As more people are vaccinated against COVID-19 and some businesses are distributing new virtual work policies, workers and managers are talking about what they have learned and where they are headed. They are pondering questions such as How did the pandemic change productivity, relationships and communication? What will organizations do about those changes? Can businesses maintain or even improve advances?
To explore these issues, the Suburban Delaware Valley and Philadelphia chapters of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) presented a virtual seminar sponsored by Grant Thornton. The event, “Emerging from the Pandemic with New Life and Work Strategies,” featured panelists describing their experiences during the pandemic and what they’ll try to incorporate as more people head back to the workplace.
Amy Flynn, national leader of Life Sciences for Grant Thornton, moderated the discussion, which featured panelists Tammy Guld, global head of Multi-therapeutic Area Project Management at Janssen Research & Development, LLC; Melissa Harris, PharmD, head of Fibrosis Development at Bristol-Myers Squibb; and Cynthia Rosengard, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice and adjunct associate professor at Brown University.
“[My team members] said, ‘Let’s set this up as an all-day virtual meeting, and pop in and out as we go through the analysis.’ That’s what we did, and it worked beautifully.”
Virtual processes worked for big projects
Some employers have associated remote work with lower productivity and less communication. As a result, they’ve announced plans to require workers to return to the office a set number of days per week or full-time. The panelists, though, said they and their teams made gains in productivity and communication during the pandemic.
Harris wasn’t initially convinced that her team could handle big projects as well virtually as in the office. “Data readouts from a clinical trial were coming forward, and our team discussed seeking permission to come on-site so we could be together to work through the data,” she explained. After thinking it over, team members decided to try something new. “They said, ‘Let’s set this up as an all-day virtual meeting, and pop in and out as we go through the analysis.’ That’s what we did, and it worked beautifully,” Harris said. She added that this type of virtual meeting would work well in the future and could easily incorporate colleagues in other parts of the country and the world.
Guld had a similarly important project — a large and complicated program with five workstreams and initiatives that had launched in early 2020. The multiple teams involved panicked at the thought of not working together in person, she said. “They wondered, ’How are we going to get this work done? We can’t workshop or whiteboard together.” The group used technology and Zoom breakout rooms, then regrouped. “About six weeks in, we thought, ‘We’re doing this!’” Guld said the experience compared favorably with the interruptions that often characterize in-person workshops. “We would have regularly lost 20 minutes grabbing coffee, walking down the hall, using the restroom and taking phone calls.”
“Those opportunities to appreciate relationships at home make me a better person in the workplace and keep me balanced, energized and ready for growth.”
Communication during virtual projects became more equitable and accessible because of technology, Harris noted. “The chat functionality allowed colleagues who otherwise might not get a word in edgewise to bring forward their ideas, thoughts and questions. And if you missed the meeting, you could follow up on the chat, viewing linked references and resources.”
Guld’s team members have been communicating more openly, she said. “If they are going to have a more contentious conversation or their perspective will add a little conflict, team members are more apt to get that healthy tension into the space to raise the level of decision-making.”
Quality life equals quality work
Panelists also noted that they built relationships at home and at work, and they credit breaks during the workday with enabling quality work. Rosengard explained: “I’ve been working with every client to figure out what kind of routine and self-care they can incorporate to enhance their workweek. The breaks you take are in service to being more efficient and productive rather than running yourself ragged.”
Breaks have taken different forms for Harris. She explained: “I’ve done more walking virtual one-on-one meetings than ever — enabling me to be outdoors and get some exercise in as well. It’s made a huge difference in my energy and attention, and I saw that reflected in my colleagues as well.”
Guld was able to see her children when they came home from school, something she hadn’t done in many years, she said. “I didn’t realize I missed my children so much because of all the travel I was doing. Those opportunities to appreciate relationships at home make me a better person in the workplace and keep me balanced, energized and ready for growth.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, I said I wasn’t going to take on any new clients, because I couldn’t imagine starting therapy that way. Now, about a third of my practice are people I’ve never sat in the same room with.”
Harris said she saw the importance of flexibility and was able to further build relationships with colleagues. “I noticed that enabling teams to be flexible and have quality of life resulted in quality work. I learned about some of the patterns of my colleagues, and we found that our ability to connect when we were at our best helped us get our work done. Being inside one another’s lives brought us closer as a team.”
Flynn said she built relationships, too. “I never thought of myself as someone who wanted to share so much personally, but I have embraced it and enjoyed learning about my colleagues and my clients. I’ve heard some people around the world make fun of Americans, because we ask, ‘How are you?’ but don’t necessarily listen to the answer. More people take the time to listen now.”
Applying what we’ve learned
Rosengard said several of her clients took new jobs during the pandemic and talked about the strangeness of never having been physically present with their teams. “We were all building a plane while it was in flight. People did not know how to do [virtual] intentional onboarding for new hires, because we’d never done that before. At the beginning of the pandemic, I said I wasn’t going to take on any new clients, because I couldn’t imagine starting therapy that way. Now, about a third of my practice are people I’ve never sat in the same room with.”
“I have...enjoyed learning about my colleagues and my clients. I’ve heard some people around the world make fun of Americans, because we ask, ‘How are you?’ but don’t necessarily listen to the answer. More people take the time to listen now.”
Virtual attendees of the seminar answered the following polling questions about how they would like to use what they have learned during the pandemic.
Guld summarized next steps: “There are more opportunities than challenges that we can carry with us as we emerge. It’s not like we’re going to flip a switch and be in a new environment tomorrow, so there will continue to be learnings throughout this process. We need to continue to advocate for what’s been working well.”
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