The advent of COVID-19 has impacted our lives in countless ways, and the aftershocks continue to reverberate, particularly in the workplace. We sat down with Lonnie Brantz, Client Partner, Clinical Operations and Program Management at Klein Hersh, to discuss how the pandemic has indelibly changed executive recruitment in this space.
Before we explore the impact of the pandemic in your practice area, let’s set the stage as to what the recruitment process looked like prior to COVID.
Lonnie Brantz (LB): Like most companies and organizations, regardless of industry, there was always the expectation that people needed to be physically present in the office five days a week. This was clearly the norm in clinical operations. Our client partners―pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, and contract research organizations―looking to hire clinical operations leads and program managers, strongly believed these individuals had to be locally based or willing to relocate. Remote working arrangements were simply not an option.
How did these limitations shape the recruitment process?
LB: It was exactly that―limiting. Companies in Boston only wanted to hire local talent. The same in San Francisco, companies wanted talent in San Francisco. The same in Philadelphia. This significantly reduced the talent pool, as we could only consider candidates already living in a given area, or who were readily willing to relocate. And it’s not easy to get people to relocate to these three major pharmaceutical hubs, given the cost of living or the thought of fighting city traffic five days a week to come into the office. So, companies were vying for talent in these finite pools, creating inflated titles and inflated compensation to attract talent. This also meant a lot of folks were not staying at one company very long, as they could jump for increasingly better opportunities in a hot market, especially in biotech.
What was the reasoning behind companies setting geographic limitations?
LB: Despite the fact that clinical operations roles can be performed remotely―from patient recruitment and enrollment, to budget management, to CRO oversite and more―companies expected people to be in the office because that was the culture, and it’s how they continued to build and maintain their culture. We had many searches pre-pandemic where we needed to relocate people taking new positions. Even then, candidates would ask for a hybrid schedule, given the associated challenges, and we did our best to coach clients to be open to this model. Some were willing to make exceptions. Others were willing to pass on great candidates, even in a highly competitive market, because their company culture required being in the office five days a week.
When and how did everything begin to shift?
LB: Like everyone else, when the pandemic hit in March 2020, companies were forced to go remote. There was so much worry, from a global perspective, about how to work remotely, how to onboard people remotely, but there was no choice. Business was not going to stop, and in our case, clinical trials absolutely needed to continue. The first search we launched at that time was for a vice president of clinical operations. We worked closely with the chief medical officer and the head of human resources to conduct interviews virtually, and then onboard the candidate virtually. The process was seamless. And it was one of the quickest hires we’ve ever made. That search was completed in less than 30 days. I was able to share this success story with other clients. I could show them the process was not only seamless, but it was actually easier for everyone involved. It eliminated the need to worry about logistics, such as aligning ten different people’s schedules for a series of candidate interviews in the span of one day.
How did this virtual approach to hiring and onboarding continue to unfold?
LB: We immediately started to see the benefits of people working remotely, and it opened the eyes of companies everywhere. Our client partners began to say things like, we need a vice president of clinical operations in Boston. We know it’s a tough hire, so we’re open to looking for someone, say, in the northeast, because it’s easy to get up to Boston from there when needed. So, companies in Boston were no longer only looking in Boston, maybe they’re looking at people in Philly. Now companies in Philly are competing for talent in their own market with companies in other cities. So, now they’re looking at candidates outside of Philadelphia. It’s a butterfly effect. Companies that historically were going as local as they could began to accept the new normal of remote work. And like so many others, they learned that not only can work be done from home, but there’s actually an increase in productivity. Why? Because when you’re not commuting and you’re not distracted by others in an office setting, there’s more time to get the work done. Our clients began anticipating that post post-pandemic, there would be demand for a hybrid model, and it would become the new norm.
What is the impact on your work at Klein Hersh?
LB: It opened up the floodgates of possibility. Early on, there were literally no geographic limitations. We were able to identify the best person or people across the entire country to fill a given role, no matter where they lived. This eliminated the added layer of complexity that relocation brings. A lot goes into relocating someone and a deal can easily fall through. And many candidates won’t even consider relocating―they have families, personal lives, ties to their community. With geographic boundaries removed, our already deep network of candidates to fill a position expands exponentially. Now, when I get a call about an opening, I can immediately think of ten people I know who would be right for this role. I can find the perfect candidate for a job in Boston who doesn’t want to move, but is willing to go to Boston one week out of each month. Just this year, eight times so far, our clients hired the first person we sent. Searches are no longer defined by geographic boundaries, but instead, by identifying the absolute best candidate, regardless of location. The challenge then becomes, every company is competing for the same talent. If I have a search in Philly, I’m competing with companies in Boston that are now tapping into the Philly market, and vice versa.
How did this major shift affect candidates?
LB: From the job seeker perspective, this is great. It’s what they’ve been waiting for. The candidate who lives in New Jersey who has had her eye on a particular pharmaceutical company in Boston, but no interest in moving, can now pursue those opportunities. Before, the candidate who lives in Arizona and works for a CRO had limited options for the future―to work for another CRO or for a virtual biotech company. Now, they potentially have opportunities to work at any company they want. Just recently, I placed someone who lives in Colorado and previously worked for a CRO in the position of VP of clinical ops at a company in Pennsylvania. That was a very rare occurrence before the pandemic.
Is there a downside?
LB: The downside is, how do you maintain your company culture when no one is coming into the office? One of my client partners captured it perfectly, stating that while managing clinical trials does not require a face-to-face working environment to be successful, it’s absolutely helpful for team building, relationship building and problem solving, contributing to collaboration and team dynamics. Prior to COVID, many companies were already decentralizing clinical trials and embracing technology to make virtual meetings and interactions seamless. The new norm certainly allows for a more diverse pool of candidates. But what might be lost in terms of company culture?
Now that we’re more than two years into the pandemic, are companies continuing to embrace the remote work model?
LB: We’re starting to see it pull back. We recently conducted a search for a company in New York that wanted someone who can come into the office at least once or twice a week. A year ago, that wouldn’t have been a concern. But it’s reasonable. So, we can still look at an expanded geographic search for that position―say Philadelphia or Connecticut―where the commute can be easily managed. That would not have been the case a year ago, when there were few geographic limitations, if any. And the time zone difference is back to being an issue. Both coasts would prefer hiring someone on that coast. Companies are setting boundaries again, but still, it’s substantially more lenient. If a search is really unique, say only ten people in the world can do a particular job, companies are now open to remote arrangements. And we don’t have any clients today that require more than four days a week in the office. Most require less. For companies that want to attract and retain the best talent, the hybrid model is here to stay.
About the Author
Lonnie Brantz leads the clinical operations and program management practice at Klein Hersh International. Since joining the firm in 2009, he has been instrumental in building clinical operations and program management teams across all phases of clinical development. Lonnie and his team have placed candidates ranging from director level to senior vice president at more than 30 companies, including startup biotechnology companies, contract research organizations, and top 15 global pharmaceutical companies. Lonnie is recognized as one of the top clinical recruiters in the life sciences industry.