An illustrated map of the world

Keeping the connection

Published 31 March 2020, updated 18 May 2020

The future of work is often framed as one where the home office becomes more common than the work office. But when Roche colleagues around the world were faced with self-isolation and lockdowns, working from home has quickly become a “new normal” for many people as COVID-19 makes its relentless march around the globe.

There are plenty of new challenges to uncover, but on the plus side the commute to coffee and work is minimal. But for most of us, there is no map to navigate this new frontier of working while juggling childcare and homeschooling, iffy internet connections, awkwardly un-muted mics on conference calls and fluffy co-workers who want attention.

While technology helps us stay hyperconnected (some complain too much), social distancing has now made each employee an island. We are suddenly and startlingly alone. No coffee chats, no cubicle drop-ins, no double-booked meetings. Lunch for one can be a bit of a bore.

Introverts may relish the reprieve, while others say a lack of distractions helps them focus and become more efficient. There are many challenges and feelings about working from home, and each situation is unique. However, we’re all working from home for a similar purpose; protect society and continue serving patients. Hear how different people throughout the Roche family are making “work from home” work worldwide.

Gijs van den Brink has been spending time during the lockdown with his family in the Netherlands and learning from it. As the Global Head of Immunology, Infectious Diseases and Ophthalmology at Roche in Basel, he reflects on the desire to use the experience to challenge the future of how we operate.

Gijs and family
Gijs and family

“There are new changes at work that should stay in the future. When we are in a crisis, we seem to overestimate the lasting nature of some of the adaptations we make during such times. I distinctly remember this from the financial crisis in 2008 when many people thought life would never be the same. However, there are some changes that have come about now that I hope will be more permanent.

An example of this is the way teams have handled the response to the lockdown in a fast and empowered way. If we can maintain this, it will significantly accelerate the transformation to a more empowered Roche organisation.

Another change is how drug development has accelerated to speeds never seen before in history. Part of that is because of the urgent nature of the situation and its impact on society. I hope that we can learn some lessons that will have a lasting impact on the way we develop drugs. A key insight for me is how important it is that everybody is virtual in a virtual meeting. Earlier, before the pandemic, working from home one day a week I used to dial in to meetings and at times struggled to follow the conversation and make a meaningful contribution. A big upside to the current situation is that everybody is virtual which made meetings more efficient and much more inclusive. I hope that we can maintain ‘all virtual’ meetings when we return to the new normal.

Working in Shanghai without travelling there

Another big insight for me was a week recently that I originally was supposed to be in Shanghai. I still reserved the whole week for the colleagues in Shanghai and just adjusted my working hours a bit more to the working hours in China. It saved me two long days of travel and although I had an early start, I had no jet lag. As a result, I could not only talk to more people, I was also much fresher and more engaged.

I think it would be good to go back to a mix of travel and virtual meetings, the personal connection you make when you see each other in person and have some fun together and chatting over dinner remains very important to me. It makes subsequent virtual meetings easier and more meaningful. I have been surprised how well you can still connect in a virtual meeting but ultimately it is no replacement to the real thing! When we are all vaccinated or safe in some other way, it will be time to throw a big party and leave this whole episode behind us.”

The view near Gijs’s home
The view near Gijs’s home.

Watch an interview with Gijs and learn about his passion for bringing novel healthcare solutions to patients in need.

Paulo Fontoura, Global Head Neuroscience and Rare Diseases Clinical Development is learning the important lessons of life. Based in Basel, Switzerland, he talks about his days during the lockdown, how he is keeping motivated, healthy and productive, while thinking about the future.

Paulo on one of his walks
Paulo getting some fresh air and clearing his head.

“Sometimes, when I need to make video calls from home, I find a quiet spot and ask my family to leave me alone for a couple of hours. They have been supportive and generous. Usually I end up in our dining area, which has good Wi-Fi coverage and ample natural light. Here we have a piece of art that shows birds in flight and always generates a lot of interest. My wife brought this piece a couple of years ago to celebrate a personal event. We are all in love with it. I really think that art, music, and beauty in general are important to remember and enjoy in difficult times like these.

Acknowledge the fears

It is so important to maintain our optimism, and keep up our spirit and motivation during these times. We should acknowledge our fears, our anxieties about the future, and our concerns about our family, loved ones and friends. We need to think of how our society is going to look after this. These are natural thoughts and we should not be ashamed of them. Dealing with the additional stresses of working from home, having young children to take care of on top of work, or living alone during this period is very tough. However, we should not feel overpowered by these anxieties and fears.

My most important message to everyone would be — do not stress. There is enough of that without us adding to it. This is no time to be hard on yourself.

