Facing the unexpected
At the end of February, coming back from London, where I moderated the second session of Pharma Synergy 2020, I was rather happy with the number of contacts and meetings achieved. It was an important moment for Emergpharma: after more than a decade, we had decided to invest heavily to grow and consolidate our position as a global consulting firm. I was expecting that a significant part of the established contacts would soon become clients.
Two weeks after my return to our offices in Thailand, the pandemic drove to strong movement restrictions between countries, air traffic disappeared and suddenly we were facing one of the biggest crises ever. COVID-19 established a new “normality”, with different rules and limitations on activities that were the essence of our business. For almost three months our phones stopped ringing, the messages we sent weren't answered, nothing but silence. Our team was scattered some thousands of miles away, some of the new recruits hadn't finished their training, and even some purchased hardware equipment wasn't going to be delivered until communications were reopened.
There were only two choices: accept losses, implement a cost savings strategy, wait for things to return to normal and withdraw from our growth plans, or completely reinvent ourselves. We chose the second. The next two months were key to backpedaling our way of working and turning the situation around. The pandemic was not going to last forever and it was easy to anticipate a progressive return to normalcy, in which traveling and meetings were not going to happen so suddenly. Business directors would have to take a while before “burning” through their platinum frequent flyer cards again. Meanwhile, a consolidated company in the process of digitization, with presence on several continents and a balance of experienced professionals and young talented people would play an important role in this new situation instead. We decided to get to work and redesign our company with the aim of adopting a Scrum / Agile method, strongly decentralized and in which each of its pieces could act autonomously, but at the same time coordinated, and in which the new digital tools (Trello, Slack, Drive, etc.) will play a fundamental role. We define it as the “Remo Team”.
Building the Remo Team
Remote monitoring is not at all simple. Without confronting the person physically, it is not possible to capture all body language signals, nor transmit passion with equal force than F2F. In Emergpharma, a multinational team, cultural and language differences matter a lot, and certain behaviors acceptable to one party may be offensive to another. Assertiveness is considered in many parts of Asia as discourtesy. Stating that a project is not giving the expected results can generate an emotional response and demotivation. Words, manner, tone and the moment to talk must be carefully chosen. Distance doesn't make it easier.
"Remo Team" passed to stage 2 when we learned to manage customer orders and internal projects using remote access and file sharing tools. The team had to be trained in autonomous work without losing control over progress made. One of the most frequent errors committed in team management is excessive tutelage of good professionals. Many managers believe that if they don't “micro-manage” their team, things will stop. Sometimes this is the case, which is why it is so important that they are the right people. If they know what to do and are motivated, excessive supervision, in addition to wasting time, breaks trust and often ends up turning fear into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
New times, new rules
As of the end of May, things began to change dramatically. Companies began to understand that the “new normality” demanded a different model of working and the proposal that Emergpharma offered was what they needed. Suddenly, projects that had been kept in stand-by for months were reactivated and the number of new leads boosted. In a week we went from zero to one hundred emails per day. The daily work turned into long successions of video conferencing, email crossovers, CDA exchanges, and signing contracts. In my more than 20 years in the pharmaceutical world, in Europe, Asia and Latin America, I had never seen anything like that. " Remo Team " had received its diploma from that moment.
Here is a summary of the key elements that in our opinion have allowed this expansion, in one of the most complex moments that we have had to live both professionally and personally.
1. Understanding and accepting a disruptive change
For many companies, the pandemic was considered at the least at the beginning, as a mere interruption of their activities, not as the beginning of a new and totally different situation. The perception of this reality from the first moment allowed us to have a certain advantage. It gave us time to analyze, react and make the necessary changes.
2. Creating mechanisms to adapt to the new situation and be open to continuous changes
In addition to the implementation of an internal optimization process, the “Remo Team”, we’ve also managed to make from flexibility and adaptability our company motto. We reasoned, that this pandemic will probably not be the last major event we will have to face, so why not create an organization expert to effectively react to sudden and unforeseen changes? To do this, we had to introduce into our corporate culture versatility and adaptability as skills to be developed, attracted and rewarded. Currently our team knows that the important thing is to be able to give quality answers in almost any situation, no excuses. Being a global company requires us to be available 365/24 hours, because we operate on five continents in real time. As we don’t want workaholics on board, this can only be achieved if all of us share the same concept of teamwork: today I support you, and tomorrow you do the same with me.
3. Opportunities identification and new model development
Lockdown has accelerated the use of online tools, and we believe that they will play a very important role from now, not replacing the physical alternatives, but complementing them. The COVID-19 made us experts in the use of Skype, Zoom, WebEx, or Teams as a routine. We have also developed a network of local partners in strategic locations that allow us to extend our range, but for these partnerships to be effective, we had worked hard to design new protocols for remote communication that allow to leverage synergies and avoid unnecessary conflicts. This has been especially important in situations where there are no hierarchies and it is necessary to discuss in terms of equality from a distance. In just a few months, we have moved from operating mainly from Europe and SEA to have a strong and expert local presence in key global markets.
4. New leadership: managing expectations and involving the team in strategic decisions
In our team there is no room for people who limit themselves to fulfilling a given task. We have asked them to learn mastering not one system, but all the available ones, since some of our current or future clients will demand it. We have involved them requesting to tell us every day, at each weekly meeting, how we can improve each internal process. We have proposed competition ideas, and promotional campaigns have become internal affairs, instead to look for outsourcing options. We have worked to create redundancies so that, although there are experts in a specific field, if circumstances make it necessary, another member of the team can continue the work. This makes us better and stronger.
"For developing professionals who put "Skin in the game" not just adding value to their accounts, but also supporting the reinvention of the company, errors must be considered and treated as part of the learning curve"
For developing professionals who put "Skin in the game" not just adding value to their accounts, but also supporting the reinvention of the company, errors must be considered and treated as part of the learning curve, as far as risks have been discussed and accepted. According to LeBoef, organizations get what they reward. We decided that if Emergpharma should be a reference in these complex times, we need people with courage and able to propose different things. Considering that a considerable part of our staff is originally from Southeast Asia and how difficult it is for this culture to discuss issues openly, having achieved this is a double success.
5. Adapt customer relationship management (CRM) to the new scenario
Being used to F2F meetings at the CPHI, Pharma Synergy or directly at their offices, we have had to convince our customers to understand the new scenario. After a period of complete stoppage, most of them had the need to make up for lost time. Sometimes we had to design formulas to collaborate through remote management programs (Trello, Click -up, G-Suite) which has forced us to maintain very high work standards permanently: preparing a scheduled meeting is not the same as being accessible at any time.
In addition to existing customers, our campaign on social networks has turned out to be a success in attracting new projects, but then it has been necessary to negotiate and close the agreements. We had to design new procedures, new forms of communication adapted to the new times with a significant investment of time, but the effort was worthwhile. Having achieved this has considerably increased our credibility and brand image.
The COVID-19 has already generated more than one million deaths in the world and the ruin for many people. This type of disruptive events is becoming more frequent in the world in which we move. When the recent Lehman Brothers crisis began to seem like a vague memory of the past, the pandemic has struck. When we can control the disease, it is very likely that we’ll to be exposed to another great event. In this context, it is necessary to adopt a different leadership model for organizations to survive and even become stronger.
Regardless of how this recovery will be, if we do not increase our “anti-fragility”, we will always be at the mercy of events and without the possibility of survival in the short, medium, but especially in the long term. We try to do it and we can say it is worth it.