(re)turn to work:
A life sciences industry guide for navigating the next normal
How can Life Sciences companies reinvigorate lab and office space to accelerate their pipeline?
The life sciences industry has been forging ahead in the wake of the novel coronavirus, and in many cases, it is accelerating. Pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device companies have been uniquely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in both opportunities and challenges. The pandemic has introduced opportunities to create COVID-19 vaccines, therapies and diagnostics, but also challenges in balancing those with the corporate vision and production pipeline. Hundreds of millions across the globe depend on life sciences companies to help prevent and fight cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and many other critical health conditions. GlobalData research shows there are currently 9,000 drugs in clinical trials and another 23,000 therapies in stages before clinical trials.
Because life sciences companies are a fundamental part of advancing science, many operations have persevered on-site or remotely. Manufacturing plants have continued to produce the drugs that are in demand, and manufacturing workers have remained at these facilities. Some bio pharma organizations have continued the essential research and development (R&D) work within the physical labs, to a lesser extent, while ensuring that computational work is done remotely.
As life sciences organizations consider returning additional employees to lab and office space, this guide aims to answer key questions:
- How should companies prepare to reinstitute scientists and reopen closed lab spaces?
- What is the protocol for returning employees to office environments?
- Once they return, what are the ongoing operational and safety considerations for employees?
- As the environment surrounding the pandemic evolves, what are some ways life sciences organizations can adapt to the next normal?
It is essential for life sciences organizations to reactivate the necessary R&D facilities to keep expanding their pipeline of therapies. There are several immediate actions to take to serve the workforce and the priority needs of the business:
- Analyze current footprint and workflow
Begin by taking a detailed look at your R&D footprint. Make a list of labs that have remained partially or fully operational and then separately identify the labs that are not operational or occupied due to the pandemic. Categorize these labs and then gather data on which scientists and other lab personnel have typically occupied the labs. The ultimate aim in gathering this data is to assess lab circulation patterns, map out critical workflows and build a foundation for facilities and equipment assessments.
- Determine skills and prioritize delivery
Before you reactivate labs, it’s important to set them up for success. Identify the skills of your scientists and technical talent currently working as well as additional employees you’re considering for re-entry. Take these skills, match them with critical R&D deliverables and determine the facility infrastructure needed.
- Conduct an activity-based assessment
Initiate the assessment by listing and reviewing the critical lab activities needed. Assess the currently operational labs as well as the non-operation labs and determine which activities can be aligned and combined. Following that, prioritize your pipeline of projects so you can align with the skills of your employees and the necessary spatial distancing protocols. Ultimately, the activity-based assessment will help you discover what is needed, how many people are needed and the social distancing issues that may need addressing.
- Consider ways to minimize employee interaction, like minor reconfigurations
This is where data-gathering and initial assessments begin to pay off. Based on the number of lab personnel and the results of workflow analysis and density metrics, you can determine how to reconfigure how and where personnel are seated in the physical space. Many labs, depending on their flexibility, cannot fully reconfigure equipment. However, organizations can remove as many unessential items as necessary. Even further, you can determine space capacity limits for labs and post these numbers at the entrance to each lab. Rotational scheduling combined with a reservation system are effective tools to elevate social distancing and minimize interaction. You can additionally determine next steps by answering the following questions: How does the lab receive support materials and compounds? Who accesses shared specialty equipment and how do they do so? Where can you leverage administrative controls to streamline flow and elevate social distancing?
- Closely review and test your facility readiness
Depending on data collection and assessment results, each lab space will have significantly different utilities, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) needs. Establish measures to review the status of lab support systems, conduct safe system starts and review the intricacies of HVAC systems. Conducting walk-throughs of each space will allow you to address equipment power availability, address timely issues and evaluate possible one-way directional personnel flows.
- Install essential and creative solutions for employees
Life sciences companies can quickly and easily add “STOP” signage in front of doors or leading into areas that require caution. Adding hashing, arrows and footsteps as floor signage gives important direction to employees and reminds them of distancing measurements. As scientists focus on research and development work, you can give them the security they need by installing plexiglass dividers between benches, hoods and other equipment. Creative ideas can achieve a positive impact and they don’t have to break the bank. Some life sciences companies have installed touch free devices for entrances and exits to labs. Consider simple and less expensive solutions like foot-operated door openers. Using color schemes for masks and lab clothing is a valid way of keeping similarly focused lab teams aligned.
- Create a thoughtful plan for ongoing lab operations
The little things go a long way. In your ongoing lab operations plan, consider minimizing the use of shared support items like stools, lab coats, computers, keyboards and the like. Establish measures so employees know what has been or hasn’t been used – for example, use green and red tape (for clean and not clean, respectively) on desks, chairs and other appropriate areas. This will be used as a signal to cleaning staff as well as other personnel what has or has not been used. With regard to supplies, plan for them to last for at least a week and coordinate delivery in designated areas outside of the lab. Additional areas to address for ongoing lab operations include waste management, evaluation of chemicals or other items with a short shelf-life, supply stations and the ongoing management of personal protective equipment (PPE).
