- Genentech is a biotech company that develops medicines for life-threatening diseases.
- HR head Cynthia Burks and her team have been revising the flexible-work policy.
- Each business function and individual team is going to draft its own set of best practices.
In 2019, leadership at the biotechnology company Genentech decided it was time to revise its flexible-work policies.
Options like remote work were available, Chief Human Resources Officer Cynthia Burks told Insider, but employees could be sheepish about asking. The decision often came down to an individual boss’ preference.
Management couldn’t have known how prescient it was. The coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, sending much of corporate America scurrying home from the office to stay safe. Since then, employers across industries have debated whether to demand employees back in the office or let people work when and where they choose.
A disconnect between employees and employers has emerged: Employees generally want a hybrid arrangement, while some employers think in-person collaboration is crucial. In this hot job market, employees tend to be winning out.
Burks and her team used the pandemic as an opportunity to continue updating Genentech’s flexible-work policies in a systematic way. That meant crafting flexible-work protocols that fit Genentech’s business goals and collecting empirical data on how employees worked best.
“We wanted to dispel whatever myths or beliefs or perceptions were out there around flexible ways of working,” Burks said, “and really combat that with data and information.”
A business representative took the lead on retooling Genentech’s flexible-work policies
Genentech, which develops medicines for life-threatening diseases, employs about 13,500 people and is headquartered in South San Francisco. It’s part of the global healthcare company Roche Group. Burks joined the company about 11 years ago.
Genentech’s offices never closed during the pandemic, since certain roles in research and manufacturing needed to work on campus. The company recently brought some volunteers back on campus, and the rest of the workforce will be invited back in the next few months. Proof of vaccination will be required to enter an office, and the company has weekly mandatory COVID-19 testing on-site.
Burks started recrafting Genentech’s flexible-work policies by appointing an officer in product development, along with representatives from other teams, to lead the charge. That way, she could ensure that any decision about flexible work would benefit the business.
“We wanted to use this opportunity to maximize the potential for both individuals as well as the business,” Burks said. “How do we really find that sweet spot?”
Each business function is drafting its own flexible-work practices
The next step was analyzing different job types at Genentech to see which types of flexibility were available. Burks and her team also gathered employee feedback through focus groups and surveys to gauge how most people wanted to work.
“One of the big insights is that our employees really were not looking for things that didn’t really make sense for the work that they did,” Burks said.
For example, employees in manufacturing and research said they wanted different types of flexibility beyond working remotely, like starting their workdays at different times or doing training programs from home.
Ultimately, Genentech decided against creating a flexible-work policy that applied to the whole company. That’s because there are too many different types of jobs within the organization — think sales, marketing, and engineering, in addition to roles that require a white lab coat.
Instead, each business function is drafting its own set of flexible-work practices, and each team will do the same. Burks said the business functions worked together to draft their agreements so that one group couldn’t make a unilateral decision like banning remote work entirely.
“Right now, given what we’ve been experiencing, everyone is really focused on remote work,” Burks said. “But we also recognize that there’s a lot of other options for flexibility.”
Burks added that the goal of her team’s research was to pinpoint “what was needed to really make sure that Genentech was a place where people wanted to be.”