Exercise, music and reading

I have a spin cycle at home and do regular workouts, including some yoga, core training and weights. Whenever possible, I also take the opportunity to take long power walks, while doing calls. People can usually tell by my breathing and from the surrounding noise. Exercise helps me, but I take most solace from music and reading. Not work-related reading, but works that get my mind wandering, be it some great science fiction, or classical works of literature from the 19th century, or history and politics.

Keeping your immune system strong is really about making sure you have good health hygiene in general. There are no specific supplements or drugs, unless you have a pre-existing condition. It is really about taking care of yourself. Eat healthy, regularly and avoid eating out of boredom and drinking too much alcohol. Exercise regularly, whether indoors or outdoors; create a work routine that does not spill into relaxation time, and get good sleep.

It is very easy to start blending work and leisure into one, now that we are at home all the time, and you find yourself waking late and working late into the night. For some people that might work, but most of us need boundaries around work, down time, and sleep. Keep up your spirits, whether by meditation and mindfulness techniques. Engage in a loved hobby. I play the guitar for instance. Just chatting online and having virtual coffee and drinks are also a nice touch, as we all need human connection, especially at times like these.

The view from a walk near Paulo’s home.
The views from walks near Paulo’s home.

Using the pandemic to think of the future

These past few weeks have also given me the time to think about the way we live and work. Each one of us will have to draw our own conclusions about the changes we want to implement in our lives after this experience. There cannot be a one-size fits all solution or conclusion. Nevertheless, I do think this situation has made us all look at ourselves, our work, how we spend our time and our impact on the planet.

Certainly, I think we will learn that there is much more flexibility that we can use in our work setup; working from home, reducing or replacing travel with other means of staying connected. These are good ways for all of us to reduce our impact on the climate, consume less resources and balance our work and our personal lives. This was something I was working on already, before the pandemic, and therefore I will want to continue and build on these new experiments.

The other day, my daughter was telling me she ‘loved this period of confinement’, despite being away from her friends. I think she was basically reflecting on how much she treasured spending more time with us, and how much my frequent travels impact her. Another lesson to take away for the future. The pandemic can help remind us of some of these simple, yet important, things.”

Jimeela Xu, Senior Communications Director, Shanghai, China, has some sage advice for those who miss the connection to colleagues.

Jimeela Xu and her daughter enjoying a “picnic”
Jimeela Xu and her daughter enjoying a “picnic”

I didn’t go out of my house for almost 50 days until last week. We are now trying the new policy working in the office for two days a week. All employees were divided into two groups; group A and group B had no chance to meet with each other. This way we can keep half of the team safe if one of the employees is infected.

My personal experience? When you are working from home, keep connecting with your colleagues. That will make you feel you are not alone. Otherwise, you will feel bored, lonely and anxious at different stages. This is the most difficult part, because you have no idea when the deadline is. After one month, I watched and read almost all of the movies and books I had interest in. I decided to download exercise apps to follow at home. And I also took vitamin D3 every day, since the crisis happened in winter and we had absolutely no chance to walk in the sun. I put my yoga mat in the sunshine and had a picnic every day at noon.

Luckily, my family members stayed with me from the Lunar New Year holiday, so we could talk anytime, about any topics. I also argued with my mum about the political topics, but it seemed good for both of us to keep on thinking.

However, it’s really challenging for children to stay at home for such a long time! I encouraged my daughter to try her best to exercise, like playing pingpong, mini-bowling, rope skipping etc. It all depends on how innovative you are.

Ursula Becker, HTA Evidence Lead, Pharmaceuticals Division, works in Basel and lives with her family in neighbouring France.

Ursula’s garden
A garden makes things easier

We are now in our third week in the home office. Our daughters are 5, 9 and 11 years old, and fortunately they can get along quite well with each other. We live in a house with a garden, which makes many things easier. My husband is a sports teacher and keeps us busy with exercises and small competitions in the garden. It is also nice to have more time. The children now dress themselves alone in the morning, because we don't stress all the time about a tight school and work schedule.

We live near Mulhouse, the epicenter of the corona crisis in France. The hospital is 1 kilometre away and we often hear the helicopters and ambulances – sometimes it feels a bit like being in a war zone.

The biggest challenge in the home office for me is the constant bad conscience: here is the computer, there are three hungry mouths. How do I combine video conferencing with cooking and homeschooling? How do I tell a 5-year-old that the door is now closed and I have to work? When does the working day start and when does it end?

But the situation also has its good points. One questions habits: Do I really have to go on holiday so often? All the activities, errands and shopping, do we need that for a happy life? Also at work: are all the face-to-face meetings and conferences necessary? How do we set priorities? I hope that after the corona crisis we will find a new normality. It would be nice to have more time for the things that really count.

Hao Li works as a Senior Manufacturing Manager, System Reagent at the Roche site is Suzhou and took a “each coin has two sides” approach.

