Managing People in a Pandemic: Lessons From the Front Lines
With the right tweaks to processes and management approaches, Cytiva delivered on surging demand despite COVID-19 lockdowns. But this life sciences company couldn't expect its associates to keep up this pace and isolation forever. Recent lessons learned will have a lasting, positive effect on the company's ability to serve customers and operate as a team that’s in it, together.
Rarely has the world been so eager for the next life-saving discovery, particularly vaccines and biologic treatments such as cell- or gene-based therapies. Since COVID-19 hit, our business at Cytiva (formerly part of GE Life Sciences) has been firmly at the center of the action, playing a critical behind-the-scenes role, delivering solutions to help life sciences companies advance and accelerate the development and manufacture of vaccines and therapeutics.
Understandably, over the past year demand for our products and services has soared, as they are essential for the kind of intensive life science processes aimed at developing COVID-19 remedies and other treatments efficiently and quickly. At the same time, we needed to almost completely change the way we work, as our associates across 40 countries moved to remote work for all but the most essential functions.
Pivoting to prudence
The challenge was on. How would we balance the need to keep our associates safe (especially those who were required to work in labs or manufacturing facilities) with the need to deliver products that can save lives? We pivoted quickly to adopt new practices and learned much along the way. Looking back at our response, I’d say we were as efficient, if not more efficient, than we were at any prior time in our history.
I expect that many of our new ways of working will continue long after we’re free to reenter our offices and facilities. While there are some benefits to remote working, it may also carry the unsustainable burdens of longer work days, isolation and an inability to build strong one-on-one relationships with teammates and customers.
But through it all, we did many things right to ensure our associates’ well-being and uninterrupted service and deliveries to our customers.
Getting online processes right
One of the big lessons, and somewhat a surprise, was how much we could accomplish virtually. Change wasn’t necessarily easy, but it was swift as we adjusted to the new dynamics of meeting and working virtually.
One of the teams I manage is responsible for factory acceptance tests (FATs). Before our customers take delivery, we work with them to validate that the equipment and any related software meets their precise specifications. Our products also must comply with strict regulatory standards applied by various governmental bodies in multiple geographies. To conduct a FAT prior to the pandemic, customers would send two of three representatives to one of our facilities for onsite testing.
As that is unfeasible during lockdowns, we standardized a process around hosting a virtual FAT, or vFAT. This called for sharing documentation, checklists and other information electronically and conducting all business online.
One challenging byproduct, however, is that when you host a virtual call, interested attendees can skyrocket. Rather than hosting two to three customer representatives on a call, more than a dozen customer team members might join. We didn’t mind the additional interest, but productivity doesn’t exponentially increase with attendance. In fact, the opposite can occur. With so many people asking questions, offering opinions and debating issues, it can be easy to get off track.
Ultimately, we created a new process to request that customers designate one or two associates who can channel all their feedback to keep the process moving. We set this ground rule for all subsequent vFAT meetings. This allows customers to engage as many people as they need in the vFAT process without slowing the acceptance of the equipment, and its entry into service to produce urgently needed medications.
Managing remotely, effectively
During a lockdown, there’s no way to “manage by walking around.” You lose the in-person ability to observe, listen and, most importantly, learn about unexpected issues. So, for my weekly virtual meetings with direct reports, I encouraged associates to add any topics to the agenda beforehand and note how much time might be needed for each. We then used an “inform/discuss/approve” discussion framework to stay on track.
We also created roundtables to address any types of questions, such as how a projected post-Thanksgiving spike in COVID-19 cases (which actually materialized) might affect our ability to staff a lab where people need to be on site.
Working from home can be socially isolating, as it eliminates the “water cooler” opportunities for deeper social bonding. To encourage these connections and conversations, some of our managers held department-wide virtual coffee-break chats for 15 to 30 minutes a few times a week to discuss non-work topics. Associates offered each other advice on a range of subjects, from buying exercise equipment to helping children apply for college during the lockdown. While the benefits are anecdotal, I’m sure these efforts help our associates feel more connected and appreciated, and encourage them to stay with us and remain committed.
Onboarding in an offsite world
In the last year, our hiring picked up significantly to meet the rising demand for our products and services. In all, we hired around 1,800 new associates. However, onboarding presented challenges. We adopted new ways to ensure these associates could be productive quickly, rethinking how to guarantee they have the equipment, access rights, knowledge and relationships to perform in their new roles.
To help them get up to speed remotely, we created “onboarding sheets” with links to information they can watch even before they officially join. These sheets provide important information they need to know about our business, from common industry practices to our product offerings.
We also include links to administrative onboarding tasks, such as applying for a company credit card to accessing the corporate financial and other reports they’ll need for their day-to-day jobs.
We also conduct personalized virtual “one-on-one” sessions so they can meet their co-workers. A recent new hire mentioned that he had met with 80 people through these virtual sessions — an incredible wealth of insight if he ever has questions or needs assistance.
I admire how our recent graduates and younger associates are so comfortable using collaboration platforms and meeting co-workers virtually.
The return to “normal”
While we’ve successfully managed challenges like emergency plant openings to meet rising demand, no matter how much we do to make remote work easier, it can still take a toll. Many of us are working longer hours. Meetings might start earlier and end later and can easily consume the day. I doubt that remote work — in our environment — will continue in its current form post pandemic.
So while the pendulum has swung all the way from working in-person to working remotely, I suspect it will return to somewhere in the middle. Travel and in-office work will resume gradually but likely only on an as-needed basis. I went from traveling 50% of the time to zero, and may resume to 25% longer-term based on customer needs. We and our customers now have a better understanding of what can be managed well virtually and when an in-person meeting or onsite FAT is required. Overall, though, travel and face-to-face interactions are still essential for truly effective customer communications and relationship-building.
Longer term, as we decide where to stand on the “in-person vs. remote” continuum, I’m confident we’ll make the right decision on a case-by-case basis based on what we’ve learned. And all the while, we’ll need to stay creative and flexible as work or global health conditions change — especially in our industry.
This article was written by Kevin Seaver, Executive General Manager, Cytiva.