The Bowdoin Group is an executive search company that specializes in building teams for fast growing companies in the biopharma, digital health, fintech and financial services, and software industries. As Founder and CEO, David Melville has become an expert in helping these companies identify effective hiring and employment strategies. Seema Pandya, an executive healthcare marketer, and Elizabeth Hooker, an advertising and marketing consultant, chat with David about trends in the biotech and life sciences workforce.
“Biopharma is an increasingly competitive industry. Attracting the best talent requires an understanding of what candidates really want in their jobs these days,” Melville says. “Flexibility and culture are two of the biggest considerations for all candidates. We find that these are difficult topics for organizations to address, especially in the interview process. Some organizations say one thing and mean another because they haven’t really figured it out.”
Melville suggests the following considerations to help biopharma companies attract and retain talent by actively working to balance the workforce desire for greater flexibility with a corporate culture that demands accountability:
Consideration #1: Maintaining and fostering culture
When working to attract teams, it is essential to establish a consistent culture with clear guidelines grounded in a dedicated effort to clearly communicate. With the growing need to enable and support remote teams, this requires more effort because people need to stay enfranchised and feel they are part of something. Culture doesn’t just happen, it is something that you must nurture and reassess regularly.
“For example, one of our biopharma clients that was building out a clinical team,” Melville says. “The company had a strict policy around not working remotely. During the hiring process, we quickly learned that they were losing great people to other companies simply because other companies allowed remote working.” After some soul-searching, the company ultimately decided to allow the clinical team to have an informal remote policy. They even took it one step further and articulated company-wide that flexibility needed to exist because the industry had changed and they wanted to continue to respond to the needs of their employees. Hiring great candidates became far easier after that.
“We’ve also seen an increase in the number of companies offering unlimited vacation time as a way to attract top talent,” Melville continues. “We offer an unlimited vacation policy at The Bowdoin Group and thought our employees would love it. After some time, we realized it actually stressed them out—they had no idea what amount of vacation time was ‘appropriate’ to take. So, we reassessed and put informal guidelines around the number of days we expected people to take, but let them know that there was no time clock ticking. If they needed to take more or less time, they wouldn’t be penalized.”
It’s essential to define the various aspects of your culture so there are no discrepancies. Avoiding assumptions and keeping a finger on the pulse of your organization helps ensure a high level of performance and engagement.
Consideration #2: Clearly communicating policies and expectations
Remote teams benefit from clarity that ensures they understand exactly what the policies are, why they are in place, and why they are important to the corporation. Rules become complicated when they are not explicitly communicated, so the more you can set clear expectations, the better.
Melville explains that some organizations struggle to communicate expectations because there is a discrepancy between policies and reality. “For instance, a consulting firm told incoming candidates that their work schedule would be flexible, work hours were 8-6 on average, and that if they needed to be out for a doctor’s appointment or because they had just traveled to a client site, candidates could work from home afterwards. When promotion season came around, the candidates who were in the office first and left last were the only ones to be promoted, regardless of whether other candidates were doing the same thing from home. If you want a culture of flexibility, you need to reward candidates who operate successfully within that culture.”
However, Melville notes that it’s important for employees to understand that flexibility goes both ways in order to ensure a high level of performance. Setting the expectation that work must achieve goals and meet deadlines, even if that means working evenings and weekends, is key.
Consideration #3: Keeping teams engaged and accountable
In order to answer the demand for flexibility and ensure accountability, a company needs to have a communication system in place that facilitates regular communication, be it video conferencing, frequent meetings, or email status reports.
It’s also helpful to switch from the once-a-year performance review to more in-the-moment reviews to help ensure employees are continuing to perform at the expected level and are meeting team goals and work flow deadlines. Our clients have also used surveys to understand employee engagement and learn more about accountability.
Consideration #4: Hire the right people…and keep them
“If you’re looking to embed more flexibility into your culture, hire individuals who have successfully worked in a flexible environment,” Melville says. People who have a background in freelance, remote work, or a job that required frequent travel tend to be a great fit, and can set up systems to ensure accountability across teams.
It’s not just about hiring the right people—it’s also about keeping them. For example, one of The Bowdoin Group’s clients has an innovative, open working space. When candidates see it, some really love it and instantly want to work in that environment. But the company found that as soon as candidates started working there, they realized it’s too loud. “Your office environment should match the kind of people you aim to recruit, so ensure that both are aligned,” Melville recommends.
Summary: Keeping the focus on company goals
Remember, flexibility is not about remote employees and working from home policies. It’s about your corporate culture and goals, and why you are enabling expanded flexibility in the first place. It is a tactic to achieve your business goals. Flexible environments aren’t right for every organization, so consider what you’re trying to achieve as a company before you commit.