Can a virtual business model serve pharma?

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Pharma has much to gain from leveraging components of a virtual business model, especially as an innovative way to work with experts and partners at the right moments throughout the product lifecycle.

Many people are under the impression that face-to-face interactions are required at all times to get work done. However, I’ve seen physical offices experiencing poor communication, low employee engagement, and low productivity. The mark of an excellent manager is not defined by how well they ensure complete employee attendance but by how present, engaged and willing each employee is to contribute to the team.

Adopting components of a virtual operation and leveraging outsourcing opportunities will aid pharma in that respect. In a virtual business model, individuals begin to think differently. There is a shift from a mind-set that looks at the company as a place where you arrive at 9am and leave at 5pm to one that views the company as a place where there is tremendous opportunity to collaborate, innovate, and drive the business forward. In a virtual model, people can be organised and motivated irrespective of physical boundaries.

Many professionals may assume a virtual arrangement aggravates communication, engagement and productivity. However, a company that adheres to a virtual business model makes a lot of effort to build touch-points for staff to ensure they experience adequate personal interactions.

In fact, a virtual or outsourced model can extend a company’s capabilities and leverage the necessary external expertise irrespective of geography and time zone.

Here are four key benefits of virtual collaboration and outsourcing that will enable pharma to meet the healthcare market demands of the future.

Room for flexibility

With an outsourced or virtual business model, companies have flexibility in terms of who to work with, when, and how. We always hear of the need to break down silos within pharma companies, and a virtual model is built to do just that.

More frequently, companies allow employees to work from home, enabling them to gain work-life balance and approach their jobs in new ways. And companies outsource functions in a virtual business model when workload fluctuates due to resource challenges or increased demand due to market conditions.  It is essential to be able to expand resources with the right expertise at the right time to fulfil project requirements, without being bound to geography or full-time hiring. Partnerships with external providers who work virtually can be the key to increased success.

As a consequence of this flexibility, a virtual model easily attracts young and innovative workers. In our company, for example, we have a good feel for technology because of our young staff members. If we had a traditional model, we may find it challenging to draw out ideas from our younger workforce.

Cost containment and efficiency

Biopharma start-ups need to look for partnership and outsourcing opportunities to save on operational costs as they work toward commercialisation of a new product. It is common practice for venture-backed companies to outsource business components such as regulatory, medical, legal and accounting services. Additionally, many executive functions are fulfilled with part-time or consultancy roles, allowing for the necessary professional input only when required.

Partnerships with firms or individuals with the right expertise can help life science firms conserve costs. The benefit, however, is not limited to cost reduction but also creates a lean and efficient operation. Efficiency among small biopharma start-ups is key to bringing innovative therapies to market while optimising limited resources. These small companies are achieving success with fewer in-house resources than large companies. In Big Pharma, many functions are housed internally, which contributes to high overheads. Also, at times, this model may not include the right expertise or its bureaucratic layers may slow progress.

Harness continual advances in technology

The virtual or outsourced business model heavily depends on technology. You can use low-cost software for project management, operational technologies for time tracking, expense management and invoicing, banking, HR and hiring, and many others. It is essential for leaders to stay abreast of new technology developments and gain an understanding of how these can be leveraged to drive the business. We need to constantly ask ourselves: how can we use technology to streamline our operations or use the technology to free up human resources?; What technology can we develop to help our clients do the same in functional areas? Partnering with technology providers is essential to position your company to gain a competitive advantage via the ability to quickly detect and react to market changes.

Being a virtual firm has also made it natural for us to embrace the opportunity to innovate. We now have a steadfast belief in our ability to develop a technological solution on our own or to have a hand in that development – that is not a common belief to have when you are working within a traditional business model.

Streamlined communication and operations

A virtual model streamlines work efficiency and nurtures an open and positive work relationship between managers and employees. Leaders need to make sure they are more available to colleagues. Virtual communication lines are intended to enable staff to ask questions of any leader or manager at any time. And it gives people comfort knowing that leaders are available to provide answers. There is no need for them to wait for a meeting or until a manager is ‘back in the office’.

In our case, most of our employees’ questions come from the client. Since we are a virtual entity, we feel the need to react more quickly to deliver the answer the client needs. As a result of streamlined communications, we are faster at relaying questions, sharing knowledge, and then working together to come up with client solutions – and that is invaluable to the business.

It is easy to think that if people are sitting in their seats from 9am to 5pm, they must be doing their job and working well together. However, that is not reality. In a virtual or outsourced model, with a growth-minded leader who knows how to engage employees, communication and working together can be efficient and effective, rather than overwhelming. The leader of a virtual or outsourced business needs to know how to draw out the ideas and goals of staff and create ways to use the business as a platform to achieve those ideas and goals. This fuels people’s passion to work for the business and towards an optimal operation where each individual contributes.

In a virtual model, there is so much opportunity for companies to drive the business with pertinent expertise and capabilities, to serve clients through a distributed team with a wealth of experience across different therapeutic areas, and to provide employees with a good work-life balance. All these benefits will shape competitive advantage and bring sustained growth at an optimised pace to pharma businesses.

About the author:

Robert Merrill is co-founder and managing partner at OneSource Regulatory. He specialises in assisting pharmaceutical, biotech and medical technology companies with global risk assessments, independent reviews and ethics and compliance programme development.

He has significant industry experience in healthcare compliance, regulatory affairs and risk management.

He received his BS degree in Biology/Chemistry from Utah State University and his JD from The John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Illinois.

Linda Banks

23 April, 2018

business flexibility

business flexibility

Views & Analysis
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Can a virtual business model serve pharma?

Pharma has much to gain from leveraging components of a virtual business model, especially as an innovative way to work with experts and partners at the right moments throughout the product lif