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All things Pharma

Future proofing employee skills

As pharma employees start returning to the workplace, David Reilly examines key learnings from in-house educators and reflects on how pharma can re-augment staff skills for the future digitally enabled customer experience.


Imagine a seminal crisis that forces your workforce to shift overnight to working from home and adapt to a suite of new unfamiliar digital tools, whilst grappling with the realisation that face-to-face communications with your key healthcare professionals (HCP) customers would now be 100% remote.

These are just a few of the immediate challenges that in-house training departments faced last February at the start of the pandemic. Even before the pandemic struck the world, the drive for both pharma and global public health services to make better use of digital technology was already being felt across all departments. Covid-19 was arguably the key accelerant to justify and accelerate this process.

As evidence of this change at the start of the pandemic, the former UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock declared that GPs should see patients remotely by default, prompting a transformational leap to virtual GP appointments from 25% to 71% of all GP appointments. Other digital engagements have also demonstrated explosive growth during the last 18 months. In December 2019, the relatively new NHS app was being used by 192,676 people and by December 2020 this figure had increased by 912% to 1,951,640. Fast forward to September 2021, the NHS app now has 16 million signed up users and is continuing to grow. Digital technology is undoubtedly a key enabler but how have in-house trainers continued to equip their staff in response to this shift?

The right tools
The immediate challenge at the beginning of the pandemic was to equip staff at speed with the right digital tools to help them stay connected, productive and to continue their digital learning journey with minimal disruption. The deployment of these new tools included chat and messaging apps such as Slack and video conferencing apps such as Zoom, Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams which are now embedded into our daily working lives.

Nina Bressler Murphy, Global Head of Enterprise Capability at Novartis Learning Institute, explains this deployment challenge: “Our Microsoft Teams deployment to support training was reduced from two years to a weekend when it rolled out to 60,000 people over the course of a weekend at the start of pandemic. This is now our main learning tool for delivering live learning events.”

Switching to remote tools like Teams had some unexpectedly positive consequences, observed by Bressler Murphy: “As part of our leadership program, we saw a change in some of our leaders’ behaviour; much more openness and vulnerability which really helped support their growth and the leadership training program’s efficacy and engagement.”

In addition, the Teams deployment inspired some of the quieter personalities to really speak out in training, with Bressler Murphy adding: “We saw improved collaboration with the more introverted personality types. They really came out of their shells using Miro and Microsoft Teams.”

“Digital technology is undoubtedly a key enabler but how have in-house trainers continued to equip their staff in response to this shift?”

Delivering impact
Another consequence of the pandemic was pharma companies switching the training delivery formats to smaller groups of learning modules, with the option of on-demand rather than traditional whole days – much more cost effective and impactful. This strategy has worked well for Bayer, as explained by in-house Digital Transformation Manager Carole Clarke: “We adapted our training into small 90-minute modules which we found has hit the sweet spot. Learning now is very much about sharing experiences, being meaningful and very relevant to the learners’ day-to-day jobs. A more agile and on demand approach to learning gave more choice in how Bayer employees engaged with learning during the pandemic, creating a ‘culture of self-development’ and future proofing our skills set for 2022 and beyond.”

Some pharma companies used the opportunity to empower staff members not just in sales, marketing and commercial effectiveness but also compliance, medical, legal and IT in the vital importance of mindset. On the commercial side, this empowered those working in sales to be more comfortable with flexible communications and savvier with virtual communications, as the reliance of face-to-face meetings declined overnight. Remote interactions has meant far greater immediate flexible conversations with HCPs, without the need to just rely on meetings that during the pandemic often interrupted a HCP’s already demanding day. This is where mindset and change training has been such a vital learning experience during the pandemic.

Maintaining staff training programs and empowering them with new skills has not only been well received internally but also externally by HCPs themselves. An Accenture survey1 of 120 participants from USA, UK, France, Germany, China & Japan found that a majority of HCPs (82%) think pharma companies have increased the value of what they communicate during the last 18 months, delivering not just product information, but also support that meets pressing needs, such as education on how to better treat patients remotely and increasing their overall relevance.

The future
It is clear that pharma companies and in-house training departments have adapted very well and have integrated the remote engagement needed to support all business departments in this time of crisis – at speed and under considerable pressure. The key in the future will be to maintain the new flexible approach and use agile mindset approaches to empower pharma professionals to test and make the best use of a new suite of digital applications such as AI, virtual reality and augmented reality. 

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David Reilly
David Reilly is Managing Director of Let’s Learn Digital, educating and inspiring business in digital and emerging technologies.

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