The life sciences industry was already moving towards more remote working, but COVID-19 has accelerated this shift. The industry’s rapid digital transformation in the last few months has been a challenge but it has also accelerated innovation and flexible collaboration.

For example, remote interactions between healthcare professionals (HCPs) and pharma reps have soared in recent months. A recent study reveals that HCPs prefer these virtual meetings because of its compliance, security and convenience1, perhaps signalling a more permanent shift towards this model. With three out of four workers wanting to work from home more often after lockdown2, expectations have been forever changed.

Lance Hill, chief executive at Within3, where every employee has been working at home for years, says, “There is a misconception that meaningful relationships and innovative collaboration can’t happen online but that isn’t true. It does, however, require the right technology and the right people who want to make it work.”

The future of R&D - remote clinical trials

Medical research has traditionally favoured a face-to-face approach. Patients are usually treated at specific sites, HCPs administer treatments and monitor patients in person, and external regulatory and quality professionals visit the site to carry out inspections.

However, out of necessity, remote trials are gaining popularity and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has encouraged sponsors to consider more efficient monitoring methodologies. In the last decade alone, the cost of bringing a new product to market doubled from $1.1 billion in 2010 to $2.1 billion in 20183. On-site monitoring accounted for a significant portion of those costs.

For pharmaceutical companies resuming life-saving research that was stalled at the peak of the coronavirus crisis, now is the time to implement the technologies that can reduce the burden of patients, HCPs and CRAs regularly travelling to sites for trials. Not only will this approach reduce costs and improve efficiencies, it also has the potential to open up trials to a wider range of patients and improve the work-life balance of trial administrators.

Digital native HCPs prefer digital engagement

As with every industry, digital native HCPs are beginning to outnumber their older colleagues. In fact, 70% of all HCPs are expected to be digital natives by the end of this year4. This younger generation of HCPs has been instrumental in changing how sales reps engage with physicians, but COVID-19 accelerated the shift away from face-to-face meetings and towards remote meetings, virtual events and informative emails.

Looking ahead, the future rep engagement model could evolve even more. In-person HCP access may never return to pre-lockdown levels meaning pharmaceutical reps will need to permanently adapt their outreach models. This could see sales reps adjust their working hours so they’re available when doctors are most engaged with new content. Sales functions could also become more reliant on bespoke content as HCPs demand more real-world evidence on a given treatment.

Companies that pivoted quickly during COVID-19 will have an advantage in setting their sales functions up for success, whatever the future of rep engagement looks like.

A global workforce will open doors

Over 1.5 million5 UK employees are estimated to be working from home during the lockdown. And this figure is expected to increase significantly by 2022, when it is predicted that 60% of the workforce will be remote workers6.

We are looking at an exciting future where job applicants will be much less restricted by their location. As a search agency, we are already seeing companies open up their talent pool to candidates around the world. This globalisation of work does have its challenges, but COVID-19 related lockdowns have proven how adaptable people can be. A remote workforce can be just as, or even more, collaborative than office-based teams.

With companies recruiting in a more location-agnostic manner, comes greater diversity. Diversity introduces new perspectives and ideas which can challenge and improve existing processes. Life sciences organisations that can harness the best talent around the world will have an edge over competitors, particularly when expanding into new markets.

Furthermore, employees have grown to appreciate the working from home experience. Nearly a third of workers report a better work-life balance when working from home7.

Lance adds, “It’s crucial to look after your staff, whether remote or office based. During the peak of COVID-19, our client success team were working incredibly hard to make sure all our customers had the tools they needed to succeed. We wanted to show our appreciation to this team so we provided childcare reimbursement, extra time off, and surprise bonuses. These are relatively simple measures to take but show our team that we care.”

Upskilling a remote workforce

The life-sciences industry will need to continually train and upskill its workforce to make the most of the digital and data-driven technologies that come with more remote working. A core pillar of future training will be empowering people to take control of their own learning. Trust is a key aspect of any remote workforce and should filter down into personal training programs. This helps employees feel appreciated and trusted and leads to increased productivity as individuals are aware of their personal strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t overlook the fact that people learn from people. A community can still be created online but it needs to be nurtured and celebrated. Working and learning communities go beyond a common location, people might bond over supporting different teams of the same sport or play the same video games. Virtual social events like team breakfasts or calling a colleague over a cup of tea can make a huge difference in spontaneous learning and collaboration.

Lance Hill says, “As home working becomes a more popular option around the world, companies may have to adjust to make sure they don’t miss out on any of the ‘spontaneous interactions’ that can happen at an office. This can be addressed by making sure everyone has an equal voice and feels they can query or challenge everything. Meaning people can proactively reach out to someone to ask why we’re doing something or offer some feedback. Not only does this make people more involved in what we’re pushing to achieve as a company, it also encourages more open discussions and innovation.”

Fundamentally, people want to be proud of the work they do and the companies they work for, particularly in the life sciences industry. Companies who listen to their employees and nimbly adopt new technologies to optimise remote engagement will be able to recover quickly once the industry settles into its future normal.

Richard Warren is chief executive of RBW Consulting and chairman at Thorp Associates