For seven months now, my colleagues have been working tirelessly to fight COVID-19 and ensure we continue to deliver medicines and new advances for patients with many serious diseases. As a leader of a large global organization, I’ve had a unique view of how people can face adversity and make the most of challenging situations. At the end of this pandemic — whenever that may come — we should carry the lessons forward.
At Roche, we’ve been evolving our ways of working for several years. We set out with a vision of greater speed, agility, boldness, empowerment, and trust — things that at times can feel unattainable in large, complex organizations. We began an emergent change journey — meaning at the outset we didn’t know how to get there or how long it would take — but with a powerful commitment to achieve the vision. For many colleagues it seemed like a real leap of faith! Fortunately we had compelling examples of what could be done, both at a few enterprises outside of pharma and some early cases within Roche, and we made remarkable progress.
Enter the COVID-19 pandemic. At Roche it has put our new approach to the test — and not only have we passed the test, but have found in the pandemic a remarkable catalyst for change that has dramatically accelerated adoption of new ways of working everywhere around the world. In many cases the timescale of change has moved from years to months and weeks.
A lot of things can be done differently: meet remotely and accomplish projects with fewer people than before. We’ve learned to focus on patient-critical activities and to stop doing things that aren’t. Because we saw that when we weren’t able to do the non-essentials, nothing bad happened. Now we can continue to not do them, and put the resources to work on things that are crucial to the communities we serve.
Take the pace we’ve had to work at, as dictated by urgent medical needs during a pandemic. It forced us to get things done in shorter time frames. We have surprised ourselves with how quickly we could run clinical trials and how fast we could ramp up our manufacturing output. Rallying around a clear need means people can make progress each day on the important things, and not waste time on others.
Then there’s travel. We’ve found we can achieve so much without travelling or being in the same room through use of modern technology. We’ve even identified some types of teamwork that go better online. For example, we can get more balanced participation and faster ideation and iteration — so now we have people who could be in the same room going online instead to participate. Don’t get me wrong, we all miss being with our friends and colleagues, but we now know we can advance the mission much faster without adding so much travel, and jet lag, to the mix!
I don’t believe that the office is going away. And our laboratories and manufacturing sites will continue to be essential places of work. Face-to-face interactions and in-person connections are some of the workplace’s most important aspects — and something many of us have dearly missed and need for good emotional health.
Lockdown life took activity-based work environments to a new level, bringing with it reduced commuting times, new routines for child or elder care and family time, or simply a chance to exercise and tackle domestic tasks at different times of the day. But the new freedoms and fluid lines between work-life and home-life can create challenges. It’s important that we each find a suitable balance and boundaries that match our new conditions, so one isn’t working at all hours of the day.
There certainly are opportunities to think about greater flexibility and how to capture the benefits of remote working going forward. Roche has long supported working from home to the maximum extent that roles and local regulations allow, and we will continue to do so.
I’ve found virtual work can be a great equalizer. Those physically in the room no longer dominate over those who dial in by phone, and every video call square on the computer is the same size. It has enabled us to bring together diverse perspectives from all corners of the company in the same place, on equal terms. This is vitally important and supports our ongoing transformation work because our vision relies on having a company of “owners”, and being fully included is a prerequisite to being an owner.
Let me finish with some reflections about my motivating belief: that every person at Roche should have the opportunity to make the maximum contribution to patients, each and every day. It’s my responsibility as a leader to remove roadblocks, shape the system and empower people so they can do that.
During the course of the pandemic, I have been impressed by the way colleagues have sprung to action in service of society. They have made bold decisions to ensure supplies of our medicines, without worrying about hierarchy and going up the chain for approval. Despite this commendable initiative, there were moments when my leadership team and I had to dive in at an operational level to remove barriers and drive progress because the organization was “stuck”. That was okay when the crisis initially hit, but once you’re into something, it’s easy to forget to step out — we belatedly realized this and had to correct our course. We mustn’t miss the moment to switch gears and get back to being coaches rather than controllers!
COVID-19 has challenged us on every level, revealing our strengths and weaknesses with uncommon speed and acuity. Through and beyond the loss and suffering, the pandemic has brought us valuable learnings that will continue to shape how we view our pace of work, the places we work, and our ambition for what is possible.
Bill Anderson is the CEO of Roche Pharmaceuticals. Roche is the world’s largest biotech company, with truly differentiated medicines in oncology, immunology, infectious diseases, ophthalmology and diseases of the central nervous system.
Bill serves as a member of Roche's Executive Committee, overseeing the Pharmaceutical division. Leading an organisation of 55,000 people, he is passionate about helping people make meaningful progress every day on the things that matter to patients. With a world-leading investment in R&D, his vision is to bring more medical advances to patients at less cost to society.
His tenure at Roche has seen him serve as the CEO of Genentech, the Head of Global Product Strategy and in roles leading the US Oncology and Immunology business units. Bill has a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Texas and earned masters degrees in management and chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.