HEOR and the Future of Work
By Christiane Truelove
For the health economics and outcomes research (HEOR) industry—just like almost every other white-collar industry—the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way people work and perceive their need to be in a physical office. As the pandemic wanes and industry conferences to go back to in-person events, some companies have asked their employees to head back to the office, at least for a few days of the week—and questions have grown around how to recruit talent and communicate, in a hybrid or fully remote setting, the intense scientific data most HEOR professionals are immersed in. ISPOR asked professionals in the corporate setting at IQVIA, GlaxoSmithKline, and Novo Nordisk their thoughts on what will happen in the future of work in this industry.
Home, Hybrid, and Beyond
According to Madeline Smith, Senior Recruiter, Talent Acquisition, at IQVIA, before COVID-19, some employees were able to work from home and because of this, “we were able to adapt pretty quickly and seamlessly to this more remote model.”
One of the reasons why IQVIA offered remote work before the pandemic “is because we are trying to hire the best people with very specific qualifications. And for that reason, we don’t want to limit ourselves to one office location, whether that be in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, or San Francisco, where some of our biggest offices are. But we’ve found talent in all of the nooks and crannies of the United States and Canada, and also globally.”
IQVIA continues to offer a home-based working model that includes some travel (particularly for senior leaders), whether to conferences such as ISPOR or in-person client meetings and workshops. “Employees are statistically both happier and more efficient when they are given the choice to work from home,” Smith says.
“Employees are statistically both happier and more efficient when they are given the choice to work from home.”
— Madeline Smith
For Christopher Blanchette, PhD, Vice President and Head, Clinical Development and Outcomes Research at Novo Nordisk Inc, the past few years have brought about a lot of change. “We were an organization that was fully in house and, aside from our field teams, we all have an in-house, scientific role. Then the pandemic hit.”
Right before the pandemic started, Blanchette took the job as the head of health economics and was asked to relocate to be closer to the company’s New Jersey headquarters. “So, I moved to New Jersey during the pandemic, and then we went fully remote for 2 years or so. It’s been interesting these last few years because we went through a long process of trying to get people comfortable with working remotely and engaging remotely. When we finally got into our groove, things started opening up.”
Blanchette hired about 50% of his team during the pandemic and now leads a group of about 60 people. “A lot of people work remotely and we all learned how to work together.” But when everything started to open up about a year ago, Novo Nordisk pushed for a hybrid concept and “people were encouraged to come in if they wanted to come in.” For a while, only a small group of people were using the office, but “about once a month, we had a big group of people come in, and it was a bit like a reunion every month—they’d all go to dinner, attend team events, and have evening receptions. It was just a time to come together.”
Recently, Novo Nordisk has communicated that being in person is part of the company’s culture, as it fosters dialogue and discussion. “[The company] felt like we were missing out on that [in-person collaboration and connection], so now they’ve been a little bit more focused on getting people in the office and having more people engaged in the office, but still allowing for that flexibility,” Blanchette says. Generally, the company wants people in the office 3 days a week, but people who were hired over the course of the pandemic can stay remote and commute in when they’re needed.
While he enjoyed working remotely, and getting back into the office was a bit of a struggle, Blanchette says he likes the hybrid schedule. “I really enjoy where I am now, which is in the office 3 days a week—and then 2 days a week, I can decompress and work out a little bit longer in the mornings, and don’t have that hour commute on the front end and the back end. I’ve got mostly the dedicated time where it’s quiet and I can get work done. So right now, it’s the optimal place for me to have a little bit in the office, a little bit at home.”
As a young professional, Soham Shukla, PharmD, MS, Global Value Evidence & Outcomes Associate Director, Oncology at GSK, has been working for 3 and a half years—and the vast majority of that time has been working remotely. “I was only in the office for about 9 months, doing the traditional things in a pre-COVID style of working. Then we had to transition [to working remotely] and make all these different things work,” Shukla says. “So, for me—and I imagine a lot of other young professionals who have been doing this for less than 5 years—working remotely is the norm. When we think about the future, we’re also thinking that working remotely is what we’re used to. If we were to go back to what we call ‘traditional in-office work,’ that would actually represent a big change for us that would need justification.”
“I really enjoy where I am now, which is in the office 3 days a week—and then 2 days a week I don’t have that hour commute on the front end and the back end.” — Christopher Blanchette, PhD
When it comes to remote work, GSK’s philosophy is “performance with choice,” Shukla says. “If during COVID, an employee got used to having to block off meeting time in the morning or afternoon so they could drop off or pick up their kids from school and then making up for that time in the evening, that was very acceptable.”
But “it’s taken a monumental effort at the individual team levels to figure out with HR all the other implications of where people are located, tax issues, and all that stuff that comes with it. So, many companies are putting in the effort to try to accommodate individual situations for each employee, which I think is the best attitude and approach to have.”
The Personal Connection
Smith says she has talked to some job candidates who would like the option to go into the office. “So, we have some of our bigger offices open right now, and they’re able to go in any time. But the work-from-home models have been working really well for us.”
Shukla believes that there should be some in-office time as needed, especially for new employees, so that they can develop mentorships and relationships and “get to know people on a personal level, as opposed to a picture on a screen.” But he also believes technology has helped “meet the talent where it’s located. We might see a lot of analysts in India who are capable of working with real-world data. But we think of the hubs of the biopharmaceutical industry as being on the other side of the world, in the United States, or even on the coasts. But now people don’t have to live in these regions to do the job.”
