Five Mistakes To Avoid With Partially Remote Employees: Lessons From Biotech

Jo Ilfeld | Executive Leadership Coach| Five Mistakes To Avoid With Partially Remote Employees: Lessons From Biotech

Article originally appeared in Forbes

It’s time to return to the office. Or is it?

How can newly hybrid companies best manage the divide between in-person and remote workers?

Reaching out to biotech company CEOs, I learned crucial do’s and don’ts. When shelter-in-place hit the Bay Area, many biotech companies found themselves with most of their workforce logging in from home, while essential workers continued on-site at the lab or manufacturing facility. From my conversations with company leaders, I’ve distilled what to avoid in order to create a seamless workplace.

Five Mistakes That Trip Up Partly Remote Workplaces

1. Keeping The Meeting Structures That Worked Before

Nope! Biotech leaders universally maintain that hybrid workplaces need more communication than before they went remote. With employees split across in-person and remote work, leaders will need to be more transparent in explaining the “why” of their decisions and walking people through what they as leaders see across their whole company. Companies like IDbyDNA and Avro LifeSci found that implementing daily huddles and creating more structured use of communication channels, including instant messaging tools, allowed their employees to replace hallway chitchat and keep eyes on what their peers are working on, even when they’re not sharing the same physical space.

Take it up a notch: Once your teams are internally aligned, create communication processes to communicate cross-functionally between teams. You need easy ways to share information beyond mass emails that ensure handoffs between teams are well anticipated and supported.

2. Thinking Being Back In The Office Means Being Back To 9 a.m. To 6 p.m. For Everyone

Many companies find that shifts more easily accommodate employees inside the office. They can better distance from fellow workers, as well as create pods of people who work together so that if one person tests positive for Covid-19, there’s less chance it spreads beyond that pod. This means hybrid workplaces might find themselves dealing with the same time challenges that global workplaces face.

There’s also complexity for people working at home. Many school systems are committing to remote learning this school year. Hence, working parents are swapping shifts of their own to navigate home schooling or creating their own shifts where they won’t be accessible during certain hours (and they’re not necessarily yours!). Eko Health and Fabric Genomics found that when they allowed their employees to set and communicate clear scheduling boundaries, stress levels eased for both those workers and their colleagues who know when and how to best reach them.

Take it up a notch: Eko Health found that picking one day and designating it “no-meeting Wednesdays,” for example, allowed their staff time to dive into their own projects while allowing them to be more available the rest of the week.

3. Assuming Everyone Is On The Same Page On A Project

Henry Winkler (a.k.a. The Fonz) shares that “assumptions are the termites of relationships,” succinctly articulating what many biotechs have found. There needs to be stronger accountability when making handoffs in the hybrid environment. That means being clear about who owns the task and maintaining tracking software so employees can double-check their assumptions.

Fluxion and Indee labs found that shelter-in-place gave it the step-back time to create more efficient standard operating procedures (SOPs). Taking advantage of these more efficient SOPs when returning allows teams to hit the ground running without sacrificing clear accountability.

Take it up a notch: Appoint someone for each meeting to record accountabilities directly into your tracking software. Emery Pharma schedules five-minute debriefs after each customer meeting so that everyone knows which ball is theirs to take and run with.

4. Thinking It’s Time To Return Focus To The Five-Year Strategic Plan

Leaders from Fabric Genomics and Ology Bioservices found that between the combination of distributed teams and the shell shock of the pandemic, long-term strategic plans no longer motivate and engage employees. The secret, they say, is demarcating shorter time frames and breaking milestones into smaller goals. Consider the additional bandwidth employees now expend on keeping their kids entertained, figuring out best times to grocery shop and safely taking care of aging family. Companies have found that focusing employees on smaller pieces of the puzzle gives employees the autonomy and focus they need to contribute to the overall team.

Take it up a notch: All CEOs agreed that while much has gotten harder with Covid-19, some things are easier (commute time, reaching customers who were previously too busy, etc.). Convene a meeting with your team and brainstorm what’s easier. Then focus some of your newer short-term milestones to take advantage of these unexpected opportunities.

5. Believing We’re Here Because We Share The Same Values — Let’s Get To Work!

As an industry, biotech tends to keep its purpose front and center: “How will our drugs or technologies improve the health of our target patients?” Yet even these mission-focused companies recognize how draining 2020 has been. Avro LifeSci and IDbyDNA have made sure to take extra time to focus on their common purpose and why they’re pushing forward on milestones and accountability even now. It’s important to keep it relevant and visible for all your employees. A June 2020 study by McKinsey found that when employees were aligned with their organization’s purpose and values, their engagement increased by a staggering 49% and their workplace effectiveness by over 20%.

Take it up a notch: Several biotech companies I spoke with have transitioned resources to aid the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Even if your company isn’t in the healthcare space, is there a way you can highlight your company’s accomplishments in assisting others or making life easier right now? Could you thoughtfully sponsor employees who are doing this in their own time? Artis Ventures created a Covid-19 tracker to monitor the development process of all potential new drugs and treatments, a great resource for those looking to dive deeper into the science behind the daily headlines.

Bonus: Your biggest mistake would be trying to figure it out on your own! Keep reading about, talking to and learning from what other successful companies are doing that’s working well. There’s wisdom to be found in others’ trials and errors.

Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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