When Belgium went into lockdown last March following the pandemic’s outbreak in this small European country, organizations everywhere mobilized in response. As a biopharmaceutical specialist in the neurology and immunology field, Brussels-based UCB took quick action to protect its workforce, ensure production of its critical drugs and continue to operate under various government restrictions in its locations around the world.
Jonathan Berlan, global head of Candidate Experience for the company, oversees talent acquisition and immediately halted all in-person interactions with job candidates, knowing the risk that such meetings could pose to talent and his team. The decision didn’t come easily as the company was engaging in its largest hiring blitz ever in preparation for a record number of new drug launches coming out over the next several years. Additionally, UCB needed to support the development of two new production lines in Belgium.
Under typical circumstances, recruiters and hiring managers would actively seek out and build relationships with talent in person. The pandemic, however, would change all that. As a result, UCB moved from in-person interviews to an all-virtual process. This was an approach the company had never even experimented with before.
“I went to HR leadership and told them to fasten their seat belts. I really didn’t know the consequences of taking a hiring process completely virtual,” he recalls.
His concerns, however, were quickly allayed when the company was able to successfully fill roles as needed in a timely manner. In fact, heading into the fourth quarter of 2020, UCB had shaved 2.5 days from time to hire — a feat which has surpassed expectations despite the record number of requisitions.
a team effort from the beginning
How did the company achieve such gains all while adopting a new recruitment model? How did it acquire some of the hardest skills to find in the biopharmaceutical industry, even as demand was rising due to the global economy’s sudden shift to life sciences?
“We did it with the quality of the people on our team,” Jonathan explains. He points out that UCB’s executive leadership were aligned from the beginning on the goals at hand. The company’s top priorities were protecting the safety of all employees and candidates, clearly communicating its plan of action across the enterprise and leveraging technology to enhance the recruitment experience.
Having turned 90 years old in 2018, UCB is a research-intensive business with a strong pipeline of late-stage drugs in development. As such, the company is in need of both scientific and sales roles to support the forthcoming launches. So even when many companies were sending most of their employees home during the initial lockdown, UCB needed to maintain an on-site workforce, while recruiting and enabling virtual talent as well.
hiring safely is a priority
There are many considerations for acquiring both types of positions during this time. For instance, hiring managers have to interact in person with manufacturing and other facility-based employees, so ensuring they are guided safely throughout the hiring and onboarding journey is both a priority and a challenge.
On the other hand, hiring remote workers can be facilitated through video interviews and other virtual tools. But when it comes to onboarding, Jonathan believes most employers are still trying to replicate an on-site experience.
“The onboarding piece is something no one has gotten quite right yet. We can send new hires a phone, computer and a welcome gift, but that person is still in the same physical space they were in before they began their new job,” he explains. “When you physically go into an office, that marks a rite of passage.”
He is also quick to recognize that under the complete lockdown in March, companies had no choice but to operate with limitations. Even so, his team has become even more productive, which is apparent in the company’s improvement in time to hire.
Beyond concerns about the onboarding process, the company has been especially mindful of the needs of all employees, whether they recently joined UCB or have been longtime workers. Even for his own team, Jonathan is working to replicate the synergies that in-person interactions nurture.
“It was obvious that without those water-cooler moments, you have to manage people differently,” he says, adding that UCB was able to quickly adapt to an effective rhythm that includes regular communications to internal team members and its recruitment process outsourcing (RPO) service provider. This helped to ensure roles were being filled on time with high-quality talent. Other measures to keep his team engaged include ad hoc meetings, virtual coffee chats and Friday night happy hours.
By achieving record hiring and slashing time to fill, UCB’s talent acquisition efforts have been more successful than envisioned at the outset of the pandemic. Even though UCB was busy throughout 2020 filling roles, elevating the talent experience is always a priority. Rethinking talent strategies by focusing on skill sets, and not jobs, and focusing on reskilling will be imperative to the company’s success in the future.