Biotech Needs to Get Back to Work in Person. Now.

John Maraganore, former and founding CEO, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals

Companies at the frontiers of science and medicine, developing new therapies for patients, are working on one of the most challenging endeavors known to humanity. Most would agree it’s more difficult than putting a man on the moon.

The pandemic created a dramatic disruption to our globally networked economy. It will have far-ranging and long-lasting repercussions.

It started with quarantine.

We adapted quickly, managing to achieve business continuity on Zoom, Teams, and WebEx. We continued to file INDs and NDAs. Our lab and manufacturing workers kept coming to work in person to conduct their critical tasks and experiments.

Executives were able to continue to have conversations with investors which kept fueling our industry’s need for capital with venture rounds, IPOs, and follow-on offerings. Even our commercial colleagues discovered new and efficient ways to stay in touch with customers through digital means.

For a while, we appeared equally — if not more — productive than before.

We improved our work-life balance with no hair-tearing commutes, more time with kids and family, and a newfound flexibility to work from the beach or ski slopes.

Now as we approach the third full year of this work experiment, it is increasingly clear that the cost of hybrid/remote work greatly outweighs the benefits across multiple important dimensions: culture, engagement, creativity, and employee development.

For a mission-driven industry tackling some of the world’s greatest challenges, we need to get back to work, in person.

As I wrote in my 2022 Nature Biotech article “Reflections on Alnylam,” people and culture are the most critical elements of a biotech’s success. A company culture cannot be built effectively without interactions of people and teams; culture is defined by a set of core values that define desired behaviors, norms, and interpersonal interactions.

In Alnylam’s 20+ year history, culture and our core values underscored the commitment to persevere when we were up against many technical adversities. This culture is what enabled us to take the appropriate risks to advance early RNAi prototypes into development, and empowered our leadership team to make the quick, and necessary, data-driven decisions.

Virtually all aspects of drug discovery, development, and commercialization are part of a multi-disciplinary team sport. It requires the highest level of engagement with people working together in close proximity. This means constant communication, alignment, and coordination. Much of this work requires informal and spontaneous communication, such as the afterthought following a meeting.

High-performing teams are known to require stages of development including “forming, storming, and norming” prior to “performing.” It’s critical for teams to develop strong interpersonal engagement, and mutual trust and respect. Teams need to learn how to best interact with each other, and this is a continuously evolving dynamic as team membership often evolves over time. New employees need to be effectively “on-boarded” so they can contribute effectively to the goals and objectives.

With all the “mountain climbing” needed to bring medicines to patients, it’s hard to imagine doing it without the engagement of teams.

The third consequence of the post-pandemic work environment is the cost to creativity. More often than not, creativity emerges from the spontaneous engagement of colleagues in informal manners; it is the idea that’s sparked from an impromptu hallway or “water cooler” conversation. It’s the new plan that comes from coworkers chatting after a meeting, or the brilliance that can radiate from a team after simply grabbing lunch together.

While remote or hybrid work has enabled productivity, it has stifled creativity. I have had conversations with many CEOs and heads of R&D about this phenomenon. With fewer creative sparks, we run the risk of falling into a rut of the mundane. Without a doubt, the mission of bringing transformative medicines to patients requires creativity to solve the enumerable challenges and uncertainties of science and medicine.

Finally, the post-pandemic work environment could have stark consequences for employee and professional development. For newly-minted employees entering the workforce, where is the opportunity to learn from talking with experienced leaders? How do the experienced leaders get to benefit from the energy and fresh ideas of younger workers, and then help guide them to direct these energies in the most productive way? Where is the whiteboard talk that a manager often needs to deliver to their employee regarding work plans or business strategy?

It is hard to imagine how a young employee will learn the managerial and leadership skills and capabilities from a two-dimensional Zoom box. Will this result in different advancement and promotional consequences for on-site vs. hybrid employees? More seasoned employees also have their own obligation to provide mentorship and development to newer employees, ensuring a continuity and sustainability of the business over time as people move on in their careers.

There are some features of hybrid and/or remote work that are positive. But a physical return to work is needed for effective company cultures, engagement of workforce and teams, creativity and invention, and the development of future leaders. As an industry with a mission and responsibility of bringing medicines to patients, we need to get back to work in person, now!

The bottom line: we cannot sustainably deliver transformative medicines to patients from a virtual workplace.  

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