Over the past two years, the Swedish-English pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has been at the heart of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, developing a vaccine and delivering more than 2.5 billion doses to humans in 170 countries.
Like most organizations, it was forced to quickly switch to one telework model for many of its 70,000 employees when the pandemic hit in March 2020. Connecting a number of employees, including laboratory staff, was crucial to maintaining operations for an unprecedented period, said Cindy Hoots, AstraZeneca’s Chief Information Officer and Chief Digital Officer. Doing so meant relying on a variety of digital communication platforms such as Meta’s Workplace, the social network that Hoots said proved helpful in connecting staff, whether they worked remotely or in one of AstraZeneca’s laboratories.
The following is a slightly edited account of a recent discussion with Hoots on AstraZeneca’s workplace collaboration strategy.
You are both CIO and CDO at Astra Zeneca. What does each of these roles entail? “In the CIO role, I lead all technology for AstraZeneca globally. It’s about how we leverage technology as a competitive advantage and how we think about not only infrastructure and cyber and data analytics foundations, but also all the applications and support services that are at the top.
“We are predominantly an insourced IT organization; most of our IT team are AstraZeneca employees and they are located in our main hubs. So the US, UK, Sweden, India, Guadalajara and, in Asia, India are one of Our largest center, which houses about 45-50% of our employees from an IT perspective.
“In relation to the role of Chief Digital Officer, it’s really about how we can leverage new technologies, new ways of thinking, new ways of working to think about patient care, and how we can more quickly discover medicines and get them through the clinical trial process. .
“Digitization efforts are not only about how we digitize our patient experience in our provider and HCP experience, but also how we use digital internally to optimize the way we work to automate work. So for us, digital reality is twofold: it is an external view of how we interact with patients, providers, payers, etc., but also how we bring new ways of working internally to life. “
You joined AstraZeneca shortly before the pandemic began. What was your experience here, and what were some of the challenges you faced in supporting teleworking? To what extent was AstraZeneca already prepared in terms of having application infrastructure? “I joined AstraZeneca in January 2020, and several weeks later we saw the beginning of COVID-19 hitting China and we have major Chinese operations. It was just a few weeks inside my tenure and I have to say that the IT organization really did a phenomenal job. We were able to roll out various communication tools: we already had Workplace as primary [communication tool]but Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and other applications that we put on top of our lab systems and our R&D centers allowed us to remotely connect and keep the company running at a time when people were starting to need to be at home.
“Just a few weeks after that, we were also going to telecommuting in the US, UK and Sweden, where we mostly have our research centers. We were able to turn very, very quickly into a digital world that was a great honor for the underlying infrastructure and applications that we already had.We were able to keep all our clinical trials on track, we kept our production going, and we were able to deploy different protocols to allow people to stay connected and continue to run the business quite successfully. “
What were some of the tools you used? AstraZeneca has been trying Workplace for several years – what role did it play in connecting staff and maintaining productivity? “We have been a Workplace user since the early days of 2017, and then more broadly across our organization in 2018. We now use Workplace across 70,000 plus employees to help them connect, learn and break down some of those boundaries , found in global companies.
“The workplace really became a lifeline for our company during the pandemic. It helped those working in the labs continue to collaborate and stay updated on all the latest news, updates and company direction.
“We used a variety of tools like Workplace Live Video, we hosted Ask Me Anything sessions, where our senior executives were available for questions and answers to help people navigate this unprecedented change. We also had special video sessions.We had WHO [World Health Organization] COVID Special Envoys and our Chief Physician are once again holding a session to help people understand the facts surrounding COVID and our response.
“Our CEO, Pascal Soriot, was able to keep in touch with the employees. We were used to being close to our employees, so we wanted to make sure we did not lose that connection. The workplace was an integral part of that way , whereupon we worked together and were kept informed during the pandemic. “
What other apps and tools were an integral part of the workforce support? Have you invested in new tools? “On the collaboration front, we also used Microsoft Teams. We were in some early stages of pilot projects prior to the pandemic with Microsoft Teams, and it also became a major lifeline, more for the daily work aspects of meetings and collaboration on specific projects, and so on.