A custom approach to reactivating your labs
Prepare your buildings, space and people to safely and effectively drive your mission forward
(re)open offices and other spaces
In accordance with state and local government mandates, as well as employee readiness, life sciences companies are weighing the opportunity to reopen and revitalize life sciences office space. In a post-COVID-19 world, it is likely that not all office space will return to full operation. Regardless, when life sciences companies are considering this vital step, it is important to consider the following:
- Observe re-entry triggers
First, comply with your state’s executive orders and mandates from authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ). Document key dates such as when shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders are lifted, and understand AHJ mandates for social distancing, curfews, health screenings and wearing face coverings. As your capacity in the office ebbs and flows, you will need to quickly plan, adjust and optimize operational processes. Your organization and/or building management will need flexible processes in place to maximize health, safety and efficiency. In addition, it will be essential to create a re-entry readiness playbook and phased or “quick close” procedures for any influxes in the virus.
- Stagger the return to work to apply social distancing
Identify critical employees who must return to work in each wave of re-entry and create rotational schedules where needed. Maintain separation between groups returning to the office, if possible, to limit impact in case isolation is needed. Account for multiple re-entry scenarios to provide maximum flexibility with when and where you re-enter. Upon re-entry, be confident you’ve thought through
any space, occupancy or design adjustments. Implement social distancing by adjusting your space’s capacity, seating plan, layout, cleaning routines and usage. This is especially true for shared spaces like meeting rooms, collaboration spaces and restrooms. Execute any work setting changes or furniture reconfigurations and replace high-touch items like doors and trash cans with no-touch options.
- Reconfigure space
Many organizations had already adopted progressive workstyles prior to the pandemic that have helped them remain productive during the lockdown. With that said, as organizations begin planning for re-entry, some areas of the workplace strategy should be revisited based on lessons learned during the pandemic. Ensure your workplace design aligns with your updated space planning strategy, based on social distancing guidelines. Consider repurposing underutilized meeting rooms, common areas, social hubs or cafes for additional workstations. You’ll need to map out potential risk areas based on where people typically congregate such as conference rooms, cafeterias and collaboration spaces.
- Leverage technology
The post-COVID-19 workplace as accelerated the need for new workplace technologies. You can use technology to reimagine layouts through space utilization software, prioritize data-driven building operations with real-time monitoring and work order management, deliver employee-facing apps that build trust and confidence and more. If you haven’t already, create a technology roadmap based on your company’s preferred capabilities – to safely navigate social distancing, heighten the workplace experience and win the war for talent.
It can be easy to be overwhelmed by technology options, so it’s important to first identify what needs to be solved immediately and what can be solved in subsequent waves. Create a timeline to introduce automation tools and efficiencies through technology milestones. Many organizations already rely on Integrated Workplace Management Systems (IWMS) or Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) to perform daily tasks. These technologies can be optimized for re-entry with key functionality you’re not using today.
A holistic approach to re-entering your workspace
Prepare your workspace and your people to safely and efficiently resume operations
Prepare employees for (re)turn
Regardless of the type of space, one thing is certain: life sciences companies must prioritize the health and wellbeing of employees. Well-defined employee preparation plans, like remote trainings and proactive communication, will go a long way to ensure re-entry success. Without this, any facility groundwork and operational procedures may not be as successful.
- Customize employee engagement
To heighten employee experience and minimize health concerns, some organizations are instituting proactive and detailed communications. This may include messages from leadership that share all the measures you are taking to ensure the safety and efficacy of the lab, office and manufacturing environments. Virtual pre-return trainings for employees are an additional step to ensure details – like new signage protocols, space capacity and lab reconfigurations – produce the desired impact. Anonymous surveys can be a powerful tool in not only assessing the comfort of employees, but also their needs and workload variances.
- Create welcome kits
Help your employees transition back to the workplace with ease. Include a printed FAQ guide about updated protocols for social distancing, respiratory etiquette, and other new workspace norms, as well as post-pandemic essentials like hand sanitizers, disinfecting wipes, and masks, plus additional promotional items, as requested.
- Use technology to continue to build trust
Employees will be understandably nervous returning to the workplace. Employee-facing apps that give solutions to address health and safety standards will be increasingly important. Imagine you’ve done all the work in the back end to automatically trigger cleanings in shared workspaces, but employees have no way to know it’s been done. Consider integrating cleaning notifications into your room-booking and wayfinding applications like FMS:Employee to automate service or janitorial requests to a recently occupied space. Or better yet, to instill confidence in your team that the areas around them are safe, deliver updates through one simple interface using employee experience apps like JiLL or Modo. They’ll easily connect all of your back-end systems to provide critical updates like air quality and cleaning alerts.
- Be prepared for continual remote work
Although your workplace will be reactivated for employees to return, there will likely be a percentage of employees that still prefer the comfort of working remotely. The data gathered through employee surveys can provide clarity as you forge ahead. Consider a work from home policy for job functions and employees with the right fit.