There has been much debate about the biotech workplace in the aftermath of pandemic disruptions.
Employers and employees are all thinking about how and to what extent companies should enable and support remote-based work. People are discussing the advantages and disadvantages of remote work, especially in terms of the effect on productivity and creativity.
This matters in biotech. The goal of the industry is to discover, develop and manufacture products for patients. Two of those three activities — wet-lab discovery and manufacturing — require a specialized physical space. Much of this work has been outsourced and takes place far from headquarters. Many biotech office workers rarely, if ever, step foot into the wet labs or manufacturing facilities, even if those functions are in the same building.
The nostalgia for pre-Covid office culture must die. Some biotech leaders, including John Maraganore (TR, Jan. 24, 2023), argue that having management and employees working together in person is essential to a company’s ability to be productive, creative, and competitive.
I disagree. This is a notion that should fade away.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution, which includes the blurring of the physical and digital worlds with increasingly smarter and connected technologies that allow us to intimately communicate with an expanded network of people ever further away from us geographically, has arrived. Those clinging to work practices established in the Third Industrial Revolution are swimming against the current of an inevitable change in corporate culture and talent management. Companies that embrace this change will have a sustainable competitive advantage.
It is important to take a long view of how technology has profoundly changed our behaviors in how we live, learn and work over the last 200 years, especially over the past 50 years.
No one questions that we are designed to be social creatures and we long for interaction with others from the moment we leave our mother’s womb. Throughout most of history, we have established strong relationships with our immediate and extended families and forged friendships and work relationships with people nearby.
Transportation and Communications
The last two centuries brought technological change to transportation and communications. These developments changed the nature of commerce, how and where we worked, and our personal and professional identities and lifestyles.
Although sea vessels were used by the Egyptians and Mesopotamians thousands of years ago, most relied on horses and camels to connect with others for socialization and commerce. It was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that we saw the invention of the steam locomotive (1812), the first automobile (1886) and the first airplane (1903) which became available to the masses, at least in wealthier developed countries, decades later.
While the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th Century is credited as one of the greatest inventions in history, it was not until the last 175 years that we saw the widespread proliferation of interpersonal communication tools. It started with the telegraph (1844) and telephone (1876), and continued with the mobile telephone (1973). These communication tools enabled us to reach and interact with others who lived great distances away.
The more profound impact on our socialization, culture, identity and sense of community came with the advent of radio and television. Although these were one-way passive forms of communication, these media allowed us to become familiar with those that were not in close physical contact with us.
This passive form of communications technology has exploded into an interactive lollapalooza over the last 30 years with the internet, social media, VOIP, texting and messaging apps. When Covid hit, it brought another change, forcing everyone in business to use Zoom and similar video conference platforms.
We discovered some things. It was now possible to have a productive meeting, with internal colleagues or external collaborators, that went well beyond the audio-only conference calls of the past.
Before COVID, the arguments for remote-based and hybrid work over traditional office culture were largely theoretical. But now we have run the experiment.
Consider the following advantages:
- Flexibility and Improved Work-Life Balance: Remote work allows for a more flexible schedule, allowing employees to balance their work and personal lives better: work-life balance should be minimized or eliminated as a problem if the employee is empowered;
- Increased Productivity: Studies have shown that remote workers are often more productive because of fewer distractions and a quieter work environment. Employees can also structure their day and work environment based on what’s best for them;
- Cost Savings: Remote work eliminates the need for commuting, saving time and money on transportation. It also reduces office space and other overhead expenses;
- Access to a wider pool of talent: Companies can hire the best employees, regardless of where they live. It may also provide an easier path to achieve a more diverse workforce;
- Improved mental and physical health: Remote work can reduce stress from the daily commute. It can allow more time for exercise that improves physical health;
- Improved morale and satisfaction: Remote workers have reported higher levels of job satisfaction and morale;
- Environmentally friendly: Remote work can reduce carbon emissions by reducing commuting.
While no one is suggesting the choice between old office culture and remote-based work is black and white, as each has their pros and cons, I believe the balance is more favorably weighted toward decentralizing work that that can be done anywhere.
Let’s Stop (or considerably slow) the Travel
My job requires leading investments across dozens of companies, serving on Boards of Directors, and having a presence at conferences and industry events.
It might sound shocking, but it is no exaggeration to say that the move to video meetings allowed me to be 2 to 3 times more productive than in the pre-Covid era.
In 2018 and 2019, I spent over 200 nights in hotels. That translated into countless hours on trains and planes (often with spotty or unworkable WiFi) and the often unproductive time Uber-ing to the airport, waiting at the gate, Uber-ing to a hotel, and waiting in line to check in. At the end of this typical slog, I’d realize I wasted an entire day, often to attend a 90-minute in-person meeting or to be part of a 60-minute panel at a conference.
While I often would be able to stay on top of my emails or dial into a few critical conference calls, it would have been easier to manage if I were consistently in front of a computer, on video, with no concerns about a good WiFi signal.
On prolonged trips in the pre-Covid era, was not uncommon for me to have no or limited meaningful interactions with my employees. Since Zoom became a mainstay, I now have more routine daily interactions with my employees. I have experienced more team engagement, not less.
