Q&A: AstraZeneca CIO Cindy Hoots on COVID-19, collaboration — and change

Pharmaceutical bigwig AstraZeneca, like most other companies during the COVID-19 pandemic, had to develop a remote-work strategy for its 70,000 workers quickly. Here’s what the company did and what lessons it learned.

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Over the past two years, Swedish-English pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has been at the heart of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, developing a vaccine and supplying more than 2.5 billion doses to people in 170 countries.

Like most organizations, it was forced to shift rapidly to a remote-work model for many of its 70,000 employees when the pandemic struck in March 2020. Connecting a range of workers, including lab staff, was vital to maintaining operations during what was an unprecedented period, said Cindy Hoots, AstraZeneca’s chief information officer and chief digital officer. Doing so meant relying on a variety of digital communications platforms such as Meta’s Workplace, the social network that Hoots said proved instrumental in connecting staff, whether they were working remotely or in one AstraZeneca’s laboratories.

Cindy Hoots AstraZeneca

Cindy Hoots, AstraZeneca’s chief information officer and chief digital officer.

The following is a lightly edited account of a recent discussion with Hoots about AstraZeneca’s workplace collaboration strategy.

You are both the CIO and CDO at Astra Zeneca. What do each of those roles entail? "In the CIO role, I lead up all of 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 the support services that sit on top.

"We are predominantly an insourced IT organization; most of our IT team are AstraZeneca employees and they're located in our main hubs. So, the US, the UK, Sweden, India, Guadalajara and, in Asia, India being one of our biggest center,s which holds about 45-50% of our employees from an IT perspective.

"In terms of the chief digital officer role, it's really about how can we leverage new technologies, new mindsets, new ways of working to think about patient care, and how we can discover medicines more quickly and get them through the clinical trial process.

"The digitalization effort is not only about how we're digitalizing our patient experience in our provider and HCP experience, but also how do we use digital internally to optimize the way we work, to automate work.  So, for us, digital is really two-fold: it's an external view of how we interact with patients, providers, payers, etc., but also how do we bring to life new ways of working internally."

You joined AstraZeneca shortly before the pandemic began. What was your experience here, and what were of some of the challenges you faced in supporting remote work? To what degree was AstraZeneca already prepared in terms of having applications infrastructure? "I joined AstraZeneca in January 2020, and several weeks later we saw the beginning of COVID-19 hitting China, and we have large Chinese operations. That was just a few weeks into my tenure, and I have to say the IT organization really did a phenomenal job. We were able to roll out different communication tools: we already had Workplace as a 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 in and keep the business running at a time where people were starting to need to be at home.

"Just a few weeks after that, we also needed to go to remote working in the US, the UK, and in Sweden, where we have predominantly our research centers. We were able to pivot very, very quickly into a digital world, which was a big credit to the underlying infrastructure and applications that we already had. We were able to keep all our clinical trials on track, we kept our manufacturing going, and we were able to put in different protocols to allow people to stay connected and continue to operate the business quite successfully."

What were some of the tools that you were using? AstraZeneca has been trialling Workplace [from Meta] for several years — what role did that play in connecting staff and maintaining productivity? "We've been a Workplace user since the early days of 2017, and then more widely across our organization in 2018. We now use Workplace across 70,000-plus employees to help them connect, learn, and break down some of the boundaries that exist in global companies.

"Workplace really became a lifeline for our business during the pandemic. It helped those that were working in the labs continue to collaborate and get updated on all of the latest news, updates, and the company direction.

"We used a variety of the tools like Workplace Live video, we would host Ask Me Anything sessions where our senior leaders were available for Q&A to help people as they navigated this unprecedented change. We also had special video sessions. We had the WHO [World Health Organization] COVID special envoys and our chief medical officer do a session, again, to help people understand the facts around COVID and our response.  

"Our CEO, Pascal Soriot, was able to stay connected with employees. We were used to being close to our employees so we wanted to make sure we didn't lose that connection. Workplace was integral to the way in which we worked together and kept informed during the pandemic."

What other apps and tools were integral to supporting the workforce? Did you invest in new tools? "On the collaboration front, we also used Microsoft Teams. We were in some early stages of pilots prior to the pandemic with Microsoft Teams and that became a big lifeline as well, more so for the day-to-day working aspects of meetings and collaborating on particular projects, etc.

