the pandemic may be here to stay, several drugmakers said.

“We recognize that the future of work will be much different than work as we knew it before the pandemic,” the J&J spokesperson said.

During the public health crisis, J&J made several adjustments to its policies, including its employee well-being strategies. This included a digital tool to support mental well-being, an employee online activity challenge to encourage healthy movement and social connectivity, and virtual energy management training to help employees better handle stress and prevent burnout. The spokesperson said the company will continue to adapt its policies.

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Bayer’s been trying new ideas as well. “We envision a work environment that is coordinated and collaborative enough to create high-performing teams, but flexible enough to give our employees freedom,” Siebenmorgen said.

“In the post-pandemic period, we anticipate increased use of home office, with many employees switching flexibly between office and home office in our expectation,” he said. “Our concept expressly does not provide for a fixed home office quota or upper limit.”

An Eli Lilly spokesperson also said the Indianapolis pharma, for the longer term, is exploring “how to enable more flexibility in work locations and finding new ways to collaborate, which may include more remote work.”

Takeda has launched an initiative called Project Explore to paint a picture of its future workplace. The effort engages employees across the Japanese pharma to help define a new working environment.

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“Our aim is to develop a leading hybrid model that combines in-person and virtual working,” a Takeda spokesperson said. “This involves taking a look at everything from skills, training, tools and technology to processes, policies and working norms needed to support employees.”

Going through the pandemic also made Roche realize that many of its office employees can accomplish a large part of their work from home. The Swiss drugmaker is therefore looking to continue to “enable and promote this flexible working independent of the office” even after the pandemic, its spokesperson said.

“We are convinced that the success of our work lies in the right balance between flexible, location-independent working from home and joint, personal and innovation-promoting collaboration at the site,” the spokesperson added.