Milind Thatte, Managing Director, Procter & Gamble Health Limited and Vice President, Consumer Health-India Sub-continent speaks to Ashwini Prakash, Managing Partner and Board Director, Singapore and India, Stanton Chase, about the challenges posed during the pandemic, growth opportunities and lessons learnt
Did the pandemic pose a challenge OR a growth opportunity for pharma & healthcare industry? Your views
All through the pandemic, our challenge and primary focus has been and continues to be to protect the health and ensure the safety of our employees and partners; maintain the uninterrupted supply of our vitamins, minerals, supplements and medicinal products for patients and consumers; and support communities through relief efforts.
The onset of the pandemic initially posed two challenges for the industry. One was on the supply chain front where there was impact on multiple fronts: raw material, packaging material, and several other critical components. The other was on the distribution of finished goods and reaching them to the pharmacies, to ensure they reached our consumers and patients on time. These were the challenges for the first two months, until till the whole industry and government came together in a collaborative effort to address them. For e. g – the transporters were granted permission overnight to enter factories, although we were under a national lockdown.
Subsequently we faced another challenge in how to manage our salesforce, who were required to be on the field, to meet customers, visit pharmacies and meet wholesalers. They had to adapt to the ‘work from home’ procedure as well. The big challenge here was that our industry was not used to having such a large work force operate from home. I can say with great pride that our teams responded to this with speed and agility, adapted to the changing environment, embraced virtual mediums/outreach channels to ensure that the connection with HCPs and partners did not break down, and stepped up our consumer outreach efforts which resulted in positive brand recall across categories. During this period, we also found time to upskill our teams through be-spoke training programs designed around working in the new normal including hybrid detailing and retailing in healthcare.
We have also seen an increased awareness of preventive healthcare and the benefits of supplementation amongst consumers and Healthcare Professionals (HCPs). There is growing consumer demand for trusted brands amongst families who want to stay strong and safe together as they adjust to living in the ‘new normal’. Therefore, our portfolio of quality and affordable vitamins, minerals, and medicinal products continues to be more relevant than ever because of their superior product quality, acclaimed benefits, widespread availability, and always-on communication.
What measures did P&G health take to mitigate the business risk caused by the pandemic? What were your key learnings and take away for the future?
The agility and robustness with which our teams planned to ensure business continuity helped us prepare for and mitigate the risks. In the early weeks of the pandemic and within a short time span, all our teams had their business continuity plans in place. Furthermore, we leveraged the strengths of our entire company and shared ideas and best practices across geographies. As part of the healthcare sector, we also worked closely with our industry peers to ensure uninterrupted supplies of medicines.
That being said, we did face challenges in reducing the impact on our day-to-day field operations. We are very proud of our teams who were quick and agile to adapt to the changing environment, embraced virtual mediums/outreach channels to ensure continued connect with HCPs and partners, and stepped up on consumer outreach efforts which resulted in positive brand recall across categories.
The biggest learning was that we must learn to anticipate what the future might bring because change can come upon you suddenly and unexpectedly. When you have a ‘work from home’ schedule that applies to a large field force, you need to be extra cautious/careful about what you do with any time not fully utilised during working hours. We used that time for upskilling our employees. The challenge here was how to deliver good content. During the pandemic, we accelerated digitisation efforts, which helped us efficiently manage all remote working on many levels and we believe that this will continue as we move forward. So yes, now we are future ready. But it is important to continuously think ahead of the curve, anticipate challenges better and be prepared to respond.
How do you see the talent landscape adapting to the new work models viz hybrid and virtual?
We do not expect to see any significant change. In the initial pandemic period, many people relocated to their hometowns or smaller cities and worked from there. Our HR team empowered our people and gave them all the support that they needed to stay safe, as well as continue their work.
We formulated our return-to-work policies after taking inputs from our employees. Return to work was initiated via a hybrid model in November 2021. We continue to operate with this hybrid model which helps bring to life our 3C culture of Collaboration, Coaching & Celebration while enabling individual flexibility. Our endeavour is to enable our employees to bring their best selves to work every day.
We have continued our hiring, training, and on-boarding programs virtually, and ensured close engagement and connect from leadership teams till the last mile. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, our employee engagement scores continued to be high thanks to the efforts of our leaders and managers to stay close and connected with our teams, and the passion and commitment of our employees.
What measures did you take to keep the workforce engaged, motivated and productive in the evolving work environment? Has this led to transformation in your leadership style?
