How to Build an HR Infrastructure Within Your Life Science Business
There are numerous ways in which a life sciences or biotech business differs from others. One of the most significant is the challenge of securing the funding necessary to transform a startup into a successful scaleup. In general, it takes much longer for an innovation in the field of life sciences to move from concept and development through testing and licensing to the point at which it reaches the market. Routine funding cycles are designed with a shorter timescale in mind, so it takes a more imaginative venture capital firm to understand the long-term potential of this sector.
Differences aside, the life sciences sector shares a common priority with virtually every other business, not just at the startup or scaleup phase but even at times of minimal growth and stable profitability. That priority is personnel. In many early stage European biotech companies, we see repeated the same reluctance to prioritise HR when in fact it makes a marked difference to the entire organisation.
Recruitment and employee management can be too easily relegated to the status of back-room administrative functions. The glamour is in the discovery and innovation of a new wonder-drug, medical procedure or healthcare device. But a strong, efficient HR infrastructure is essential for the creation and maintenance of a strong organisation.
But surely the HR department is less important than the scientists and researchers, the ideas people, the marketing experts, you might say. No, because the HR infrastructure is the engine of the business, the central mechanism that enables every other piece of the machinery to function at its best. HR is ultimately responsible for performance management as well as running the recruitment process. It also plays a significant role in legal compliance and in the life sciences sector this is of particular importance because any failure to meet statutory and regulatory obligations can seriously undermine the commercial viability of biotech innovations.
It’s helpful to see your HR infrastructure in literal terms as the skeleton or framework that provides organised support for the business. It is central in sustaining employee performance and motivation levels as well as enabling you to plan for the medium- and long-term future and to make the right recruiting decisions.
Every HR system relies on documents such as employee handbooks, written company policies and detailed compliance guidance, but the real value is in the expertise and vision of the HR professionals in charge. HR doesn’t swing into action only when you need to mount a recruiting campaign. It is there all the time, unobtrusively greasing the wheels, reducing risk and boosting productivity.
The Foundation of Your HR Infrastructure
Expertise comes first. Every hire is important but the people you appoint to your HR team are in some ways the most important of all. Once you acknowledge that HR is a specific set of skills, as with accountancy or legal advice, you will develop a sound approach to this appointment. Ideally, you will employ qualified HR professionals who may have advanced degrees and certification as well as demonstrable track records.
The Building Blocks of the HR Infrastructure
The design of your HR infrastructure has several objectives. It should be able to eliminate risk, contribute to the creation of a harmonious, supportive workplace, provide comprehensive training to supervisors and, of course, attract, engage, appoint and retain the best talent in the life sciences industry.
The starting point is to make a thorough assessment of your current model. Life sciences firms carry their own specific HR demands but it is just as important to address employment law risks, the fitness of current HR practices and the perceptions held by employees.
Identifying the goals of the business is also essential. There may be clear ideas at management level, but even there, it’s possible there are discrepancies between priorities. An HR structure can act as a unifying force to bring the vision of senior executives together and then to make sure it is fully communicated to the rest of the organisation. Unity of purpose and vision is indispensable. As the one department that stands outside operational systems but has contact at every level, HR is best placed to engender productive conformity.
HR in Action
Once you have an HR department in place, they will waste no time in drafting policies, procedures and an employee handbook. With your approval, they may carry out a compensation and benefits analysis to review your remuneration and incentive schemes. They will create or revise onboarding and offboarding procedures, restructure processes based on principles of responsibility, accountability, consultation and information, reiterate the company’s core values, establish corporate groups to focus on gender equality and diversity issues, and take an active role in regular management meetings.
A solid HR infrastructure will promote the values of best practice and systematisation throughout the business. A collaborative, communicative environment will help foster effective business mechanisms and dispute resolution. By nurturing a sense of involvement, teamwork, creativity and commitment, HR can positively affect employee perceptions of fairness, job satisfaction and morale.
At the same time, HR needs to monitor performance, giving clear guidance as to company expectations and creating an open, transparent two-way mechanism for feedback. The establishment of processes is only the beginning. The day to day management of those processes will occupy the bulk of an HR department’s time. However, when the time to recruit arrives, the considerable work already done on the company’s culture and systems will more than repay your investment.
Although it frequently deals in matters of life and death, a life sciences company is at its core a business which will prosper or fail according to the performance of its employees. A strong HR infrastructure will enable you to get the most from every employee, in a supportive and persuasive but authoritative and professional manner.