Will Push for ‘Return to Office’ Yield Fruit or Failure for Pharmaceutical Industry?

Sheila Mahoney-Jewels

Sheila Mahoney-Jewels, Founder of LifeSciHub

With so much angst in the air about whether employees who have long since gotten used to working remotely really need to return to the office to be considered productive by their employers as the pandemic wanes, one commentator wonders what all the fuss is about where the pharmaceutical industry is concerned.

“I sense so much distress on this issue—a frantic scramble to somehow make the office attractive enough for employees to want to return to and for making it ‘commute worthy,’” says Sheila Mahoney-Jewels, a life sciences executive management consultant and creator of the LifeSciHub community for independent life sciences research and development (R&D) workforce businesses. “Oddly,” she adds, at a recent meeting she attended of human resources (HR) leaders in the New Jersey biopharmaceutical sector, “there was no discussion on the actual merits of employees returning to the office. Only an unspoken, absolute truth that it was mission critical. But who really thinks it’s so very imperative for things to be as they were once before?”

Mahoney-Jewels notes that in drug and device R&D, almost all work, other than lab bench and manufacturing efforts, is comprised of remote teams, anyway. “Any given project tends to involve teammates in other states and/or countries, and at least one vendor if not several, also hailing from various sites across the globe. Most R&D professionals are on multiple such teams, all day long. This was true even before the pandemic.”

She guesses in most firms, “back to the office” is a mandate from senior leadership to HR, and HR doesn’t have a choice in the matter. “Maybe senior leadership simply feels better or, more importantly, more in control if they can actually see workers working?” she notes. “These are leaders with a lot at stake. If those who are on the front lines of clinical trials feel uncomfortable with uncertainty, they who see and bear the burdens of the entire organization must feel it far, far worse. Maybe reversing virtual work seems like an easy risk to mitigate, among all the others.”

Senior leadership and HR are not included in the vast majority of remote teams, Mahoney-Jewels notes. They don’t see firsthand how corporate culture and community still exist, albeit in different ways than before, she adds. In the meantime, there’s no doubt that a lot of expensive real estate is being put to little use, which is a drain on many organizations.

“I was at the Cambridge, Mass. office of a global top 20 pharmaceutical company a few weeks ago,” Mahoney-Jewels recalls. “The emptiness was chilling. Vast stretches of abandoned open floor plans. Fully stocked kitchens with nary a coffee drinker in sight. The eerie quiet only occasionally broken by spotting a single worker in the distance.” It was, for her, “a reminder of the bustling energy of yesteryear that even I, a happy remote worker now and forever, longed for in that moment.”

If only employees would return to the office, “then what?” is the question she hopes senior leaders and HR will carefully consider. “Because if the answer to that question is anything other than 1) getting drug development done faster and with higher quality and patient safety, 2) improving/saving more patient lives, or 3) increasing profits for shareholders, then technically, it should not be a priority,” she says. “If HR can prove to workers through valid, understandable metrics that going back to the office will vastly impact one or more of these key corporate goals upon which the company’s collective employment survival depends, workers will come back.”

Edited by Gary Cramer