Leadership: Don’t Tell Your Teams You’ll Let Them Fly, Then Clip Their Wings

How fast things change. Last April, I spent a month in England. This entailed ten days of self-isolation, four mandatory PCR tests and daily phone calls from a UK government agency monitoring my adherence to the self-isolation rules. Covid vaccines only started being rolled out for my age group in May and that is when I flew back to Switzerland.

Access to public life in Switzerland was only possible with a Covid certificate. Now planes are back in the skies, masks are rarely seen, nobody wants to see my certificate and most people I know have had the virus, with the exception of my entire family and my closest friends. One might be tempted to think Covid is a thing of the past, however some changes will likely stay with us for much longer. That is what this newsletter will focus on.

Today’s topics:

– Has the pandemic hastened the end of the field rep?
– A new operating model for pharma: post-pandemic priorities
– Why the future of customer engagement is a hybrid model
– Leadership: don’t tell your teams you’ll let them fly, then clip their wings

Has the Pandemic Hastened the End of the Field Rep?

The pandemic has changed the way we work. From one day to the next, face-to-face meetings were impossible, all conferences were virtual and working from home was mandatory. While companies are making tentative efforts to have employees back in the office, the learnings of the pandemic are here to stay. Virtual engagement has proved effective and is impacting the face of pharma operations. For example, Pfizer reduced its US sales staff based on expectations that HCPs will want fewer face-to-face interactions with salespeople after the pandemic. According to the CNBC article, the company said in a statement: “We are evolving into a more focused and innovative biopharma company, and evolving the way we engage with healthcare professionals in an increasingly digital world.” The CNBC article quotes Pfizer as saying: “There will be some changes to our workforce to ensure we have the right expertise and resources in place to meet our evolving needs.” This change has been driven by the expectation that HCPs prefer virtual formats. Beyond physician preference the change also makes sense from an old-fashioned resource management perspective.

According to a survey published Jan 2018 in Forbes, almost 2/3 of pharma sales reps time pre-pandemic was spent on non-revenue generating activities. When I was a medical manager in 2006, I went out with a sales rep. I remember spending a lot of time in his car and in cafes. I also remember that meetings were planned months in advance. Today, we are used to immediate access, doctors are increasingly time poor, meetings are moved with nonchalance last minute on WhatsApp and so the old operating model seems increasingly anachronistic.

Moving physical meetings to virtual has obvious benefits; a single sales rep can engage with many more physicians than otherwise possible, physicians can identify topics they are interested in at short notice, enabling companies to tailor meetings and content to an individual HCPs needs. No more: “I will contact someone at HQ and get back to you.” Instead, HCPs have direct access to the content they want, when they want it, in its entirety.

A New Operating Model for Pharma: Post-pandemic Priorities

A survey performed by McKinsey in December 2021 focused on assessing how the pandemic has influenced pharma operating models and priorities. Of particular interest, participants were asked to review a list of twenty different organisational initiatives and assess them by current level of implementation within the company as well as their perceived value. Initiatives were allocated to one of three groups: customer engagement, agile methodologies and operational structure.

The initiative that was ranked highest overall, both by perceived net value and level of current implementation was, unsurprisingly, in the digital space, in the customer engagement group of activities: raise digital and analytics capabilities company-wide. The most important initiative in the agile methodologies sector was: deploy agile ways of working more broadly, to accelerate clinical trials, launches, content development etc. And regarding the operational structure, the survey results indicate that companies are, once again, or still, focused on realigning team structures around common deliverables/end products and working cross-functionally. The second organisational focus area is the significant reduction of traditional field force in favour of other roles. You can find the full survey results here.

Why the Future of Customer Engagement is a Hybrid Model

Many companies are significantly reducing the traditional field force in favour of other roles, according to a survey by McKinsey. According to a CNBC article on Pfizer’s field force reduction in the US, a key driver of this change is the belief that in the future, healthcare professionals will prefer more than 50% of their interactions with pharma companies to be remote. This may be true, however, the shift to virtual is necessary for other reasons too, because, regardless of HCP engagement preference, absent the implementation of new operating models, pharma companies will struggle to engage widely with key new markets. The rapidly ageing European and US populations, where the classic pharma operating models have evolved, make up only 9.6% and 4.7% of the world’s population respectively. In contrast, 60% of the world’s population is in Asia and 17.2% is in Africa (source worldometer). There are millions of HCPs and patients spread across immense territories. For example, in 2020 in China there were 3.87 million HCPs and 35,394 hospitals (source Statista), and the country covers nine time zones. Even if most key HCPs are concentrated in the big cities, effectively engaging them using MSLs and field reps would require huge teams who would have to navigate immense territories. Consequently, I believe that the only way to reach customers in these markets will be through the implementation of hybrid operating models: combining virtual engagement on demand, with targeted face-to-face engagement for specific topics and specific customers, and a broad range of digital self-service offerings.

Leadership: Don’t tell your Teams you’ll let them Fly, then Clip their Wings

Agility is important. Being able to prioritise is important. Independent thinking, creative approaches to problem solving, and self-determination, are all very important. Companies have realised that people who are free to innovate, are people who are engaged. However, putting it into practice is often not as easy as it sounds. A colleague mentioned that resources in her company had been reallocated so that individuals no longer work directly with a specific team, instead providing pooled support across product teams. This significantly complicates the working process as emails come into a group email address and are worked on by whoever picks them up. Despite low engagement with the change, the team took comfort in the fact that they had been given the freedom to outline their standard operating procedures and how they want to work, which softened the impact somewhat. The reality of the situation is, however, that to date, not a single proposal the team has made on how to optimise the way they work, has been accepted by their management. This is impacting morale and will likely lead to low performance in the long run.

I hope, as ever, that my blog provides you with some useful insights. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. And of course, if you have a challenging project or would like to discuss coaching to help you achieve that next level, do reach out and we can arrange to chat.

Very best wishes

Isabelle C. Widmer

Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash