Massachusetts Biotechs Consider How to Return Safely, and Create a New Normal

Adam Thomas, chief people officer, Synlogic

What’s next?

This is a question being asked in every household. With the U.S. federal government recently releasing guidance to states on how to re-open their economies, biotech businesses are building plans on how to re-open their doors.

Everything from the White House’s three-phase plan, to signals emanating from the state governors, suggests that businesses need to plan for the long haul – at least until a vaccine hits the market. An 18-month development time frame, we can all agree, is extremely ambitious for that.

There’s no single way for all companies to come back in the interim. Each company needs to consider its own set of circumstances.

Sage Therapeutics — a 300-person biotech with offices in Cambridge, MA and Raleigh, NC. — does not have labs or manufacturing in-house. As a result, Sage’s workforce has been working completely virtually in recent weeks. Given the nature of the work, Sage can continue on this path for some time without suffering undue delays or a serious drop-off in productivity.   

Others, such as Waltham MA-based Entasis Therapeutics and Cambridge-based Synlogic. have labs. If you operate labs as part of your business, then it stands to reason you want to see those labs able to operate fairly well with skeleton crews in the near-term, and then with fuller staff in the not-so-distant future. “As a state-identified essential business we decided from the outset that our labs would remain functional with appropriate precautions,” says Andy Dawson, head of human resources at Entasis, mirroring a decision made by many peers.

So far, most biotech companies report that the new normal is going well, or at least as well as can be expected. Firms have embraced the virtual world. Many are providing stipends to enhance home offices – with allowances ranging from $100 to $500 for home office equipment purchases – and have invested in enhanced video-conferencing technology to enable home working, with contemporary options like Zoom or BlueJeans replacing the legacy WebEx system, and Slack or Teams increasingly common on desktops.

Other demands on employees’ time at home can make work challenging. Whether it is home schooling, varying ages of children, elder care, roommates, barking dogs, or even just the limited ability to get outside, biotech staffers are like everyone else – their lives are being upended in very different ways. With Massachusetts schools also now shutting down for the remainder of this school year, biotechs have to find ways to be more flexible to accommodate the needs of employees.

Adjustments, on the part of companies, are required. Alnylam, a 1,400-person global biotech based in Cambridge, Mass., for example, developed a COVID-19 page on the company intranet. It’s dedicated to information and internal guidance for employees regarding the virus.

Kelley Boucher, chief human resource officer, Alnylam

“In addition to the variety of virtual resources we offer (child education, health and wellness, learning and development), we also hold regular all employee meetings, video blogs and weekly email updates to stay connected and informed,” says Kelley Boucher, chief human resources officer at Alnylam.

Once-prized social events have moved to the virtual world. “The Culture Team has organized weekly contests to show off talents at home — our TikTok challenge was a big hit!” says Dawson. Companies are also enhancing medical support, providing mental health services through various offerings at Employee Assistance Programs and online apps.

Different companies, at different stages of their development, naturally need to think differently about how and when they return to work. “We do not feel that a rush back to the offices is the right approach,” says Erin Lanciani, senior vice president of people, organization, and strategy at Sage.

Erin Lanciani, senior vice president of people, organization, and strategy, Sage Therapeutics

“We think one way to exert leadership in this area is to remain virtual as long as it keeps our employees safe and healthy,” Lanciani says. “We have no definite timing to reopen our offices.”

Adam Thomas, chief people officer at Synlogic, described how the company is thinking about safely returning to the lab. “Safety is key, and overrides other considerations,” but continues, “With internal labs, some roles or tasks can only be performed onsite. It is critical to review all your protocols to see how you can operate your labs safely.”

Companies are expecting a slow, phased return to work. “We estimate when we come back it will be slow to start,” says Lanciani. Both Dawson of Entasis and Thomas of Synlogic talk about a “phased ramp up” based on guidance from the CDC and state governments.   

Not all employees, of course, need the same accommodations when they return to work. Labs are different than field sales offices, for example. “We have a team developing a holistic strategy toward physical return to work which includes higher volumes of staff in offices as well as how our field-based team will operate,” says Boucher of Alnylam.

As they plan for the next phase, companies are evaluating solutions for space that reduce density. Kendall Square, a high-rent district where many companies have major operations, creates a natural incentive to get a large number of people working in close proximity. It’s good for brainstorming. But that needs to be re-thought in the crisis. “You have to plan for physical distancing when onsite,” says Thomas, “and need to set up work schedules and physical space accordingly.”

Many companies with ongoing lab operations have already adopted staggered shifts. These are likely to be extended across the majority of biotech firms. Other companies are considering reconfigured lab and offices, plus other facility changes – particularly in shared areas like cafeterias and common rooms. “Watercooler conversations won’t be happening for a while,” suggests Thomas.

Some organizations are considering more radical alternatives. “We are looking at this experience as a great source of data to evaluate how we work long-term and rethink the way we operate,” says Lanciani. “For example, one interesting idea is whether we could have smaller, more local offices instead of everyone together in Cambridge. Maybe have offices in the north, south, west and Cambridge and people work in the locations based on their commute. This was something we were evaluating for a while but we haven’t made any decisions.”

The commute remains a concern, with many in urban hubs like Cambridge relying on the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) buses and subways. Many employees who normally rely on this option will be reluctant to resume this routine. Commuting will become increasingly problematic as more people across Massachusetts return to work.

“We’ve always provided free T-passes,” notes Thomas. “During the pandemic we’ve also moved to provide free onsite parking as a safer option. Spaces are limited, though. We can continue to offer this while staffing levels are low, but depending on how staffing levels ramp up we’ll reach a point where we’re at maximum capacity.” He notes that under current staffing projections it will be at least four to six months until parking is a concern. “By which time the MBTA may have found a solution.”  

Given that this is the biotech industry, some special features can enter the return-to-work equation. Testing is likely to happen when workers return to offices. Temperature, PCR or antibody tests are all being considered or have already been implemented by companies who have this capability on site. Cleaning is being ramped up. Disinfecting wipes are increasingly a staple of the office desk, nestling next to the brass nameplate and photo of a smiling family. Masks are now de rigueur, along with gloves in many cases – often in two colors to distinguish lab gloves from office gloves.  

“We are currently taking temperatures and providing masks for staff who continue to work from our office and labs,” says Boucher of Alnylam. Others have adopted similar practices or will soon do so.

Andy Dawson, head of human resources, Entasis Therapeutics

Many sacred cows are being put out to pasture. Conferences, investor one-on-ones, all-hands meetings – these are all being moved on to virtual platforms. Domestic travel may resume more quickly than international trips, but both will be reserved for business-critical reasons only for the foreseeable future. “I can’t imagine anyone flying somewhere for work for a while,” says Dawson of Entasis.

Some of these changes will be long-lasting. “You need to focus on something that is sustainable over the long-term,” says Thomas of Synlogic. “When this first broke, we were in a reactive, crisis mode. We are now looking to adopt work practices that will be resilient for however long outbreaks continue.”

When choosing approaches for the next phase, having the right information is key. “We’ve relied on the CDC for guidance throughout,” says Thomas. Lanciani of Sage agrees, but goes further, saying the company has leaned on its existing networks for advice. “We are closely monitoring the situation from both government guidance but also leveraging our physician contacts and networks to ensure we get this right.” Dawson notes that the biotech community has been sharing best practices, and he hopes this continues. “Sharing has helped so many already,” he says.

Emerging from the disruption of a lock down brings opportunities to do things differently. Boucher is hopeful: “I have no doubt that we will leverage the connections and creative ways of communicating during this time to come out even stronger.” 

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