Work-Life Notes from a Large CRO

November 1, 2008
Lisa Henderson

Lisa Henderson is Editor-in-Chief of Applied Clinical Trials and Pharm Exec. She can be reached at lhenderson@mmhgroup.com.

Applied Clinical Trials

Applied Clinical Trials, Applied Clinical Trials-11-01-2008, Volume 0, Issue 0

A look into the work-life benefits that are offered at a large contract research organization.

Addressing the job satisfaction, benefits, and work-life issues for employees at any CRO is important because of the inherent client/service model and competitive market. As just one example of what is considered a large CRO, is publicly-traded ICON, which manages these needs for 6500 employees, with 71 locations in 38 countries. Applied Clinical Trials spoke to John W. Hubbard, PhD, global president ICON Clinical Research, a division of ICON plc, about this Dublin, Ireland-based CRO's human resource philosophy and practice.

The basics

In the United States, ICON offers a competitive compensation package in the form of base salary, bonuses based on accomplishment of personal objectives, and company performance, as well as stock option packages for management. U.S.-based health benefits feature medical, dental, prescription, and vision coverage with an employer contribution of 90%, and a 401(k) that is fully vested almost immediately with a company match.

John W. Hubbard, PhD, global president, ICON Clinical Research.

Salaries for U.S.-based employees at ICON are determined through benchmarking against the health care, pharma, biotech, and CRO markets each year to establish base, mid- and high-level figures for each position. Placing within these levels is based on education and experience—ideally at the midpoint so there is room to grow without overextending the ranges. Overextension can create over-inflated numbers for certain positions, leaving a flat salary terrain when that job title is less in demand. ICON monitors the industry to make sure that its benefits focus on offering a competitive package including compensation, work-life balance, insurance needs, and a professional and aesthetically pleasing work environment.

U.S. work-life benefits at ICON may include flex-time, paid vacation and sick time allowances for the care of children and family members, bereavement days, tuition reimbursement, compressed work week schedules, work from home programs, training programs, and annual charity drives.

Hubbard said, "We're a good size, but we have a personal family attitude." ICON takes their employees input seriously with a global employee survey every two years that evaluates the company on these very issues.

Workplace issues

Salary and benefits are important, but workplace issues are also part of the whole job satisfaction package. Hubbard pointed to our own survey results that showed the overwhelming majority of respondents are "extremely/very satisfied" or "fully satisfied" with workplace issues, which we defined as workplace environment, technology needed to perform work, continuing education to stay current in the field, staffing levels, and workplace procedures and policies.

"The right tools to do their job is very important. The good backbones at large CROs allow people to do the jobs that they need to do on a global basis. At ICON, I can go to any office and log on and get access to the network, whether I'm in Latin America, Singapore or China," said Hubbard. "When you are under tight deadlines and need reports, this is very important."

Don't underestimate the value of a pleasant facility to come to work. "A well-lit area, with up to date computers and ergonomic furniture...these little pieces add up to job satisfaction," said Hubbard.

Global view

Hubbard told Applied Clinical Trials that the global business is growing in the high-double digits, especially in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. This high demand for experienced professionals creates significant competition in these regions and requires more management oversight with the clinical trials experience to mentor and develop this educated new staff.

As a global CRO, ICON is very conscientious about monitoring parity of benefits across the countries in which it operates. It takes into account global business needs and goals as well as the specific local and cultural needs. This includes embracing the differences of country policy regarding health benefits, pensions, vacation, and holidays.

Value of time

It is has been widely published that cultures across the world place different value on personal time. It has been said that "Americans have lost focus of personal time vs. professional time," observes Hubbard. "Some countries through government initiatives and or cultural practices are better at balancing work life. All our employees work very hard, but in some regions time off is 'honored,' and we often see employees in these locations taking extended vacations allowing them to come back refreshed and reenergized and that has to be appreciated and respected," explained Hubbard.

"There is a lot of pressure in this industry and our clients expect us to work long days and over weekends," says Hubbard. With these schedules, the most valuable benefit of all can be time. Recently, ICON gave U.S.-based employees an extra paid day off to balance additional health care costs passed on to the employees. "I received so many positive emails on that decision. People's personal time is so important," said Hubbard. To that end, the philosophy at ICON is flexibility. "We still have to get the work out of the door. But people need their time for personal issues and that has to be recognized," said Hubbard.

The talent

What all this means—surveying the current workforce, benchmarking against other industries and their own, keeping apprised and evaluating employee needs and current work life trends—is that CROs go the distance to retain their employees. ICON has historically low turnover. However, Hubbard noted 2008 was exceptionally low for turnover, which he attributes to the combination of ICON's competitive, employee friendly work environment and the fluctuating economic climate. "People have a stable job that they like, so they stay where they are," Hubbard observed.

Keeping its current talent becomes even more important for CROs who provide key strategic personnel for long-term drug studies. Losing a key team member can have short-term detriment to the sponsor's program. There is a lot of burnout in the industry because employees work very hard. But in the end, as Hubbard told an audience of IIR Partnerships with CROs conference attendees last April, "the people are in this industry because they care about health care and they care about what they are doing."—Lisa Henderson

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