Global pharmaceutical company Novartis is on a mission to reimagine medicine, and therefore “improve and extend patients’ lives”, Markus Graf, vice-president and global head of talent, tells UNLEASH.
For Graf, central to achieving this mission is empowering Novartis’s almost 110,000 employees to be creative and innovative. This is why the pharma giant is laser-focused on creating a culture that allows workers to thrive – there are three elements to the Novartis’s culture: “being inspired, curious and unbossed”.
The first two are simple to understand, but unbossed is less obvious. Graf explains unbossed is about empowering “our people…to shape their work environment and pursue their own ideas. We need leaders who put their teams’ success above their own, who remove obstacles and place trust in their teams”.
Of course, actions speak louder than words, especially around culture. So, ahead of his appearance of UNLEASH World in Paris, Graf shares insights into how Novartis has brought this culture to life and created a working environment to enable staff to make breakthrough innovations and transform the future of medicine.
Psychological safety and inclusion at Novartis
Graf is very clear that “innovation happens when people come together with different points of view, backgrounds”, and they feel psychologically safe to share their ideas.
This explains why “we want to create an environment where people can bring their whole selves to work”. Ultimately, psychological safety allows Novartis and its workers to “really achieve the extraordinary”.
It is clear how seriously Novartis takes inclusion by the fact that, for every team in the business, the pharma giant creates an inclusion index which actively measures employees’ sense of belonging and psychological safety.
Of course, Novartis also tracks and measures its progress around diversity as well. For instance, the company is committed to the Equal Pay International Coalition’s pledge to achieve gender balance in management, as well as achieve pay equity and transparency by 2023.
Graf shares that Novartis is making progress and has already achieved 47% female representation in management – this is up from 45% in 2020.
In addition, Novartis has worked to de-bias its hiring process. As of 2021, it has recruited 80% of its roles without looking at historical salary data to reduce gender bias in the process – it aims to increase that to 100% by 2023.
Beyond gender, Novartis is also doubling down on being inclusive around race, sexual orientation and disabilities. 38% of Novartis’s 15,000-strong US workforce are people of color, and the pharma company has been working Valuable 500 and the International Labor Organization’s global business and disability network to adjust its culture to suit employees with disabilities.
The pharma giant has also been recognized by LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall as a top global employer – Novartis received a silver award alongside the likes of Levi Strauss, Allen & Overy and Fidelity International.
“It is fair to say that we have made major progress, but….there is still a way to go, and we have the ambition to drive the D,E&I agenda further,” notes Graf.
Flexibility is key
For Graf, a second necessity when creating an innovative working environment is flexible working.
While Novartis didn’t develop a COVID-19 vaccine, the pharma giant still had to produce huge quantities of the essential medicines that 800 million patients worldwide rely on to keep their illnesses at bay. Graf is really proud of the commitment of Novartis’s employees during COVID-19; “our teams came together and did a fabulous job”, he shares.
As a result of COVID-19, like many employers across the world, Novartis explored new working models. And its employees are not keen to go back to the way things were before the pandemic – an internal survey in 2021, found that three-quarters of Novartis workers want a hybrid working model.
In response, Novartis management implemented a ‘Choice with Responsibility’ program, which offers “flexibility to our employees regarding where, when and how they work”. It is all about enabling staff to work wherever is best for their wellbeing and productivity. It also encourages teams to think about how they collaborate most effectively: in-person or virtually.
The program applies to all employees at Novartis; the pharma giant is figuring out how to offer flexibility to those who cannot work from home, including employees working in the labs or working on packaging line. “Flexibility needs to happen in the context of the work to be done,” explains Graf. “Wherever possible and feasible, we offer this flexibility where, when and how people work”.
Of course, COVID-19 didn’t just impact where people worked, but it impacted how organizations hired. Face-to-face interviews were no longer possible, so Novartis, like many employers, looked to virtual recruitment. This has persisted past the pandemic.
“I think our virtual recruitment has worked well,” notes Graf. “The satisfaction and sense of belonging reported by new hires who started during the pandemic was even higher than for joiners pre-pandemic.”
He believes this because of the work the talent team at Novartis has done to optimize processes for the digital world, as well as being “more intentional about building connections” with candidates.
In fact, Graf shares his own personal example. He joined Novartis in July 2020 from PepsiCo; before that he worked in HR for other pharma giants like Merck Group and Boehringer Ingelheim.
Before he started at Novartis, he had never entered the company’s offices; “I hadn’t had a single interview in person, I hadn’t met a single colleague in person before joining. However, I felt warmly welcomed, connected with the culture and a good sense of belonging from day one”.
Novartis and the ‘Great Resignation’
The conversation then turned to the ‘Great Resignation’ and its impact on Novartis.
“Our voluntary turnover at Novartis is considerably below the Gartner 2021 pharma benchmark of 16%”, according to Graf. To him, this shows that “our people want to be here”.
Graf attributes this in part to Novartis’s focus on creating a psychologically safe working environment, as well as its flexible working model.
He shares the example of a recent hire in his team who previously worked at a tech giant in the Silicon Valley. The employee in question asked their previous employer “‘why should I relocate? I can work from home”, but the tech giant wasn’t amenable, so the worker decided to leave and join Novartis instead. Ultimately, “flexibility helps us to access new talent pools” from outside the pharma sector.
Novartis’s prioritization of learning and development is also helping the pharma giant keep its attrition low despite sky-high resignation rates.
Graf explains that research shows that employees who have opportunities are the most engaged at work – this, in turn, is good for business.
Graf shares that previously employees at Novartis felt like their careers were in a silo – their number one complaint about career development was that they knew the opportunities for growth in their department, but not elsewhere in the business.
But with the help of Gloat, Novartis has changed this. The marketplace gives “personalized recommendations of full-time jobs, projects, mentors and learning content” across the whole business.
Graf explains: “People can find a mentor from another country or department, or work on a project or in another unit”, and employees are taking advantage; 82% of activity on Gloat is cross-country and outside functional unit.
While having a great culture, flexible working and career development are key to thriving in the ‘Great Resignation’, Graf is clear employers shouldn’t just prioritize these elements now because of the current war for talent. Instead, these should be long-term priorities if employers want to move with the times and stay competitive long-term.
It is crucial that employers continue to stay abreast of changing employee priorities, and new ways to continue to improve employee experience.
This is where events like UNLEASH World come in.
Graf is very excited about UNLEASH World because it’s an opportunity to be “inspired by fabulous thought leaders, and to hear more about what’s next so we can really offer the very best experience for employees” at Novartis, and further enable them to “achieve the extraordinary”.
Graf hopes his telling of Novartis’s story will help other HR leaders attending the show take action to unleash the power of their people.