The process of hiring, onboarding, and developing new graduate Statisticians and Programmers is integral to successfully delivering and ramping up projects, and vital as a part of good ‘corporate citizenship’ to help tackle the ongoing skills shortage in pharma. At Veramed, our graduates are crucial to our organisational culture and watching them thrive and grow is a matter of immense pride to our leadership team.
Recruiting is a challenging activity even in routine times, involving support and input from all around the organisation – from attending careers fairs, reviewing CVs, interviewing and making offers through to onboarding and training. The graduate recruitment process for Veramed is always well underway by the spring as we look to bring onboard new graduates in the summer and autumn. So, in March 2020, when faced with the shock of the pandemic, amidst processing graduate candidates and making conditional offers, we needed to make some rapid decisions about how we would handle the onboarding process without our usual immersive face-to-face programmes. We needed to quickly determine whether we would make the virtual leap, and if so, how we were going to do it.
In fact, deciding to go ahead was relatively straightforward – within our leadership team, we are apt to see crises as opportunities. So we dived into adapting our processes to secure a satisfying experience for the 2020 intake. We learned a great deal along the way, and in this blog, I share some of the insights from our related presentation at PHUSE US Connect 2021.
Adapting the programme
Robust support and careful mentoring of new graduates is paramount for us. In any onboarding programme, we want to ensure that the team absorbs the technical skills training on offer, learns our internal processes, and gains background on the industry and our client base. Beyond this, it’s essential that our graduates have an enjoyable experience and go on to become happy, engaged members of the wider team.
Naturally, there were several challenges to overcome and adaptations that we needed to make.
One of the significant challenges was that we would usually have all the graduates in the office interacting both together and with the broader team while getting to know the business. When working in the office, our new graduates can simply look up from their desks to ask a colleague or mentor a question. We were mindful of how isolated they might feel without that ad-hoc support and how that might affect their engagement with the training programme. Our solutions to tackle these issues were uncomplicated yet effective, working better than we could have ever anticipated.
Expanded buddy and mentorship scheme
In pre-pandemic times we have always valued the role of our mentorship scheme. Still, to provide extra depth of support, we extended the programme to ensure every graduate had access to a ‘buddy’ from an earlier graduate cohort, as well as a more experienced mentor. This extension also benefited the buddies themselves by providing them additional responsibility and a first introduction to management.
We pride ourselves on the depth of our trainee programme, and so we asked the trainers to consider adapting their materials to account for the difficulty in concentrating on screens for an extended period. We followed best practices for online training and ensured that training modules were concise, not delivering more than 20 minutes of material at one time, and checking their understanding with questions. Rather than one final assessment, we instead adopted a weekly assessment approach to identify gaps more quickly and revisit material where required.
To create that ‘water cooler’ effect, and offset isolation, we set up virtual ‘rooms’ using video conferencing, enabling our intake of graduates to connect regularly. For at least an hour a day, they turned on their cameras and worked together just as they would if they had been sitting next to each other face to face. This simple tool meant that they could ask each other questions, and we also arranged for mentors and buddies to drop in from time to time to provide additional guidance. This mechanism allowed us to identify and address any gaps or issues more readily. It also meant that this cohort became a very cohesive, well-bonded group, perhaps even more so than if they had been in the office.
In general, at Veramed, we have established daily stand-up meetings to check in, address any issues or roadblocks, and get set for a productive day. We initiated a similar virtual stand up for our graduate trainees to provide regular contact and ensure everything was running smoothly.
While we plan to return to a face-to-face programme this year with our largest ever intake of almost 20 graduates, there is much that we will take forward from our experience. For example, while we will re-implement in-person training, it will incorporate an online element by linking our various UK sites virtually, boosting the connection between the groups in different locations.
We will also use the virtual rooms again, albeit slightly differently, retain the buddy scheme, and continue our approach to continuous assessments and training.
The proof of the pudding is always in the eating, and the graduate team was overwhelmingly positive about the experience. Perhaps most importantly, they have built solid relationships and absorbed the training material very well.
Beyond the direct impact of this programme, the experience was another example of how important it is to retain a positive outlook even in the face of adversity. What initially appeared to be an obstacle ultimately led us to more diverse thinking and innovation to enhance the onboarding experience for our graduate trainees.