By Jonathan Montagu, CEO of HotSpot Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC
Returning to work following the pandemic presents an opportunity to think creatively about how to re-configure the workplace. CEO’s that I have spoken with are gravitating towards a hybrid model that requires employees to be on site for specific days but not the entire week. This is consistent with a recent PWC survey (Figure 1) suggests that only 21% of employers feel that 5 days a week in the office is required to maintain a strong culture.
However, being forced to work from home over the past year has taught us about the downsides of the model, albeit at an extreme. In a recent Harvard Business Review report (Figure 2) virtually all respondents felt that workplace wellbeing had declined since the pandemic. This is no surprise, but interestingly, 56% noted that increased job demands were to blame in large part due to a loss of work-life separation.
Only 24% of respondents noted feeling of lost connection from colleagues at work (Figure 3).
This highlights the fact the downsides of work from home need to be carefully managed. Finding the right model as we return to the office is not going to be trivial.
As we have been thinking through our return to work at HotSpot Therapeutics, a number of topics have come up in discussions with Leadership Team members.
Avoiding the knee-jerk. Many of us are fed up with the isolation that has resulted from being forced to work remotely all of the time. As we return to the workplace, many of us will have a natural tendency to over correct in the opposite direction. From a management perspective, it’s important that we take a long-term view of what’s right for the company and employees. We should give ourselves the time to develop a new working model, which may involve some experimentation, recognizing that the post-pandemic workplace needs to be in line with the needs of the business.
While certain tech companies such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, Adobe, and Oracle have announced that employees can “work from home forever”, it is important to note that software development companies are ideally suited to distributed work since their product is digital in nature. Technology companies also stand to gain financially from less time in the office because remote workers make greater use of tech products and social media.
At HotSpot, a hybrid model will remain core to how we operate but the specifics will be refined post COVID and because we have grown as a company in the interim. For example, even prior to the pandemic, we had fully equipped employees to be effective from home due to the need to work with Asian- and European-based collaborators early in the morning East Coast time.
Overarching philosophy: In a recent publication from BCG, the authors urge companies to think about Smart Work which includes:
- Remote work, although not necessarily from home, with clear guidelines for when employees should be in the office
- New ways of travel that are conscious of the environment and a desire to save time and money on commuting
- An altered purpose of the office based on shifting views of what activities are best conducted in the office
From our perspective, office time is at a premium for those activities where in-person interactions are the most value add including white-board brainstorming sessions, team lunches, candidate interviews and Board meetings. We all know the situations where there’s a buzz in the air and the contributions from one team member build seamlessly on the next. This occurs when a group is well prepared and ready to work together as a team. These are the sorts of interactions that should take place in person. As a corollary to this, we have eliminated most formal presentations from our Board meetings. We provide a detailed pre-read and then focus on discussion around the Boardroom table in the meeting. This has led to much more effective Board meeting discussions.
Work from home time is prioritized for individual work requiring uninterrupted concentration. One-on-one meetings via Zoom are effective in this setting for team members where there’s an existing working relationship. Also, meetings that involve one team member presenting to a group offer few in person benefits given the reduced emphasis on group discussion.
A key watch out with remote work is that establishing trusted personal connections and relationships, essential for optimized professional interactions, takes a lot longer. Hence, it’s critical that unscheduled time also be available for chance discussions and interactions, around the much-missed water cooler. Slack/Teams do enable spontaneous reach outs but interactions are more transactional and require deliberate effort. Peer-to-peer interactions can be the most negatively impacted as a result. Managers have 1-on-1’s with direct reports scheduled on a regular basis but peer-to-peer interactions are less formalized at HotSpot representing an area of opportunity for us.
Work flexibility – benefits and costs. It’s hard to remember this but prior to the pandemic, work from home was viewed as a privilege that offered employees flexibility that balanced time spent commuting with in-person effectiveness. As work from home becomes a way of doing business rather than a temporary response to the pandemic, we need to define the rules of engagement. Not everyone can maintain a high level of productivity outside the office especially if the home environment isn’t conducive to concentration. Hence managers need to be attentive to any drop offs in performance.
For team members that work at the lab bench or in manufacturing facilities, work at home isn’t an option. Therefore, we need to avoid creating a situation where certain groups of employees are advantaged through the work from home flexibility. This means investing in making the physical workplace a healthy, vibrant, and rewarding place to work. It’s also important to emphasize that working from home isn’t all roses given the longer working hours and difficulties in switching off. Good work/life balance is much harder to achieve with remote work and, without some reasonable set of boundaries, there is risk of burn out and loss of innovation. One CEO noted to me recently that, “the three hours spent commuting in and out of Cambridge each day may seem like a waste of time, but it does provide an important mental divider between work and home.”
Managing through the transition: returning to the office requires us to think through pressing issues such getting everyone vaccinated and ensuring a safe working environment. It’s also important to note that we have hired a significant number of new team members during the pandemic that we have never met in person. The usual get-to-know-you activities haven’t taken place so we will need to devote time to this when we reconvene. Within HotSpot, we are planning corporate-wide events, but offsites are planned for individual functions with precisely this goal in mind.
Continue communication. Many of us have gone out of our way to communicate effectively and broadly during COVID using a range of formats e.g. weekly all hands, daily “stand up” meetings, open hours with management team members and an increased frequency of one-on-ones. Although informal communication is going to become easier as we spend more time together in person, there is no reason to give up on these formalized touch points that have served us so well during the pandemic.
Setting clear expectations: As we transition to a new working model, it’s going to be especially important that expectations are clearly set and followed through by senior management. Days that employees need to be on site must be crystal clear and senior management needs to live and breathe the same guidelines. It would feel disingenuous, for example, for a hybrid model to exist on paper but then employees that take advantage of the work from home option to be disadvantaged in some way.
Workspace needs: given our rate of hiring during the pandemic, we have outgrown our current physical footprint. As we look for new office/lab space in the Boston area, the requirements are different post pandemic, as illustrated by a recent analysis done by Margulies Perruzzi (Figure 4). Given the likelihood that we adopt a flexible or balanced work model, the implications for space are significant.
In conclusion, I am excited about reinventing key aspects of how we work post pandemic but it’s clear that finding the right balance is going to take careful thought and likely some mistakes along the way. I welcome feedback from those in the broader biopharma community on this topic as we all wrestle with similar issues.