By Ankit Mahadevia, CEO of Spero Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC
Biotwitter is great for healthy debates. The most recent has been on the merits of the hybrid vs.an in-person model. John Maraganore’s excellent article on the topic and the ensuing discussion articulated what’s been on the minds of most CEOs, executive teams and board members I’ve interacted with over the last few months.
The public health environment (knock on all the wood you have) might finally be at a place where we can plan for a team working model for the medium term. This requires us to answer two important questions without obvious answers:
- How much in-office time vs. a more hybrid model is right for our missions and our people?
- What exactly does a “hybrid model” mean in practice?
We share a few observations on the hybrid model we’re trying this year as an experiment and how we got there. It’s too early to tell how it’s working – we’ll leave that to a future post.
Where we were
Earlier in the pandemic, Spero adopted a flexible approach as in-office became an option. We had the right safety protocols to enable in-office work, and otherwise employees had full latitude to choose. What manifested in practice was a core contingent of Sperobes that came into the office routinely (including our executive team), and a larger proportion that subscribed more remotely.
We observed both benefits and costs to this approach. On the plus side, flexible work better enabled focus without interruptions (e.g. for writing of IND sections,). We had more time to be productive rather than commute, and the model enabled talented colleagues join the company from outside of the immediate Boston metro area. The benefits of time saved and flexibility are more than theoretical; a recent study suggested that Boston ranks second in the nation in hours lost on the road. Our employees noted social benefits as well: many employees reported being in better health, and professional parents (especially those in dual working families) appreciated more time to participate fully in their children’s lives. Finally, there is no doubt we reduce our environmental footprint simply by putting fewer automobiles on the road.
There were also costs. One of the advantages of small organizations is the ability to decide quickly, solve problems creatively, and create a singular unity of mission. We hypothesized that we were eroding this competitive advantage by not working together in-person more. Our analysis bore this out. As we do each year, we conducted after action reviews on key projects within the company to keep what’s working and adjust where we could do better. Routinely, we heard from the team about the extra time, extra communication (and subsequent tracking of inexplicably knotted email chains), and slower alignment when we had to solve complex problems remotely. Moreover, even if we could come to an aligned solution on a multifactorial issue, implementing and keeping everyone in the loop on the solution posed another set of sticky challenges. On the people side, we saw clear limitations in communicating about our vision and getting to know each other as humans, especially for new Sperobes who were trying to get to know their teammates’ strengths and challenges over video chat. Onboarding can be a haphazard process in small biotech just because of the resource limitations; without the benefit of in-office collisions, the acclimation process has been more challenging.
Accounting for who we are and what we need
So what to do about these findings? First, we reviewed our team – when they joined, where they work, and their expectations. It turns out, nearly half of Sperobes live or work more than a 90-minute drive from the office. Further, many Sperobes joined during the pandemic and some element of remote work was part of the deal. Finally, as a company with late-stage medicines, our team’s core deliverables run through CROs, CMOs, and partners based all over the world, requiring us to collaborate remotely on a routine basis whether we are in-office or not.
Our conclusions from this work:
- First, because of our deliverables, the makeup of our work force, and the advantages of remote work for some key activities, our hybrid approach should involve an option for remote work. Pragmatically, even if we aspired to a 100% in-person model (NB: we don’t), remote working to some degree is here to stay.
- Second, our baseline in-person subscription, while enabling us to meet operational deadlines, created room for some improvement in decision-making and building culture
- Finally, while we hire for grown-ups who make good decisions, our team was looking for a baseline set of expectations for when in-person work is optimal vs. flexible work to achieve the balance best for Spero.
Doing something about it
At baseline, we were getting things done with our model. As such, we elected to optimize based on our findings rather than undertake an entropic wholesale recasting of our model:
- Define where in-person work is optimal and expected
- Our after action suggested that in-person work was, in particular, optimal when we were reviewing multidisciplinary questions without black and white answers – clinical trial design, review of data, planning for regulatory interactions, and overall program and portfolio strategy. We have created a specific company calendar of these discussions and the expectation is that all relevant employees (more on this below) are present in person to benefit the work and what we can each learn from it
- Define how these expectations work based on role and level
- The breadth of this requirement increases with the seniority and leadership responsibility of the employee. The more senior one is, the more that leadership effectiveness comes from influence within one’s core function but also from sharing one’s knowledge and shaping positive interactions with other functions.
- Further, at a minimum, every Sperobe outside of a commutable distance to the office is strongly encouraged to come to company headquarters at least once on a quarterly schedule ; and we also strongly encourage that all Sperobes within a commutable distance to the office attend our weekly All Hands meetings in-person, in addition to these quarterly meetings, to connect and maintain a sense of community
- In terms of the team’s expectation of the company and view on the best balance: we engaged our Strategic Leadership Team (VPs and Heads of Function) given their unique vantage point either leading or reporting to the entire company. Their expectation for us is that if we are pulling people into the office for defined, collaborative engagements, that we create and deliver the tools to make it a holistic experience. For example, our teams asked for and we are delivering on more collaborative space, beefed up IT and document management solutions, reinforcement of health and safety protocols, and deliberately curated team and events around in-person time.
- Make the most out of remote work when we engage in it
- While a focus area was optimizing in-person time, we are also investing in training on remote and hybrid effectiveness (both for leaders and individual contributors) and baseline expectations to ensure that we maximize our remote time, in particular to support our employees based outside of the Boston area.
How to measure success?
This too is an experiment. To put some onus on the experiment, we’ve built implementation of the hybrid model into our corporate goals. There are input measurements (e.g. how many Sperobes subscribe in-office based on the objectives we’ve set), but even more important are the output measurements. Rather than assess our and our team’s performance once a year, we are reconsidering how we manage individual performance, i.e., doing away with annual performance reviews (which were questionable even prior to the pandemic) and shifting to a set of quarterly conversations between employees/managers about how things are going (which can happen in-person based on our hybrid model). We can then roll this up to assess how in-person time is accruing to our speed of decisions and unity of purpose, and can course correct and capitalize on emergent patterns of effectiveness along the way.
Some humility in approaching the hybrid model
The debate about all in-person vs. hybrid is often abstract since what’s right for one organization may not be right for another. A hybrid model works for Spero in particular as many of our deliverables are accomplished working with global CROs and CMOs, as opposed to in the lab. Further, with a late stage pipeline, the way and form in which data flows enables more advance planning than if it was coming in a staccato fashion. We also have enough of a critical mass of employees and senior team members near the office where the shift to a more explicit hybrid model does not require up-ending the rhythms of work and life (as opposed to a very geographically distributed team).
From our experience, we’ve learned that a 100% in-office model may not be feasible for the world we live in today given the technology we now have and how we’ve learned to leverage remote work during the pandemic. Further, given the complexity and importance of our missions, we can do far better than a patchwork model without a clear set of leadership and employee expectations on when in-person work is optimal. Each of our organizations is unique and will find a unique equilibrium between these two poles. We look forward to the ongoing discussion on how this impacts delivering on our missions in the months to come.
My thanks to Jamie Brady, Kamal Hamed, and the entire Spero Executive Team for their partnership in both creating our hybrid model and reviewing this article