Survive or Thrive? Strategies for maintaining high performing teams during COVID pandemic

Cherie Ihnen, SPHR, SHRM-SCP - Director of Human Resources

Like all businesses, VMS BioMarketing was deeply impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, as it capsized and reshaped the delivery of healthcare throughout the world. At VMS, we converted hundreds of scheduled face-to-face patient education and adherence programs to virtual formats in less than one week, with no gap in service to our biopharma clients and their patients who needed assistance.

Employees, too, who enjoy the comradery and teamwork within the unique and inspiring culture of VMS, quickly transitioned to a 24/7 work-from-home model. VMS has always provided the ways and means for Clinical Nurse Educators (CNEs) and employees to work remotely as needed, but expanding this capability throughout the entire company required thoughtful leadership, strategic planning, and sensitivity to the diverse needs of staff.

VMS BioMarketing Director of Human Resources Cherie Ihnen, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, shared her insights on how the company leadership transformed its business model, maintaining high-performing teams that thrived, and the degree to which it has been effective. 

With the health of patients at stake, how was education delivered if CNEs were not able to visit patients?
It was never an option to cancel a single education program. Patients needed the product education and emotional support more than ever. Virtual education was an effective alternative. Many of the people for whom VMS provides education and support are chronically ill or elderly, and we were determined to deliver every education program in a way that safely and compliantly met the needs of patients. We long had a virtual model in place; we just needed to scale up, and we did.

What strategies did VMS leverage to maintain communication and morale among teams?
COVID-19 certainly brought challenges in these areas. When working from home, one person might feel isolated. Someone else might struggle with 6 family members under one roof. The stay-at-home environment is a direct contradiction to our VMS culture. A lot of our employees are drawn to VMS because of the face-to-face culture.

As a result, we have been laser focused on communications and effective strategies to engage our teams. We utilize Zoom for team meetings; with video on, it is helpful to see our co-workers and managers “live.” Leadership shares in-depth emails across the company to answer questions posed by any team member. We have regular town hall meetings company-wide taking questions and feedback. We created a COVID-19 resources website. We have Monday-Wednesday-Friday wellness like Monday yoga. Wellness Wednesday focuses on educational and emotional topics. Friday is hip hop and dance, and we earn participation points for rewards. We’ve drawn upon the unique culture of VMS to maintain high-performing teams. It’s important for people to stay excited about their work. This passion carries through to every patient, every client.

Has this turned out to be an effective business model?
As the world becomes more comfortable with technology such as virtual visits, we have an opportunity to reach more patients now than ever before. VMS is continuing its growth trajectory. New business continues to be attracted to the VMS people and programs. During a crisis, some people hunker down and batten down the hatches. This was not (and never will be) the VMS way.

What were some of the challenges we experienced?
For companies that work within four walls, it is easier to contain and maintain the setting people are accustomed to – however, more than 50% of the VMS team is remote. We had to show clients what could be done to not only maintain support for patients but also to innovate. Many people missed the collaborative culture. People are tech-savvy but it might not be their preferred method of communication. Joining people in their home environment has been interesting! It was humorous to see a client reprimand their kids.

How do we know we’ve been successful?
We have experienced 100% of staff attending town halls. Our Great Place to Work® survey took place during the pandemic, and 98% of employees said “people here quickly adapt to changes needed for our organization’s success.” Another 99% said “people care about each other here.” Clinical Educators said we were the first ones who responded as quickly and as well to the pandemic.

Will we go back to “business as usual”?
I don’t think it will be ever like it was. Our protocols for re-entry will encompass group size, use of PPE, hygiene, sanitation and more. Our offices were created to be modern, collaborative and cross functional. The human connection cannot be replaced. I’m excited to see people, to see how we all have grown and changed and learned. We are energized and ready for the green light to sprint out of the gate.