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Pharma's Push To Resume In-Person Work Carries Consequences

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The following article is an opinion piece written by Professor Michael S. Kinch. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Technology Networks.

The tech industry in general, and biotech in particular, is amidst a troubling personnel trend that could have long-term implications, both for society and its own ability to innovate. The participating organizations are likely to be culling their prospects through a campaign of unintended, but nonetheless blatant, marginalization of their female employees.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, a new remote working world was beta-tested and rapidly normalized, all within the span of a few short weeks. Even before SARS-CoV-2 compelled the need for social distancing, many media organizations had been espousing the benefits of remote work. A February 2020 article summarized studies from Gallup, Harvard and Stanford, amongst others, which emphasized positive impacts upon worker productivity (which improved 35-40%), performance (40% fewer quality defects), retention (a 12% reduction in worker loss), profitability (21% higher earnings) and improved employee engagement (as evidenced by a 41% lower rate of absenteeism).

As the Spring of 2020 unfolded, remote working rapidly evolved from exotic to nearly commonplace. The flexibility conveyed by remote working not only proved lifesaving for companies, which could not otherwise safely house their workers, but imparted an upside of the increased efficiencies as had been previously expressed by the media. These efficiencies abrogated exhausting commutes, created savings from unnecessary business trips and increased overall employee morale, even in a troubling time of societal distress. 

Calls to end remote working

Nearly three years later, the evidence for worker productivity remained. Yet, bosses were already souring on remote and even hybrid work. A study of internal managers at Microsoft concluded that 49% of  hybrid worker managers “struggle to trust their employees to do their best work.” A Citrix study further bolstered evidence of management unease with remote working, citing evidence that “half of all business leaders believe that when employees are working ‘out of sight,’ they don’t work as hard.”

The problem, it seems, is not with the remote workers, but with the perceptions of these workers by their managers. Worse still, the corrective actions being taken for a problem that may (but more likely does not) exist are likely to disproportionately damage these same companies and their managers.

The call to end remote working has been amplified by many of the same technology companies that enabled these cost efficiencies, including names such as Meta, Dell and ironically, Zoom itself. The pharmaceutical industry soon followed, with retrograde actions from Roche, Novartis and Pfizer.  Focusing upon this latter group, let us compare the actions of two different biopharmaceutical companies.

In November 2023, Novartis announced an effort to entice workers back to the office. With the opening of new office space in Montreal, the company revealed facilities with many new discussion spaces, wellness zones as well activity spaces for employees. These facilities were touted by Novartis as amongst a variety of worker conveniences, which includes cafeterias, take-home meals, medical services, lactation rooms, federal credit union, ATMs and even dry cleaning services. This benign approach contrasts sharply with one of its major competitors.

That same week as Novartis’ announcement, Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, abruptly announced that Pfizer’s US employees will be required to return to the workplace for an average of 2.5 days per week, an effort that would be tightly policed starting in January 2024. This action was applied retrospectively to (almost – more on that momentarily) all employees, including those who had historically worked remotely before the pandemic.

This abrupt change might not have seemed particularly newsworthy except that Pfizer then announced the closure of multiple sites across the United States. This announcement built upon the fact that, as part of cost-cutting measures, the company had already largely curbed the ability of many employees to return to work when it shuttered or razed major office centers in Connecticut, New Jersey and Michigan. Given that the company intended to pink slip those employees failing to meet their 50% on-site requirement, the company was effectively dismissing large swathes of its workforce, which conveniently aligned with the fact that the company also announced a reduction in force of roughly one-quarter of their employees.

Putting aside the business strategy captured by this series of executive decisions, let us consider the impact. According to the Washington Post, women are more likely to work remotely and a YouGov poll confirmed that women place greater importance on flexibility than their male counterparts, a fact that was confirmed by a McKinsey study of women in the workplace.

Aside from the bias caused by such decisions, one might question the business sense of decisions to curtail remote working. It has been well established that greater diversity improves overall corporate performance. Evidence comes from feedback received from both hiring managers and large scale studies, which reveal that “differences in age, ethnicity, gender and other dimensions foster high performance.” Diverse teams outperform individuals by nearly 90% in terms of decision-making, and gender-diversity is particularly impactful.

By potentially culling the diversity and morale of an organization by half, the long-term ramifications of innovation-dependent organizations that are eliminating remote work raises serious questions about the future. A remoteness in commonsensical thinking seems to be dominating the boardrooms of many technology companies.