Phased return-to-work policies have been announced at most of the pharma majors by now, including AbbVie, AstraZeneca, Bristol Myers Squibb and Johnson & Johnson. But others in the space continue to tread cautiously, fearing potential blowback. Merck, for example, has notably rebranded its return-to-work strategy as a “global hybrid work model.”
Only time will tell how all of this shapes up, of course. But with two-plus years of experimentation behind us, it seems safe to ask: For what roles does remote work truly “work” for life sciences employers at this point? And for what roles doesn’t it?
We’ll answer both of those questions, while also keeping an eye out for potential challenges and opportunities going forward.
when it mostly does
The number of clinical trials conducted entirely remotely jumped up a full nine percent in the early days of the pandemic — a rapid and adaptive response on the part of companies in this heavily regulated industry. During COVID-19, equally impressively, more than half of all interactions between the lead physician and patients during clinical trials took place virtually, compared with 8 percent previously.
Now, it seems that much of the practices and procedures put into place during COVID-19 are here to stay. And for many — but not all — of the professionals involved, that means remote work is, too.
Consider the role of data analysis professionals, for example. Once a clinical trial is underway, you have an enormous quantity of data flowing in from geographically distributed study sites — and like those sites themselves, the team you have to analyze it needn’t be headquartered in a single centralized location. Rather, the data can be effectively collected, aggregated, analyzed and reported even if your team members are working remotely.
Just one caveat, though: Due to the potentially sensitive nature of the data involved in clinical trials, you should have protocols in place governing how team members are accessing and storing it. Given the fact that issues like secure access to EMR and data-sharing platforms could be subject to regulation in the not-too-distant future, what’s more, it’s a good idea to be ahead of the curve in this department.
drug discovery and preclinical roles
Most non-patient-facing positions within the life sciences space have been remote since the start of the pandemic, and the majority of drug discovery and preclinical professionals today are no exception. Which makes sense: These professionals aren’t involved in patient care.
That said, not everyone has benefitted from this newfound workplace flexibility equally. Some drug discovery scientists — those whose work hinges on the use of complex lab equipment, for example — have in fact had to continue working and collaborating onsite throughout the full course of the pandemic.
In that case, employers can at least make specific allowances, with the goal of not only promoting work-life balance but keeping their employees safe and healthy. Introducing adjustable or flex scheduling options, meaning fewer people will be physically in the lab at a given time, is one good example.
when it mostly doesn’t
The documented benefits of enrolling remote or virtual patient populations in clinical trials are hard to argue with: shorter assessment times, expanded access to patients who have rare diseases and increased engagement with underrepresented groups, to name a few.
What’s more, research demonstrates that these trials align with patient preferences today, too: Roughly three out of four patients would prefer a mobile trial to a traditional onsite one, and four out of five say they’re more likely to participate in clinical trials that leverage mobile technology than those that do not, for example.
All of which might reasonably lead you to conclude: Fully remote work arrangements are in the cards for site monitoring professionals, right?
Wrong. At the end of the day, most site monitoring and operations professionals (explicitly “remote” site monitors excluded) still have a number of business-critical onsite obligations. And patient care is at the heart of the job description, too.
Yet even in these roles, where the job title seemingly demands onsite duties, opportunities are emerging for employers to offer their workforces far more flexibility.
For starters, many of the responsibilities that traditionally fall to site monitoring and operations professionals can now be effectively carried out remotely. These things should be fairly obvious, but a few examples:
- reviewing study data
- building relationships with stakeholders at investigational sites
- collecting documentation, resolving issues and requesting information from study sites
If you’re struggling to attract qualified life sciences talent, consider calling attention to this type of flexibility in your job description — even in the title of the job, ideally. Some level of onsite work might remain a requirement of the role, sure, but highlighting the potential flexibility might make a world of difference in the eyes of today’s candidates.
This is perhaps the only non-gray area in the entire life sciences space. It’s the one specialization where it’s hard to find much wiggle room, at least for the foreseeable future. The fact is, the majority of the workforce involved in the physical production of tomorrow’s life-saving drugs really do need to remain onsite, largely owing to quality control considerations.
Ongoing advances in so-called “Human Machine Interfaces,” or HMI, may one day revolutionize the day-to-day work of drug manufacturing professionals down the line, to be sure. But these technologies aren’t a viable alternative to onsite work for most manufacturing teams at present. Not in such a heavily regulated industry. Not yet, anyway.
But in the interim, employers aren’t powerless to offer greater flexibility in a host of different ways. For example, similar to what we have seen elsewhere, new technologies — automation, primarily — mean that fewer employees are usually required to operate most worksites. Leveraging these technologies can have added benefits, too, such as streamlining the occasionally arduous scheduling process for onsite supervisors.
As you do, just keep in mind that facilitating teamwork and collaboration, not to mention ensuring basic team cohesion, should be top priorities. After all, while offering more flexibility around scheduling can be a significant lure for manufacturing talent (it might even improve your retention rate, to boot), it shouldn’t come at the expense of what made your team great in the first place.
From the standpoint of new working arrangements, the pandemic has been something of a mixed bag for life sciences professionals, as we have seen. Even for those who are unable to work 100 percent remotely, however, the broader trend — greater workplace flexibility — seems to be undeniable. In context of the increasingly heated competition for qualified talent at the moment, it stands to reason that this will be a key differentiator for life sciences employers going forward.
To learn more, including how the experts at Randstad can help you optimize your workforce management strategies, get in touch with us today.