From pandemic response to a cultural foundation: Novartis Malaysia's case study on a new way of work
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From pandemic response to a cultural foundation: Novartis Malaysia's case study on a new way of work

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How is pharmaceutical major Novartis Malaysia sustaining its 'inspired, curious and unbossed culture' in a time of new norms? Anne Heng, Country Head of People and Organization, tells Priya Sunil how this is done:

  • By embracing hybrid working as a 'choice with responsibility' — associates are accountable on when, where, and how they work;
  • By having a toolkit that helps keep work-life integration in check (physical, mental, and social wellbeing), and
  • Overall, by nurturing an agile culture that values output and the impact one's work creates.

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Q I understand that Novartis has introduced two initiatives for employees to deal with the pandemic and work-from-home, one of which is Choice with Responsibility. Please do share more about how it works.

Choice with Responsibility (CwR) started as a programme in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. From there, it has evolved to become a way of work for Novartis associates as we move forward and look ahead.

Our CwR concept is about embracing the hybrid way of work alongside these three key elements: being team-aligned, associate-inspired, and manager-enabled. We want our associates to lead and agree on ways of working with their team members, creating impact at work while at the same time, managing their wellbeing. This means associates will be entrusted to take accountability on when, where, and how they work. CwR is an enabler towards building an inspired, curious and unbossed culture that we advocate at Novartis Malaysia.

Q Novartis Malaysia also launched the Energized for Life toolkit that helps keep work-life integration in check. What comprises this toolkit, and what kind of support does it provide employees?

During the start of the pandemic, our action was to immediately move everyone from a physical workspace to a virtual setting. It was a relatively easy transition since we were equipped digitally to shift and transform to virtual meetings and engagements. However, we did not anticipate the prolonged lockdown and the complications that came with working from home; the line between professional and personal time soon became blurry, as with other challenges of concurrently managing family life and young children who were also studying and staying at home with their online classes.

Our Energized for Life (EfL) toolkit is designed to ensure that our associates have access to the means and resources to take care of themselves in three crucial pillars: physical, mental, and social wellbeing.

We supported our associates with a one-time allowance to facilitate the creation of an ergonomic workplace at home, developed activities and events to keep our teams socially engaged, and organised educational sessions on keeping healthy through exercises and eating well.

Our associates are offered wellness apps at their disposal, examples being TignumX and Awakened Mind to support them in their journey.

Q What sparked the decision behind both the model and the toolkit? How were they designed to cater to individual employee needs to best they can?

We are continuously building an ‘inspired, curious and unbossed’ culture. We also believe that a hybrid work model (CwR) is the foundation for our culture to thrive and therefore, will require sustainable programmes to support this. While CwR is a global initiative, each country is given a free hand to uniquely adapt the concept to our local market, landscape, and the needs of associates whom we understand best. We ensured that we took the voice of our associates into consideration via feedback surveys, focus group meetings whilst reviewing our workflow and current business models.

We are made up of relatively young workforce from diverse backgrounds, and with more than 10 different nationalities working under the same roof and teams that support countries over different time zones. Other considerations we also made are associates with young children and for some whom are here on their own while their dependents and loved ones are back in their home countries.

Q Did you face any challenges gaining stakeholder buy-in? How did you communicate them to your stakeholders?

There is clarity, understanding, and a mandate from our stakeholders and business leaders that culture is a business enabler. We realised that internally, we needed to build a culture that allows our associate to develop their sense of purpose in the organisation. By empowering them to be at their best selves whether at home or at work, our associates are then able to deliver and perform at the greatest impact.

It is not about how and when they work, it is their impact and contributions made to society, the patients’ community and their family that truly matters, and for this journey to be a sustainable one.

Q How have employees reacted to these initiatives, and how has employee engagement and productivity been impacted?

Contrary to old beliefs where ones need to be in the office to work productively – at Novartis Malaysia, we believe that a hybrid model is what will result in higher engagement and effectiveness. As we had initial discussions around too much screen time, digital fatigue and team engagement, we soon started developing interventions to ensure that our associates know how to ‘switch-off’ or schedule work-life integration in such that they can continue to have their focus time on professional and personal life.

Our associates were equally grateful that Novartis Malaysia has been proactive in leading the hybrid model of working with many complementary programmes: such as EfL, CwR, and an office that is designed around activity-based work (ABW). If I can quote one of our field associates, this should sum up the general sentiment about our initiatives: “I am proud to work in Novartis, many of my friends are envious of the support and programmes that they company offers during this time whilst putting health and safety as the main priority.”

Q Novartis Malaysia (and Novartis as a brand) prides itself on its inspired, curious and unbossed’ culture. How do the above initiatives reinforce this?

It is fair to say these initiatives do not work if implemented on their own.

Our vision is for our associates to have a sense of strong purpose in the work that they do, have pride and deliver an impact to the Malaysian society. It does not matter which function you belong to; be it sales, marketing, finance, procurement, or supply chain.

For this to happen, we need to nurture an agile culture where we value output and the impact we create; one that is not measured by the hours we are in the office or where we work, so as long as we are cognisant that we do not work alone but alongside a team, and that we align as a team on our ways of working.

Q How do you see your employee wellbeing/engagement initiatives evolving for the post-pandemic era, and why? Any long-term initiatives in the pipeline?

As shared, our CwR initiative is supporting the culture that we want to build for the present and future. We know that it is important to get the culture right, as a positive culture brings about higher employee engagement and satisfaction. Our wellbeing programme started off as a reaction to the pandemic which at that point, the safety and health of our associates was our foremost priority which also meant we were trying our best to ensure we support the government’s initiatives in helping our associates receive their vaccination as soon as possible.

As we gradually transition into new phases and norms, our focus is to ensure our wellbeing initiatives remain sustainable and with the focus now on mental wellbeing.

We are supporting our associates through our internal Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and with trained Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA) within the organisation. We are also supporting our people managers and leaders to conduct conversations with their teams on what a successful hybrid work model would look like for them as each function and team performs and works differently.

For this to take place, there must be strong psychological safety environment in place and trust among team members, given the heavier dependency on team collaboration now more than before.

Q On a personal front – how do you keep yourself motivated when the going gets tough? What’s your mantra, if any?

Personally, the pandemic was a true test of resilience. As a mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a P&O business partner to the organisation, having to juggle all of the above hats while remaining calm and focused, is something I’m sure many of my peers and colleagues are faced with and find themselves in. The impact that this pandemic had on the economy, our Malaysian workforce, and the livelihoods of many cannot be measured by numbers or dollar value; and I do count the many blessings in life and living up to the motto of Carpe Diem – to seize each day and deliver my best in whatever I do.

On top of this, an evening run around my neighbourhood helps me clear my mind and refocus at the end of each day.

Q What would you like to say to your employees, for all their efforts through these tough times? Do share a shoutout!

On behalf of the leadership team at Novartis Malaysia, I’d like to express my utmost thank-you and to congratulate each and every of our associate. I am truly proud of them; they have stayed steadfast during the pandemic and have come together to support one another in one way or another. At one point we were holding virtual cooking classes, yoga sessions, meditation classes, and sending food and groceries for our international associates who flew into the country during the lockdown.

Our teams have forged stronger bonds during these tough times; this has certainly inculcated a solid foundation for us to continue our journey of building and walking the ‘inspired, curious and unbossed’ culture.

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