We work with clients across a wide range of disease areas, company cultures, and stages of organizational development. Despite these broad differences, our clients have a few things in common: ambitious goals, limited resources, and competing priorities. There is a lot to juggle, and nobody is coasting.

Because our biopharma industry is one of fast growth and never-ending change, it can be especially challenging. We witness our clients continually sprinting to the next interval as they seek and receive more funding, hire more people, bring in more skill sets, and move through the next stage of drug development.

COVID has only intensified the strain. We have lived through nearly two years of disruption, communication challenges, hybrid work teams, and a hodgepodge of shifting organizational structures. The daily commute may be gone, but the workplace is now 24/7 and literally just steps away — in our spare bedrooms and on our kitchen tables, adding to the strain. Informal and unplanned chats have largely evaporated, now that we no longer meet for coffee before work, a drink at the end of the day, or while catching up at the proverbial office water cooler.

There is good news, however! As we work with clients, we have seen some who have done particularly well in recognizing the pressure dynamic at play. Many have taken steps that have withstood the test of the pandemic in improving how the work gets done.

Here is some of what we have learned…

1. Check in with your people.

This is about more than just the year-end review and the work itself. Effective leaders connect with their people; they build a foundation of trust by focusing on the individual in addition to the team.

How do people feel about their role? Are they thriving or spinning their wheels? Do they feel connected to the team, to the organization? What roadblocks exist in working effectively and efficiently?

In moving to a remote environment, many of the casual, personal interactions have fallen away. Absent the day-to-day serendipity of an office environment, it’s harder for people to get to know one another and build trust. This weakens the ties that help them support each other and, frankly, remain with the organization.

Consider kicking off the work week with a Monday morning team call. Not only can this help to align the team on priorities for the week, key meetings, team updates, input needed from others, etc., but it’s also a proven way to encourage team camaraderie. We do this on our own team — mid-morning to allow time for coffee but still early enough to set the tone for the week.

Don’t be afraid to use the age-old, round-robin icebreakers, too. (Think: most exotic food, greatest fear you’ve overcome, …) Last week, we asked each team member to select two images — one that represents their life reflection of 2021 and one that’s a future glimpse into 2022. It was fascinating to see some similarities, yet each image captured their personal story.

Checking in takes work and we acknowledge that much of this is easier said than done. You, too, are running from thing to thing, and checking in means another Zoom or in-office meeting. But, from what we have witnessed, it is worth the effort.

2. Clear the way.

Effective leaders help clear the path and remove hurdles. Are new approaches needed to streamline communications, simplify processes? Can clarifying roles and responsibilities alleviate pressure?

We have found in countless client engagements that, in most cases, on the surface, everyone is clear on their role. But when we dig deeper, we find that few people are clear on everyone else’s role. This makes cross-team collaboration challenging. An exercise to review, document, and communicate roles and responsibilities can pay off in time added back to your day. (Isn’t that what we all dream of?) Add a workshop to clearly define who and how those cross-functional deliverables are accomplished, and everyone can be on the same page. Often, we add a component of “What is excellence in our role?” to help elevate everyone to where they ultimately would like to be.

Another hurdle to productivity is all of the manual update processes (e.g., one PowerPoint template to complete for the leadership team meeting, another Excel sheet for the cross-functional meeting, and yet another for the department forum). Consider streamlining the process with a standardized framework that will make life easier for all. By framework, we mean consistent lexicon, metric, inputs.

3. Leverage available tools.

Consider looking for new solutions and technologies to improve efficiency and communication. Collaborative planning tools like Smartsheet can be used to manage, request, and track updates and deliverables using one centralized source, so you don’t need to populate all of those update templates from scratch.

We’ve also found that Microsoft Teams can provide a centralized communication hub and resource for all team members while incorporating tools such as a shared calendar, Smartsheet updates, and a repository of key documents.

Since going fully remote, we have conducted more workshops than we can count over Zoom. We have tried quite a few interactive tools to help spark engagement and creativity in the absence of whiteboards, post-it notes, and dot exercises. If you’re looking to try something new to engage your teams and stimulate ideas, check out collaborative apps like MURAL, Miro, and Slido. (Let us know if you need a quick how-to — we will do that for you if you ask nicely.)

4. Be intentional.

The new year is a perfect time to take a fresh look at what’s working and what isn’t. Before you take some well-deserved time off at the end of the year, pause with your team and identify the top 3-5 challenges you deal with on a continual basis. Then commit to addressing them in the new year.

If you are continuing in a hybrid or remote work environment, make some shifts to ensure that it is working for all. Turn off the Zoom; make it a walking meeting, and connect by phone to change things up (even if we are stuck on the treadmill for the next few chilly months.)

Are you finding that there are not enough hours in the day, or that you are spending all your time communicating and not enough time doing? After all, nearly two years into this, and with Zoom our default communication tool, it can be exhausting. That’s why we are strong advocates for a chief of staff role to help keep all the balls in the air and set leaders up for success. Here are a few points that summarize what that role can do:

  • Translate senior executive vision into actionable plans
  • Conduct follow-up with the cross-functional leaders to ensure unique circumstances are incorporated
  • Engage with other enabling functions such as finance, HR, IT to ensure any obstacles to workflow are anticipated and addressed
  • Manage meeting agendas, action items, summary to ensure it happens, and the senior leader can focus on senior leader stuff
  • Everything and anything

Final Thoughts

Our world continues to evolve, and the pace of our work continues to accelerate. Under these conditions, it can be challenging enough to get the job done, never mind making time to improve how it is accomplished.

In our experience, however, we have seen tremendous gains — in productivity, communication, and job satisfaction — when leaders take deliberate steps to innovate in this area.