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Challenges and Rewards in Pandemic Era Talent Management

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Before Russia invaded Ukraine, European economists predicted 2022 as a year of further growth in the employment market. In fact, labour market participation in Europe is already above pre-pandemic levels in France and Spain and only just short in Italy and Germany, according to the Financial Times. However, in large part due to the pandemic, new issues in employee management have emerged with more people than ever accustomed to working from home and having more flexibility overall in the workplace.

In a survey of select European biopharma players conducted just before BIO-Europe Spring® 2022 Digital, some trends became evident. A summary of the survey findings is presented below, along with some specific examples provided by survey participants.

Flexibility in talent management is a factor for many life science sector service companies and summed up by CDMO Rentschler Biopharma, which is seeing strong long-term growth in the biotech and pharma sector; building on its 2021 employment success; the company hired over 300 employees with a focus on production and laboratory positions. This positive situation reflects the biotech and pharma sectors successes in the past few years and raises new challenges and opportunities for biotech executives.

The most prominent challenges were increased intensity of competition for talent, the increasing demand for trained staff and a general trend of increasing compensation packages. In other words, the types of issue one would expect from a dynamic, successful and fast-moving industry.

In terms of positives and solutions, notable benefits included fewer geographical hiring issues, greater range of candidates, benefits for employees in terms of work-life balance without compromising performance, and the release from traditional meeting structures, fewer distractions from work and less commuting, plus potentially lower office overheads.

The increased demand for talent in the pandemic years, based on corporate focusing and clinical pipeline successes, has clearly led to a shortage of skilled workers and a battle for talents as the industry has expanded and different skill sets have found other career paths. For instance, artificial intelligence has attracted many biochemists out of the lab and into IT offices. Ensuring the best people are doing the correct jobs is clearly also important for senior managers, especially in a fast-moving industry. In many senses, all challenges stemmed from the sector’s successes during the pandemic years.

“The shift to increased remote working has been well implemented and well received. We are taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the changing world of work, a greater range of candidates, for instance, especially for new positions that need to be filled, we have fewer geographical restrictions,” said Diana Wiedmann, Senior Vice President Human Relations at Rentschler.

“The production of highly effective biopharmaceuticals is extremely complex and requires the presence of qualified personnel on site. Our employees who can work remotely report benefits with regard to their productivity, thanks to fewer distractions and less commuting to the office,” added Wiedmann. “All strategies to improve the situation for new employees and staff have tended to focus on Employee Assistance Programs to mitigate the isolation of home working.”

In particular, one challenge struck a common note, that management time has increased, especially for onboarding and training of new staff and team building. The challenges also include the lack of social interaction time among team members, introducing remote and rotational working practices, more time spent ensuring employee safety and security, while keeping teamwork alive. An increase in IT costs and making sure all staff have the right equipment at home to work efficiently were also noted.

Alexander Gebauer, CEO of Secarna Pharmaceuticals, noted, “we adapted to the changing environment by offering utmost freedom in balancing remote and on-site working. We also very regularly inquire how our team members are coping with the challenges and changes.” In line with Rentschler’s experience Gebauer added, “All in all, job satisfaction has further improved.”

On a similar theme Christian Pangratz CEO of Sterna Biologicals, expressed his view enthusiastically, “our business has thrived throughout the pandemic and working from home offices has provided our employees an increased work-life balance without compromising their performance and productivity.” So, policies created in a time of crisis can be refined for permanent implementation, “We continue as usual, alignment of corporate priorities with personnel priorities and preferences leads to top performance,” he added.

With respect to potential future developments, Dr. Jan Schmidt-Brand, CEO and CFO of Heidelberg Pharma, said, “the challenge will be to establish remote working as a component of working conditions in a company on the long run, for example, with regard to leadership and management. It will be necessary to train managers in topics such as ‘leading from the home office’ and to support the associated structural change in the world of work.” Considering the direct working environment he added, “new-work approaches also play a major role in the design of workplaces and planning of facilities in connection with our growth plans.” Heidelberg Pharma recently signed a billion $ deal with China-based Huadong Medicine.

New staff are also an important focus for Dr. Frauke Hein, Chief Business Officer of Adrenomed, who sees two issues that mirror the opinions of other senior managers in the industry. “We have to spend significantly more time onboarding and team building; introducing people to new teams and helping them feel a part of that team, becomes even more important than before, particularly.”

Another industry leader that sees creativity as an issue in online meetings is Peter Llewellyn-Davies, CEO of invIOs, the Austrian-based immune-oncology specialist, and APEIRON Biologics, the respiratory diseases immunotherapy company, who also commented on meetings as a balance between Ying and Yang of corporate life: “On the positive side, we are released from the usual meeting culture, that you must be at a certain place, at a certain time to meet, and even though sometimes you cannot contribute, you’re in a meeting and therefore you are blocked.”

Going a step further Llewellyn-Davies offered his solution to this issue, “we have an internal guideline as to home-office work, we have managed the crisis by providing everyone with excellent IT equipment and also the possibility for individual meeting rooms, be it cubicles or closed glass-rooms, to be able to communicate online. In respect of the pandemic, being flexible is key.” As an aside and a warning, Llewellyn-Davies points out the importance of office working, “many people misunderstand the dynamics of social interaction, particularly in small teams.”

Of course, with the invasion of Ukraine, none of us can see how the future could be shaped, at least from this survey and brief article it appears the biopharma industry is prepared and flexible enough to overcome most geopolitical affairs.

Some of these issues and many more intriguing subjects about partnering, financing and developing pipelines will be discussed at BIO-Europe Spring among the leading biopharma executives and investors.

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