Several years before Covid lockdowns forced the new way of working, I founded my company, Xontogeny, with a simple concept: good science and entrepreneurs were found in institutions and geographies all over the country – not just in the top biotech hubs of Boston/Cambridge and the San Francisco Bay Area. Our industry needed a better way to assist these companies by providing operational and strategic support remotely.
The model has worked. We have successfully supported more than a dozen seed investments, which often require weekly interactions. Almost none of those meetings take place in-person. Our seed investment companies are located in Philadelphia, Chicago, San Diego, Research Triangle Park, NC and our first collaboration was with a company in Blacksburg, Virginia. The Xontogeny team covers even more territory through investments out of our Perceptive Xontogeny Venture Funds (an investment vehicle of Perceptive Advisors).
As investors, we keep tabs on our companies largely through quarterly board meetings. With over 20 investments, simply participating in board meetings translates to a big time commitment. If we were required to attend four board meetings per year in-person for every company, it would be almost impossible because of the required travel.
In-person board meetings can be especially inefficient. For example, to justify flying 6 to 8 board members from various distances, the meeting agendas are often extended to 6 to 7 hours (e.g., 8:00am-2:00pm). Many directors have to depart early to catch their Uber back to the airport to get home so they are not forced to take a red-eye back to the East Coast.
Contrast this experience of dialing into a Zoom link for 3 to 4 hours. It’s now possible to fit two or three board meetings into a day. In the last three years, no board meeting I’ve attended virtually has needed more than four hours. More often than not, they end early, without anyone ever feeling there was insufficient time to cover the necessary topics. This increased efficiency frees up time for me to do other valuable things, like meet with employees.
Requests for in-person attendance at conferences are back in full-swing, but I already long for the Covid era where I was able to attend multiple conferences within a couple weeks, or even in the same week.
At one Netherlands-focused virtual conference, I was able to engage with dozens of scientists and entrepreneurs. The following week, I attended a similar virtual conference focused on Copenhagen. Each of these conferences took up less than a couple of hours on my calendar, but led to numerous follow-ups on email, many pitch decks shared, and subsequent one-on-one Zoom meetings.
The results were just as good, if not better, than if I had spent a lot of extra time and money to attend in person. The same could be said the for the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference. I stopped attending in 2020, and have found ways to be just as productive, if not moreso, by working in the virtual office.
Office Culture is Overrated and Outdated
Biotech has historically taken root in geographic hubs because they have an abundance of drug development talent. San Francisco, Boston, New York/New Jersey have been traditional leaders, thanks to their many excellent academic institutions. But it’s also true that many outstanding scientific entrepreneurs are scattered across the United States (and throughout the world). An increasing pool of experienced industry talent prefers to live outside the main biotech hubs, and many can’t be enticed to move back.
Employers, myself included, have had to choose between losing star employees or adopting a more flexible remote-based model. I prefer to choose keeping star employees, and offering a more flexible, remote workplace. Young employees are especially interested in the flexible, remote work offerings. Any company that wants to recruit and retain this group of workers should be paying close attention.
The argument for how the younger generation will suffer in their careers if they don’t experience the same in-office facetime with their managers or CEOs strikes me as empty. They are getting more facetime, virtually, and more opportunities to contribute, display their creativity and convey the fruits of their work to managers. In this new virtual, geographically-agnostic biotech community, I’ve met more people, and established more meaningful relationships, than during any three-year period of my career.
Biotech Can Benefit
These last 18 months have been a challenging time for the vast majority of early-stage biotech companies. Management teams are finding it difficult to close financings, are asked to shelve programs and focus on one or two core activities to conserve cash. Layoffs are a weekly occurrence.
Our industry is constantly under pressure to be smarter about R&D productivity and careful with investor dollars. Cutting back on unnecessary leases, and embracing the remote workplace, is one way to be a good steward of capital and extend the company runway.
Of course, there are still good reasons to maintain some physical space, even for the office workers. There will remain employees who prefer the go into the office and management teams that prefer office culture and will demand all employees report to the office 3 or 4 days per week. I don’t begrudge those that choose to offer this alternative working environment. There are many workers that prefer to get more of their social needs and personal identity through daily in-person work interactions. Many of us have formed our closest friendships, met romantic partners or found our spouses through the workplace.
In speaking to many colleagues, it seems that for every one of those individuals that prefer to have an in-person office setting, there are as many or more that prefer to spend more time at home with their partner or spouse, to see their children more often, or to visit aging parents. Some prefer to use their extra time to indulge their desire to travel. All this can be done while being a productive employee with just as much opportunity to impress the boss, take on new assignments, and advance one’s career.
It is time to embrace the future of remote work or ‘very’ flexible hybrid models as we embark on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We can work together more efficiently, productively and, yes, creatively.
These new communication tools bring us all closer together. Rather than go back to an old way of working, let’s put more energy into determining how to optimize this new hybrid/remote model so we can get better at our fundamental work – discovery, development and manufacturing of new products for patients
If all goes well, we’ll see benefits extend far beyond what we’ve seen in these last three years.