By Kevin Seaver, Executive General Manager, Cytiva
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.