Governments everywhere are in varying stages of evaluating plans to lift stay-at-home orders and start to allow businesses to re-open. As they do, businesses are considering how to restart.

Significant focus and discussion is on the safety considerations that will enable businesses to re-open: the availability of testing, personal protective equipment, safe workspaces, contact tracing and 'health passports'. These steps are targeted at complying with health guidelines and ensuring employee safety, in the hopes that customers will return with confidence.

While these are critical and necessary actions, they only address part of the 'return to work challenge'. Truly returning to productivity requires assuring employee and customer safety while accelerating the path back to full capacity and building resilience to a potential second wave of the pandemic when the seasonal flu returns in the fall.

While life sciences organisations have been working non-stop to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, much of their regular operations have been impacted: supply chains have been disrupted; new product launches have been put on hold; sales reps limited in their interactions with healthcare providers; clinical trials have been delayed or stopped; and scientists have been kept out of their labs. All of this has impacted patients everywhere, who have had to make difficult decisions about their own treatments while trying to stay safe from infection. Life sciences companies, like all other businesses, need to prepare for the next steps they must take to 're-open' once stay-at-home orders are lifted.

Companies need a near-term strategy to restart with purpose, manage with agility, and begin the reinvention that will build resilience if or when a second wave returns.

Corporate enterprise

Life sciences executives need to develop plans to determine what functions – in what order and at what percentages – to bring back onsite and which to leave remote, balancing the risk of COVID-19 infection with the need to deliver critical therapies and an economic restart. Life science corporate campuses are often a complex combination of office park, research laboratory and manufacturing site. Priority should be given to securing the supply chain and returning researchers that require lab capabilities, while delaying the return of office workers, many of whom have discovered productivity improvements while working from home. These likely won’t be binary decisions, and hybrid models that rotate on-site and remote time for individuals and functions are likely to emerge. There are additional considerations for the remote sales force and clinical site monitors who don’t work from offices but spend their time travelling.

These decisions are further complicated by varied timetables and regulations – country-by-country, state-by-state and county-by-county. Executives should set a global framework to define the strategic imperatives but enable local autonomy to respond, execute and make decisions relevant to each market. And unfortunately, these frameworks for reopening need to be accompanied by contingency plans for responding quickly again, in the event of a second flare up, whether very localised or beyond.

Research & Development

At least 15,000 clinical trials were inflight and may have faced some level of disruption as a result of COVID-19 as patients haven’t been able to enroll, make appointments and travel to sites. Another 6,500 trials could be impacted over the next six months, according to Accenture analysis. As companies evaluate their clinical trial pipelines and priorities, decisions about which trials to restart depend on insights into an intricate ecosystem of interdependencies. Running clinical trials effectively requires contributions from internal staff, sites/healthcare providers, CROs, testing labs, technology partners, regulators and – of course – patients.

In order to restart, companies must understand which sites, healthcare providers and ecosystem partners will re-open and when, which are willing to restart trials once they do open, and what staffing levels and capacity they will operate at. They also need to be able to find new sites in different geographies in order to reduce the burden on existing sites. Again, further complexity is introduced as this happens country-by-country, state-by-state, with varied policies clinic-by-clinic. Clinical development organisations must also evaluate how to best reallocate their clinical site monitors, considering travel limitations, and understanding site policies for outside visitors. Finally, companies need to be able to reach patients in the hope that they will return to trials, assuring them that they’ll be safe and appropriately cared for.

Sales & Marketing

Similar to the challenges that exists in R&D with clinical trials and clinical site monitors, life sciences companies will also need to determine which parts of their sales force, or field force for med tech companies, can return to work. That requires the right insights into the status of the healthcare providers. It won’t matter if a company is willing to put its sales force back to work if the healthcare providers aren’t taking sales visits and/or patients aren’t seeking treatment. Instead, pharma and med tech companies should focus on emphasising services for patients that help balance demand for care.

As companies start to return to full productivity, they need to re-evaluate customer needs – those of patients, caregivers and healthcare providers – and shift efforts accordingly. Companies have an opportunity to leverage their field-based teams to capture 'near real-time' insight into local hospitals and clinics, feeding intelligence into centralised models for scenario planning. They should also assess the decisions they made on communications content and channels at the start of the pandemic to inform what they carry over into the coming months. These new agile ways of working will allow companies to determine how they most effectively match up their sales force to the market, paired with the right digital investments, to enable new engagement models.

Supply chain

Biopharma companies have reported (both in quarterly earnings and anecdotally) that despite some shortages, supply chains have been resilient thus far, but we’re not out of the woods. As stay-at-home orders lift and the economy re-opens, forecasting will prove challenging. Many factors will influence new demand and prescribing patterns. Will patients feel safe to visit doctors for diagnosis, or even for wellness visits? When will non-essential and elective procedures begin again? What impact will the economic downturn, unemployment and loss of health insurance have on prescribing patterns and demand?

On the supply side, companies need insights into the inventory positions of their suppliers. Have they similarly returned to work? Have they experienced upstream supply disruptions or production slowdowns, and will raw materials, APIs, be supplied at predictable rates? Although forecasting may be a challenge, now is the time to drive greater levels of collaboration and visibility across the supply chain.

Looking ahead

The pandemic shined a light on the vulnerabilities in the life sciences value chain and will provide the spark for the digital transformation programmes that will provide long-term resilience. R&D organisations will move to create more patient-centric clinical trial capabilities that incorporate wearables, telemedicine and remote monitoring capabilities. Commercial organisations will adopt more digital engagement solutions while continuing focus on improving access and affordability programmes for patients. Manufacturing organisations will reshape supply networks and adopt digital plant solutions in the form of greater automation, advanced analytics, digital worker solutions and robotics. Companies will design/redesign facilities and office space, embed disease surveillance in physical security, and develop future talent recruitment and development plans that include substantial remote working. These capabilities will not only drive greater efficiency, they will also act as a buffer against future disruption and ultimately allow the industry to better serve patients.

But how do we get there?

When the pandemic first hit the focus was on what to do now – how to get employees home to safety and limit disruption to operations. It further identified the transformation and resilience programmes that companies need to start now and will continue for several years to define our future ways of working. But at this moment, companies need to quickly turn their attention to the near – the critical weeks and months ahead of us that will determine how effectively we start to rebound. As governments take steps to ease social distancing restrictions, companies need a detailed plan to restart that considers the unique circumstances of each function, and factors in the ecosystem that they operate within. And it should all be anchored to a set of empathetic and human-centric goals for employees, partners and patients.

To be successful, companies need to establish control towers or command centers within each function, tasked with the priorities and discrete, near-term objectives for restarting. Within those command centers, companies should split those that are focused on the next transformation programmes from those that are focused on the restart. They will need strong sensing capabilities built on advanced analytics and insights tools, that can combine internal operational data with external data sources not previously considered, including partners and changing local public health conditions. This is the time to institutionalise the agile and fast ways of working that were established at the outset of the pandemic. The companies that do this successfully will generate the best insights, enabling them to act the fastest, provide better patient care and gain competitive advantage in the return to productivity in the never normal.

Brad Michel is a managing director and Accenture's Life Sciences Industry Lead for North America