Shukla says it’s no longer taboo for job seekers to tell recruiters that they’re not willing to relocate, or are willing to go in 3 days a week and work at home 2 days. “It’s almost become templated [in the recruitment process], which I think is really interesting because before COVID, job seekers might think, ‘Oh, am I going to be looked at as a less desirable candidate if I put all these conditions in?’”
“If you live in the United States and you want to do HEOR for the United Kingdom, Spain, or one of the Asian countries, you don’t feel like you’re totally immersed in that environment...to really have everything ‘click.’” — Soham Shukla, PharmD, MS
Blanchette says being able to use video technology in the recruitment process has been helpful. “If you think about the time and commitment, I can interview somebody that’s in California and I’ve only consumed 45 minutes of their time, rather than having them fly all the way to New Jersey, stay in a hotel, and be away from their families. I think about the amount of time that we’ve gotten back in our life as a result of these new work dynamics.”
As part of its talent development strategy, IQVIA offers internal and external training platforms to expand on soft skills and technical skills, Smith says. “We have multiple mentoring and coaching programs. Some of those are specific to the center of excellence. For example, we’ll have mentorship programs within global epidemiology or HEOR. But we also have company-wide mentorship programs, that allow people to understand the business more cross-functionally.” To promote that cross-functional networking, Smith says IQVIA has an internal platform called Career Connections, in which people can request specific mentors. “[Employees] can see who works where and what type of work they do. They’re also able to utilize that platform to contribute to projects outside of their remit and see other career opportunities outside of their specific center of excellence as well.”
Blanchette says remote technology also helped people more quickly develop relationships at Novo Nordisk and gave him more time to be present for his own team. “It’s quite enabled our ability to talk to people in the field or in different parts of the organization very quickly. It has allowed for a lot more flexibility and freedom. It has given us a lot of time because instead of going to [corporate headquarters in Denmark] 6 times a year, now it’s freed me up so I have more time to devote to people—both in Denmark and locally here as well.”
The Limits of Technology
While there are many benefits to remote work, one thing Shukla has found it cannot offer to HEOR professionals is what he calls “immersion.” “If you’re generating HEOR evidence for the United States and you live in the United States, you understand everything about it—the healthcare system and all the different customers,” he says. “But if you live in the United States and you want to do HEOR for the United Kingdom, Spain, or one of the Asian countries, you don’t feel like you’re totally immersed in that environment. And because the world is such a big place and everything’s so different from each other, I don’t think you get that true immersion that you need to really have everything ‘click.’”
Before COVID-19, if members of a US-based team wanted to get immersed in the day-to-day realities of another country’s team, they would just travel to that country or live there. “It was a relatively common part of an HEOR professional’s career path in the pre-COVID times where, to learn about a different market, they might move to another country for 6-12 months for a type of rotational opportunity.” Shukla says. “Whereas I feel now, we might think, ‘Oh, we have Zoom or Teams to be able to talk to people who already live there.’ So, is it really that we don’t need these experiences? Or is it because we’re conflating it with the other benefits of working remotely?”
The data-heavy nature of HEOR work poses challenges to remote and hybrid matrix teams in the industry, Shukla says. “We work on very sophisticated analyses, it can sometimes be seen as a little bit dry, or it’s sometimes easy to get lost in details of it all.”
Before COVID, data were reviewed in face-to-face meetings or small group workshops, “where we had people in a room and we’re walking them through the story we’re trying to tell, what data are really important, and why they should care about it,” Shukla says. “Now, we’re jumping on a Zoom call where you can be off video and muted and no one really knows if you’re paying attention or understanding the message. That’s going to really hurt some of the things we’re trying to accomplish as we’re trying to go through more complicated topics.”
“Through this process of COVID, as horrible as it was, one of the benefits is that it allowed us to rapidly apply our technology, which is going to have a positive impact moving forward.” — Christopher Blanchette, PhD
When Blanchette was working fully remote, he found sharing data visually was the biggest challenge. “I’m a big, big drawer. I like to get on the whiteboard and sketch out study designs, methods, approaches, or the org chart. And that was difficult to do that during the pandemic and during working from home.”
Because of these data-sharing problems, Shukla believes remote and hybrid teams need some kind of a dashboard for data visualization, which team members and even customers can interact with. Such a tool needs to be “fit for purpose for the data it’s trying to show,” he adds.
The future of work in the HEOR industry continues to evolve. As people get ready to head to the ISPOR conference in May, it may be the first time some of them have been in a large, in-person gathering for 3 years. Technology tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom kept HEOR groups together and working during the pandemic, but there were some difficulties in conveying the impact and complexities of the data being discussed. While these problems were mostly overcome, some people also yearned for the networking opportunities that face-to-face interaction generated.
Even with the resumption of days in the office and conference travel, the technology relied upon during the worst of the pandemic will continue to be used and will continue to evolve. For Blanchette, technology has cut his 6+ annual trips to Novo Nordisk’s corporate headquarters to perhaps twice a year. While in-person meetings allow him to initiate conversations and make new connections, those relationships and collaborations continue through the use of digital technology. “Through this process of COVID, as horrible as it was, one of the benefits is that it allowed us to rapidly apply our technology, which is going to have a positive impact moving forward.”
Note: Although the interviewees are employees of IQVIA, GSK, and Novo Nordisk, the thoughts expressed herein are their own and not the views and opinions of their employers.
Christiane Truelove is a healthcare and medical freelance writer.