Eimhin O'Driscoll, life sciences recruitment expert, leaning against a glass doorway with her arms folded.
Eimhin O'Driscoll, managing partner at Fastnet Executive Search. Image: Darragh Kane

Holistic employee engagement must be top priority for life sciences in 2022

7 Apr 2022

‘It’s not enough to have your values on a website.’ Éimhín O’Driscoll of life sciences recruitment company Fastnet Executive Search shares her insights on employee engagement and retention.

Life sciences is a “fantastically vibrant industry in Ireland” that isn’t going away any time soon, according to Éimhín O’Driscoll, who has more than 15 years’ experience in recruitment in this sector.

The Cork woman is a managing partner of Fastnet Executive Search, the executive branch of the life sciences-focused Fastnet talent group ­– a business founded by her father and sister in 1999.

O’Driscoll’s own interest in recruitment in life sciences came a few years after she did her science degree in University College Cork. She worked in validation at Pfizer before joining her dad at Fastnet to cover for her sister Niamh while she was on maternity leave. She never left.

These days, O’Driscoll works on the executive side of the business, helping industry leaders recruit and retain staff. After completing a diploma in executive coaching, she had the idea to survey business leaders on their attitudes regarding employee engagement.

The survey was carried out during November and December 2021 with 239 respondents from industries including biopharmaceuticals and medtech. It asked business leaders what their key priorities for developing employee engagement were. The vast majority (88pc) surveyed said that employee engagement was their top challenge for 2022.

In terms of developing employee engagement, the survey results suggested that connecting to the organisation’s purpose was a priority. Just over three-quarters (77pc) of respondents said that building a connection to the company’s purpose was a critical solution in addressing employee engagement.

O’Driscoll doesn’t think that the issue of engagement or lack of connection to a company’s purpose is new, and neither is it as a result of Covid-19.

“We need to figure out how to address it because it has been there for a while, and it doesn’t seem to be going in the right direction,” she says, adding that the pandemic did offer a chance for workers to re-evaluate their careers.

“I think what we’ve all probably found over the last two years – and I’m including myself in this ­­– is that it has allowed time for reflection. We’re all thinking about why we are we doing this. What’s this all about?”

While there is “no magic answer” to address the issue, some ideas were raised in O’Driscoll’s survey. When she asked participants about their key priorities for developing employee engagement, autonomy and trust, continuous learning and flexible working all ranked highly along with connection to the company’s purpose.

‘All the people working within the organisation are your brand ambassadors; they’re the ones who are in the pub on Friday night talking about what it’s like to work there’

But what does that mean for the life sciences industry and other sectors?

“One of the things that kind of was a eureka moment for me was the idea of upstream and downstream,” says O’Driscoll. If employers “can crack upstream where your employees are connected and everyone’s on the same page”, that can prevent the need for “firefighting all the time”.

“Employees are almost more accountable for their happiness at work,” she says, once their employers have engagement levels figured out. But, she cautions, upstream engagement requires work and “strategic thinking”. Pool tables, cool offices and other common corporate perks, while great to have, are downstream engagement in her opinion.

She mentions French theorist Frederic Laloux and his book on management principles entitled Reinventing Organizations. In her view, Laloux’s writing revisits some of the “humanness” that businesses have lost.

“What we’re genuinely finding with candidates is that, no question, reward is important.” But holistic things like listening to staff and being present for them is hugely important, O’Driscoll believes.

“I do think things like team building and off sites and connecting the team are all very important, but some of it is around the authenticity. And that people feel valued and have a voice.

“Organisations need to remember that all the people working within that organisation are your brand ambassadors; they’re the ones who are in the pub on Friday night talking about what it’s like to work there. So it’s not enough to have your values on a website. All of your employees need to be connected with it because they’re the people who are going to be sending the message externally.”

O’Driscoll thinks that companies in life sciences do seem to be focusing more on culture at a leadership level. This means that they are not necessarily demanding that candidates have a life sciences background. Transferable skills or a connection to the industry will often suffice.

That shift in focus has come about by necessity, however. Burnout among employees and changed expectations about work have led to something dubbed the ‘great resignation’ in recent months.

“If you had asked me six months ago, I would have said we’re not seeing the great resignation. But just in the last six to eight weeks, I’ve definitely been hearing a lot more of that at mid-level. I was talking to a client who was saying that’s where they’re really seeing a challenge now; it’s that person with a couple of years of experience who is saying, ‘Right, I’m out of here.’”

She clarifies that talent shortages in Ireland’s life sciences sector are not really similar to the idea of the great resignation, in her view.

“I perceive the great resignation as people who were saying, ‘I’m out of the rat race, I’m doing something different.’ Whereas I think this is a younger cohort who have a couple of years’ experience and know they will be able to work when they come back and are saying, ‘I can get similar work in Canada.’ They’re taking the opportunity to get out of Ireland for a while and travel versus being terribly unhappy.”

A “more sustainable approach” is needed to avoid exacerbating existing talent shortages. O’Driscoll says clients are looking at hiring people outside of Ireland, although there are “lots of challenges around visas”.

‘We are definitely seeing clients who are more open. But we are still seeing resistance from some clients as well’

Despite the challenges the sector is facing, life sciences is “a very innovative industry” due to the nature of the work companies do.

“Some of the organisations can be very traditional, and some of them are around for a very, very long time. A lot of the biotech companies would be newer and I think probably, because of that, they’re less traditional in terms of their structures. They’re a little bit more flexible and adaptable,” says O’Driscoll, in terms of remote working and virtual onboarding of new staff.

“Things like virtual onboarding … I think companies have come a long way on it. But I think it took us a while to realise this is something we actually really need to address because we all thought it wouldn’t last that long.

“There’s definitely people who have joined organisations and have still never met any of their team face to face. And I know that might be normal in other organisations where they have remote teams, but these are people who were probably more used to being on site and the role was more designed to be on site. So I think it has been a challenging experience for people who’ve joined new organisations.”

That said, life sciences is following other industries in its embrace of remote working. But, due to the nature of hands-on roles in areas like manufacturing, remote working can be impossible for many in this industry.

“It’s an interesting time, but we are definitely seeing clients who are more open. But we are still seeing resistance from some clients as well,” O’Driscoll says on the issue of remote versus onsite.

While manufacturing and quality assurance must be done at a company’s site, people working in supply chain roles that don’t need to be done on site can be “alienated” by employers’ lack of flexibility.

“The general consensus I’m hearing is that candidates are really pushing back on a role that will be five days on site, unless obviously it was a specific role where you had to be on site in the lab or whatever.”

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Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea worked as a Careers reporter until 2024, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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