Hao Li embracing spring before the quarantine
Hao Li embracing the outdoors before the quarantine

On 17 January, I went to my hometown Shiyan in Hubei province, about 500 km from Wuhan. It was meant to be a big family reunion to celebrate the Chinese New Year. However, since 21 January, cities across Hubei province closed down in quick succession. In fact, Shiyan was the first city that announced measures on a war footing to bring in steps to isolate people in order to limit the spread of COVID-19. Eight of us were locked in my sister’s apartment for nearly two months till 18 March.

It was a huge challenge in the past two months to get on with day-to-day life. There were some limits on online shopping, finding a balance between remote working and homeschooling a rebellious teenage daughter. Space was tight in the apartment and the internet quality was poor. This made remote working quite difficult not just for me, but also my sister.

Surprisingly, my mind never went into a state of heightened anxiety and I kept up hope during this lengthy period. When I look back now, I think it was mainly the love and support from family members. We believed “each coin has two sides” and hence we valued this opportunity for this special reunion. We shared more about our lives than we did in the past 20 years, as we were always so busy with work and other pressing matters.

An important learning was about how to develop new ways of working remotely which I started on 3 February, which made us stronger as a unit and as a OneRoche team. My manager created a remote working atmosphere by smartly delegating collective and individual tasks to various team leaders, which gave us no time to think about the quarantine. We focused on doing the right and important things for Roche.

On 22 March, I travelled back from my hometown to Suzhou. As per the rules, I am in home quarantine for the next two weeks and work from home. I hope that I will be able to return to the site on 8 April. What a journey it has been!

Alessandra Baricada, HR and Communication Director, Roche Diagnostics Italy has found a strange new sense of community.

Alessandra in her home office
Alessandra at her home office in Milan

It has been four weeks since I started working from home. In the beginning, I was under the impression that it was only a precautionary measure to protect people. I now sense that this is the only way to ‘save’ the broader community and ourselves. There has been one big upside, though. I joke about it often with my husband Enrico. We see a lot more of each other. He works for an Italian fashion house, and began to work from home a couple of weeks ago. We are learning quickly to manage working from the same space, getting on to calls, and giving each other space.

We live in Milan, and have no children. However, our families do not live in the city and are spread all over Italy. We know we will not see them for quite some time, so every evening we talk to family members and friends on WhatsApp. We cannot meet anybody and have to stay at home at all times. We are allowed to go out only if we need to go to the supermarket or a drugstore, and in some cases for work.

However, we have not forgotten each other in the community. Recently, through social media we were invited at 9 pm to switch off our lights inside the house, look out from the balcony with a torch and give a big round of applause for all the doctors and nurses who are sacrificing so much to control COVID-19. At one point, someone started to sing a hymn, and very soon, we all joined in. It felt as if we Italians were united after such a long time.

Roche Italy employs around 1,200 people across Pharma, Diagnostics and Diabetes Care. We have to collaborate to make business proceed as close to normal as possible. At one level, we have got to know each other better. Some of us are allowing others to look into our homes, introducing us to their kids and families, even pets.

In the last few days, spring has arrived. The sun is shining, the sky is clear blue and the flowers are blooming. Having the sunshine come in from the window above my desk already fills me with energy and hope.

The quarantine gave Lu Gao, Head of Infectious Diseases Discovery and HBV Early Development, time to ponder about life and other important things.

Lu working in her home office
Lu continued to work hard through the the quarantine

Lu Gao is used to the fast paced world of infectious disease research, but being confined to her home during a lockdown presented new challenges. She points out that the days spent at home during the quarantine that the local Shanghai government imposed after the Chinese New Year were not always easy. She had major concerns for the safety and health of all her colleagues in the beginning, whether anyone would be stuck somewhere while travelling and not be able to reach their home.

“We were always concerned whether anyone had family members infected with COVID-19, and if colleagues had enough food when quarantined at home or if they had enough masks,” Lu recalls. “In fact, one of my team members travelled to Australia during the Chinese New Year break. She had to re-book her flight four times to return to Shanghai, due to the massive flight cancelations and restrictions imposed in multiple countries in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Lu’s husband also stayed home during this period, and with schools shut down, her 13-year-old son gave the couple company. A seventh grader in an international school in Shanghai, his school is still closed. Therefore, he is still at home and has online distance learning support.

Pause for thought

There were upsides too. Says Lu, “It was a great opportunity for me to re-think priorities in life. The fact that all my family members are safe and healthy is priceless. As the situation developed rapidly, more than ever before, I felt the need to change how we work, to challenge ourselves and think whether there is a new way of doing things faster and smarter. Many of my colleagues also shared the recent learnings in the biology and pathogenesis of coronavirus, treatment options, novel diagnosis methods, and potential new drug discovery for COVID-19. It appeared that all the recent advancements in technology reflected in this field at the speed of light. I was also very impressed to see many physicians and nurses from different cities who travelled in teams to support patients who need them the most. A true display of human spirit in adversity.”

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