What we have seen is that in such situations, the more we communicate with our employees, the more we keep them engaged. One big difference is that when you operate from offices on a regular basis, you meet all the employees. Pre-COVID, people were meeting and there was regular face to face interaction. We could hold small meeting, chat informally or collaborate on projects and network effectively. In remote working, however, we have observed that informal chats have gone down significantly.
Our human resources and communications teams did a lot of work in this area to help keep the employees informed and engaged through various initiatives, not just the formal ones, but also by celebrating their success, celebrating awards and recognition through functions arranged virtually. One thing that really helped was our robust internal communications drumbeat. We had platforms in place for employees to connect both offline and online: our own internal radio station, a very active yammer page, leadership connect forums, reward and recognition forums, virtual campaign formats for community impact, etc. So, it was easier for us to adapt many of these to a virtual form.
One other thing that I would like to share is that I saw that initially a lot of focus shifted completely to pandemic related communication. While that was important, we also made an effort to take a ‘business as usual’ approach as far as possible. So, we adopted a two-pronged strategy: in addition to doing focussed communication related to the pandemic, we ensured that every single element/event/campaign from our planned drumbeat continued virtually! Whether it was leadership connects, breakfast meets, coffee hours, community giving through our annual Daan Utsav campaign, internal events with 1000+ employees, we rolled them out with the same level of enthusiasm and creativity. In fact we managed more engagement. For example in an Internal R&R program we were able to connect with families as well. With this, we could drive the messages that we are in this together, highlight what the organisation is doing, give security and assurance and ensure fun, engagement, reward and recognition.
I believe that as a leader you must go the extra mile to make connections especially when you have large teams. Every employee and all human beings have gone through a lot during these challenging times. We have to recognise that and going beyond being supportive must also demonstrate empathy.
What did P&G healthcare do to ensure the safety and wellness of its field staff and at the same time equipped the team with necessary training and infrastructure to keep the process up & running?
Since the onset of COVID-19 worldwide and in India, our priorities have been to protect the health and safety of our employees and partners, continually serve our consumers and make our products available to them, and support communities through relief efforts. These commitments have translated into setting up of a dedicated COVID-19 Helpdesk led by HR to handhold employees through the pandemic; regular advisories; vaccination drives; and employee monitoring support through a Connect & Heal platform.
Multiple vaccination drives had been organised for employees and their dependants. We used the virtual working hours to conduct training for our field force through online modules, while also equipping them to work on newer platforms. The team which was used to meeting doctors and retailers face to face, was successfully trained to work on tablets and engage with all customers virtually.
Consumer experience is now at the core of pharma, healthcare industry. How has P&G health leveraged technological advancements to amplify consumer experience and positively influence consumer psychology?
Consumers are increasingly becoming digital savvy these days and play an active role in researching on supplements online. At P&G Health, we utilise and deploy clear and scientifically backed communications starting from our consumer websites and digital platforms and importantly in HCP education programme. We also ensure our claims are approved and compliant with regulations, internally and externally.
Our Medical team ensures HCPs are kept up to date with good quality scientific and technical data such as the ones published in peer-reviewed journals and scientific opinions from scientific organisations.
Like all categories healthcare is experiencing rapid e-commerce growth fuelled by consumers prioritising their personal well-being, need for convenience and value proposition online provides. We are partnering with various platforms to broaden availability of our portfolio.
We are also leveraging technology to improve condition diagnosis using digital screening tools to improve symptom awareness and diagnosis for conditions such as nerve health damage, iron deficiency etc.
During the pandemic we also launched ‘P&G Health Academy’, a virtual Continuing Medical Education platform that helps connect international experts, medical associations, doctor platforms from across continents for scientific exchange till the last mile
As part of our citizenship initiatives, we have been working on digital health in partnership with public health organisations to deploy point-of-care diagnostics in rural and urban communities in India for Maternal & Child Health as part of our flagship public health program SEHAT (meaning health) includes digitisation of health records, ‘Lab in a rucksack’ for essential diagnostics for pregnant women, which in turn enable timely referrals of high-risk patients to public health centres. Also enabling digital empowerment as the above are run by women health workers, recruited from the community who are trained in use of digital health tools and diagnostics
On the personal front, what inspires you?
For me personally, it is very satisfying when I can help people around me; helping employees do better, making sure that we create a conducive environment for them to deliver a great performance. When I see a large number of employees, achieving their goals and getting that sense of purpose, it truly inspires me, because it makes me realise that we are on the right path and as a leader, I’m able to facilitate my people.