Advice for building a virtual culture for biotech’s remote working revolution

This article was originally published on May 22, 2020 in the San Francisco Business Times “Bay Area Biotech in the Time of Coronavirus” feature.

If the COVID-19 pandemic is the tipping point that establishes flexible, remote working as standard practice, how can companies truly make it work? CEOs across the Bay Area are thinking critically about when and how to stage a return to offices in the face of mandated safety and social distancing guidelines, but another driver may be forcing change. 

Generational preferences for work/life balance and thriving productivity within the new normal tilts the future of work in favor of employees who want to work remotely. A recently published global survey conducted by Global Workplace Analytics predicts that businesses will see 25-30 percent of the workforce working at home on a multiple-days-a-week basis by the end of 2021.

Within the biotech space, this begs the question: will anyone other than essential lab, facilities and manufacturing workers ever go back to the office full time? And if they don’t, how can company culture become sustainably inclusive of employees who regularly work onsite and/or from home?

In these last few months, companies have been adopting new technologies and people practices on the fly to enable effective remote working. Going forward, beyond redesigning their physical spaces, some Bay Area biotech companies are architecting online spaces to democratize access to both information and each other in anticipation of a remote working revolution.

What does this entail? Waterhouse Brands has partnered with biotech companies at various growth stages, including Exelixis, MyoKardia and Global Blood Therapeutics, to support human resources and corporate communications teams in prioritizing three cross-functional mandates – communication, connectivity, and community – as the cornerstone of what a dynamic virtual culture should be.

Communicate openly and often to drive employee engagement

During uncertain times, transparent and frequent employee communications are a top priority – and once things normalize, employees who are decentralized from the home office will need this level of information flow to continue. CEOs who sustain a regular cadence of authentic communications, with opportunities for two-way dialogue, will keep employees connected to the business mission and drive engagement, no matter where they work.

Offering virtual town halls, Q&A sessions, and informal, regular quick-hit updates via video conferencing will help keep employees in the know. Video can improve the effectiveness of your message and the emotional connection with your audience. And, while CEOs set the tone, executives across an organization must show up and reinforce how change impacts their teams and individuals. Employees who feel like their leaders care – at all levels – will reward them with extra effort and increased commitment.

Connect people and processes through a robust intranet

In a distributed – or quasi-distributed – work environment, a corporate intranet can serve as your information superhighway and virtual water cooler. It can enhance productivity and business performance and support teams 24/7 across geographies and devices. Beyond ensuring you’ve got quick links, current forms, and department spaces with all the tools your employees need to do their jobs, the most successful intranets feature “for employees only” content that educates, recognizes good work, plus offers insider leadership perspectives.

Use it to post your latest COVID-19 policies, corporate news and executive communications all in one place. Some platforms offer social features that allow employees to like, share and comment on content. In short, make your intranet the go-to daily destination that brings everyone and everything together.

Create a community of inclusion

With remote working, we’ve begun relying on digital productivity tools to facilitate face time, collaboration and bridge the distance gap, but technology alone is not enough to help employees feel included, engaged with their company’s purpose, and connected to their colleagues.

Look at your organization’s needs holistically then prioritize and activate solutions. Be curious. Conduct pulse surveys or focus groups. Ask what employees want more or less of in terms of technology, information and managerial or social engagement. Ask what they need to help get their jobs done. Use these inputs to customize communications, make remote-working accommodations, and help managers develop soft and hard skills to engage their team members equitably no matter where they sit in an organization. Also, look for ways to keep things fun through virtual coffee dates, lunches or happy hours, because camaraderie – and a sense of community – really does matter.

Companies that get remote working right will thrive across physical, geographic and virtual boundaries. This will improve employee satisfaction, enhance retention, and make recruiting easier for new generations of employees. Making these changes now will reap benefits long after the COVID-19 crisis fades away.

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