"We are a big user of video; that really helped us be able to connect. I still haven't met 50% of my direct reports, because they're in countries that I haven't visited, but video brought us together.

"Zoom was also another big collaboration tool that we used, predominantly when we were working with people outside [the organization]. The uptake of that was almost instantaneous.

"Most people that hold the chief digital officer role found that the pandemic accelerated their organization in terms of how they could leverage technology to keep their business not only running, but thriving, during some pretty difficult times.

What did you learn from that experience? "The biggest learning is how important it is to keep people connected and feeling that, even when they're not together, they're still working towards a common goal, a common purpose. [This meant] helping people navigate not only the work, but personal situations as well, and the uncertainty of what was happening around the world, not knowing how long we were going to be in that situation. So, again, that sense of connection and building those strong relationships was really important as part of our overall response.

"Having tools that you can deploy easily…so that you don't need large amounts of time to be able to do training and upskilling [was important], also, working in a way that is more intuitive and rolling out solutions in a way that people can grasp them quite quickly.

"It has reshaped our whole thinking around the types of applications that we use and [we moved] more to platforms, rather than individual applications, so that we can create a robust foundation on which to put new functionality on top of. Thinking about the user design, thinking about the user experience, became even more prominent because you didn't always have that face-to-face connectivity."

Will AstraZeneca continue to support remote working going forward? We've always had a flexible work environment. A number of our salesforce have always been remote and that will continue. We see tools like Workplace and Teams and Zoom helping 'work anywhere,' as remote is not only when you’re working from home. Oftentimes, you may be travelling and working. So, making sure we can support our employees from a technology perspective no matter where they're sitting is certainly part of what we look at, making sure we're prepared for the future."

Can a hybrid strategy create its own challenges, supporting two different modes of working? "During the pandemic, we all got used to being able to work remotely and to the protocol that you would use during a meeting. As we come back to the office, relearning some of that etiquette [is important].

"One tip is that those in the meeting room still join on laptops so that we can use the chat features. [For example], if we have a meeting and we're broadcasting it onto Workplace, we get all the chats and the comments right there on Workplace and we can interact with them.

"When we were all working from home, we changed people's perception about the way they could participate and be included in a meeting. We saw these tools – Workplace, Teams, Zoom, etcetera – give a voice to people that are more introverted, or may not have wanted to speak up in a meeting. Through the chat functions we were able to hear their voice and they can participate more fully.

"So, yes, we're learning a little bit about how to come back to the office and still get all of the benefits that we found using these tools during the pandemic."

What are your thoughts on innovation around workplace collaboration? Meta and Microsoft have developed VR collaboration tools — is that something that you’ve been exploring?  "Throughout the pandemic we started to use a lot more virtual reality, augmented reality: we are looking at its use in multiple different areas. One is we were using it for training our manufacturing operators on the lines. When we were doing training previously, we would oftentimes shut down a line to be able to do it. But through virtual reality, we're now able to help people understand what would really happen on the line.

"We're using it in clinical trials, as well, to help people understand what the process feels if they go to a hospital: what does the inside of that hospital look like? They walk down the hall and see what door they will be going through. So helping people to visualize what those experiences look like before they're in a situation has been great.

"We're also using it for internal training. We have put our facilities into a virtual reality room, so you can walk around our Cambridge office or our Gaithersburg office and join other people in there as well. So, yes, it's definitely something that I think we'll use more and more in the coming years."

What else can you tell me about collaboration and employee experience plans at AstraZeneca going forward? "Collaboration is only going to get stronger. We see it as a way to drive inclusion within our organization, connecting people around the world.

"We've been using Workplace to do things like crowdsourcing. We just leveraged it to look at our overall AstraZeneca strategy. We had 56,000 ideas submitted through Workplace from our employees over the course of two weeks; that resulted in millions of dollars’ worth of investment in new projects.

"We did a whole session around capturing the learnings from the pandemic and we had 24,000 ideas submitted. An employee suggested we overhaul our performance rating system and that's been put into practice, so we've done away with performance ratings. So we’re seeing how the use of Workplace is changing the way we're running the business. We use it to maintain a high employee engagement score: 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."

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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