“We’re a big user of video; it really helped us get connected. I still haven’t met 50% of my live reports because they’re in countries I have not visited, but video brought us together.
“Zoom was also another great collaboration tool that we used, mostly when working with people outside [the organization]. The recording of it was almost instantaneous.
“Most people who have the role of Chief Digital Officer found that the pandemic accelerated their organization in terms of how they could leverage the technology to keep their business not only running, but thriving, in some pretty tough times.
What did you learn from that experience? “The biggest learning is how important it is to keep people connected and feel that even when they are not together, they are still working towards a common goal, a common purpose. [This meant] to help people navigate not only at work but also personal situations and the uncertainty of what was happening around the world, without knowing how long we were going to be in that situation. Then again, that feeling of connection and building the strong relationships was really important as part of our overall response.
“To have tools that you can easily implement … so you do not need large amounts of time to be able to train and qualify [was important]also to work in a way that is more intuitive and roll out solutions in a way so that people can understand them pretty quickly.
“It has reshaped our entire mindset around the types of applications we use and [we moved] more for platforms rather than individual applications, so we can create a robust foundation to put new functionality on top. Thinking about the user design, thinking about the user experience became even more prominent because you did not always have that face-to-face connection. “
Will AstraZeneca continue to support telework in the future? We have always had a flexible working environment. A number of our sales forces have always been remote and will continue to be so. We see tools like Workplace and Teams and Zoom that help ‘work anywhere’, as remote control is not just when you work from home. Often you travel and work. So making sure we can support our employees from a technological perspective, no matter where they sit, is definitely part of what we look at, and making sure we are prepared for the future. “
Can a hybrid strategy create its own challenges that support two different forms of work? “During the pandemic, we all got used to being able to work remotely and to the protocol you would use during a meeting. When we get back to the office, we learn something about that etiquette again [is important].
“One tip is that those in the meeting room are still attending on laptops so we can use the chat features. [For example]if we have a meeting and we post it to Workplace, we get all the chats and comments right there on Workplace and we can interact with them.
“As we all worked from home, we changed people’s perceptions of how they could participate and be included in a meeting. We saw these tools – Workplace, Teams, Zoom, etc. – give a voice to people who are more introverted, or have may not want to say no to a meeting.Through the chat features we could hear their voice and they can participate more fully.
“So, yes, we’re learning a little bit about how to get back into the office and still get all the benefits we found from using these tools during the pandemic.”
What are your thoughts on innovation around collaboration in the workplace? Meta and Microsoft have developed VR collaboration tools – is this something you’ve explored? “Throughout the pandemic, we began to use much more virtual reality, augmented reality: we look at its use in several different areas. One is that we used it to train our production operators on the lines. When we used to train, we often closed a line down to be able to do that. But through virtual reality, we are now able to help people understand what would really happen on the line.
“We also use it in clinical trials to help people understand what the process feels like if they go to a hospital: what does the inside of the hospital look like? They go down the aisle and see what door they want to be. So it has been great to help people visualize what those experiences look like before they are in a situation.
“We also use it for internal training. We’ve put our facilities into a virtual reality room so you can walk around our Cambridge office or our Gaithersburg office and join other people there too. So yeah, that is definitely something that I think we will use more and more in the coming years. “
What else can you tell me about collaboration and employee experience plans at AstraZeneca in the future? “The collaboration will only get stronger. We see it as a way to promote inclusion in our organization and connect people around the world.
“We’ve used Workplace to do things like crowdsourcing. We’ve just used it to look at our overall AstraZeneca strategy. We had 56,000 ideas submitted via Workplace from our employees in two weeks; it resulted in millions of dollars worth of investments in new projects.
“We did a whole session around capturing the experience of the pandemic, and we had submitted 24,000 ideas. An employee suggested that we should revise our performance appraisal system, and it has been put into practice, so we have done away with performance appraisals. So we are to see how the use of Workplace changes the way we run the business, we use it to maintain a high score for employee engagement: 94% of our employees say that AstraZeneca is a great place to work and we see, that Workplace is a fundamental contributor to that. So we’re pretty excited about the future. “
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