Many in the processing and packaging community thrive on remote work, but where can managers bridge gaps and make early career professionals feel more confident and connected to their colleagues?
When it comes to learning from managers, collaboration with the team, or becoming part of a company’s culture, there can be a pretty big difference between on-site and remote. (Of course, some engineering and production work must be in-person, particularly when a new employee is learning about equipment/processes or during audits.) Though newer generations of workers grew up communicating and comfortable online, there must be intention behind building relationships when they can’t walk into their manager’s office to ask a question.
At the PDA Annual Meeting in April, a panel of young professionals that participated in PDA’s early career professionals (ECP) mentoring program and the global pharmaceutical student (GPS) program shared their perspective on connecting remotely, their experiences in the pandemic, and more. (For more on these two programs, see the sidebar below.)
1. Understand comfort takes time remotely
As Robin Usselman, business development manager at ACIC Pharmaceuticals Inc., explained, her company switched to remote work for a few months in 2020 and it felt completely different to her after having worked there in-person.
With on-site work, she could walk into her manager's office and ask to discuss a concern, and he’d listen right away. “Working from home, I wouldn't want to call him and bother him with that. So I noticed the difference. It's hard to get that connection,” she said. “The benefits of being remote are nice—you don't have to commute. So now we're hybrid. I really like the hybrid more… you don't need to see your team every day. But I know that if I need support, and I'd like to talk to them in person, I know I'll see them in the office soon.”
Nina Rosso, bioprocess engineer at Novavax, Inc., had the experience of starting at Novavax on COVID-19 vaccine operations in June 2020 when they were already remote. She met with her manager on the phone and on Teams, and the first time she met her in-person, they were traveling to a site. She explained, “I think that the drawback of that is that it's really hard to first establish that relationship remotely. So while now I feel perfectly comfortable calling my manager at home and saying, ‘Hey, I need help. I have a quick question. Do you have time?’ I do think that it took longer to get to that point. If we'd been in the office every day, I might have felt that comfortable in a week or a month, and instead it took maybe a couple of months— meeting in-person once or twice—to feel like I wasn't bothering her, and that when she said it was okay to call, she meant that it was okay.”
2. Initiate more frequent contact
Rosso noted, “I think that we're constantly being told as early career professionals ‘Don't be afraid to ask for help. Ask questions. If you make a mistake, admit when you made a mistake.’ You can say that, but it doesn't mean that we feel comfortable doing that. So it's really important for managers to be approachable and initiate some of those kinds of conversations.”
As an example, she said a manager could proactively ask, “What questions do you have?” or after a meeting say, “Hey, I know that was a lot, did you understand that? What points can I clarify for you?”
3. Offer feedback in real-time
Feedback, both positive and negative, are necessary for development and in general, the panelists said the sooner the better. “When you’re starting out, whether it's hybrid, remote, or in-person, it’s helpful if your manager is setting regular checkpoints. Especially in the beginning whether it's weekly—or however often the person that you're managing needs—because like we all mentioned you don't have that rapport yet, that trust. You need to build it,” said Stephanie Lee, MBS, operations manager at Amgen Inc. “You may need to meet more often at first, especially in a virtual environment. You have to be deliberate about it. You're not going to just see them when you're walking to get water.”
Lee added that this helps establish a space to be able to talk about gaps in knowledge or work through issues, and allows managers to learn about the younger professional's background and career interests. “Maybe you mention that you don't really know too much about a certain subject, and your manager says, ‘I have these people that I can connect you to,’ or recommend you reach out to. Then as you go forward, you don't necessarily have to have those [check-ins] at the same intervals, as you feel more comfortable to say, “Hey, I have a question, can you meet later on a Teams call?’”
4. Don’t overlook small compliments/critiques
When you’ve been in your career for years, you don’t (necessarily) think about every email or task you’re getting done throughout the day. But for early career professionals, small feedback counts.
Rosso noted of constructive feedback: “Even if it's small, I have had managers who messaged me, ‘Can I give some feedback?’ The answer's yes! If they say that when I answered this question, I could have done it this way, that's really helpful. Because it's pretty low stakes—a Teams message—you can come to expect it rather than waiting and building up feedback after months of you doing your job.”
She said the same is true for positive feedback. “I had a manager say, ‘This person interrupted you and I thought you handled that really well and got back on topic.’ You'd be surprised how much that means to someone who's first starting out. You really take those little bits of positive feedback and hold on to them,” she added.
Usselman agreed that small comments help—even complimenting a great email: “I think they want to make it clear that they notice the work I'm doing. It’s just the little things, and I think seeing their support every day makes such a difference compared to if I just heard it at a quarterly review, let's say.
“Another thing is they make it clear how I can progress within the company. If I thought I was going to be stuck in the same role for 10 years, I probably wouldn't stay. But they make it clear what the opportunities are. When they give me new challenges, they may tell me how this will benefit a future role. They actually pushed me to go into business development, which I didn't want to first, but now I'm enjoying it. They gave me that challenge, and they made it clear how it would benefit me. So, I think the career progression really ties in with their support.”