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Creating a culture of flexibility to meet people on their own terms

A case study on a global pharmaceutical company

October 1, 2020

A global pharmaceutical organization seeks to transform its culture to enable flexibility for employees and shows support for the broader community.
Future of Work|Talent|Total Rewards

The challenge

A global pharmaceutical company with operations around the world had, like many other organizations, flexible work policies in place, internal “gig” platforms allowing retirees and others to take on projects, and inclusion and diversity programs. Yet, the coronavirus pandemic and the social justice movement revealed just how far the company was from the enterprise its leaders had envisioned. Specifically, this company had a culture that emphasized rigid conformance to organizational norms and corporate policies that largely overlooked the organization’s responsibility to the broader community. Its employees, in particular those in manufacturing and research, had limited flexibility in terms of their hours and work arrangements, including where they worked. And there was little flexibility in the company’s work relationships — for example, it was difficult for a full-time employee to move to part-time status. So the organization launched an effort to transform its culture and ways of working.

The approach

The organization embarked on a journey to create a culture of flexibility by making the following changes to its operating model:

  • Flexibility in hours, location and work arrangements. The company replaced its legacy model of limited flexibility (i.e., remote work limited to exceptional circumstances, all employees to be “present” between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.) with one of real and meaningful flexibility, including unlimited work from home, the ability to work anywhere in the United States and complete flexibility as to when employees worked, provided they worked 40 hours and maintained productivity.
  • Flexibility for talent in all roles. The legacy model that limited flexible work to white collar, office-based roles was expanded to include lab and manufacturing staff. For example, lab staff could choose to be located in alternative cities and work with colleagues in leased lab facilities at major universities around the country, and manufacturing employees could trade shifts and participate in job sharing and part-time schedules.
  • Flexible work relationships. The company shifted from a state where work relationships were limited and fixed (i.e., options for engaging with work were limited to full time, part time or independent contractor), with virtually no movement between each category, to significantly more options (i.e., full time, part time, temporary, job sharing, fixed-term contracts, gig workers), with ease of movement between each category. For example, a full-time employee could move to part-time status or engage in a job share while retirees could take on gigs and then move on to fixed-term contracts.
  • Values and code of conduct that extend beyond the organization. The organization wanted to extend its impact into the communities in which it operated and thus contribute to the broader social justice movement. The desire to become more human-centric for the benefit of the business and all its stakeholders led the organization to extend its revised code of conduct and values to apply both within and beyond the organization.

The organization wanted to extend its impact into communities in which it operated and contribute to the broader social justice movement.

The results

Instead of conforming to a set of company directives and expectations in terms of what an employee should look like and his or her behaviors and ways of working, all individuals now get to determine where they work, when they work, how they work, and the terms and conditions under which they work.


  • Limited flexibility in hours, location and work arrangements
  • Limited flexibility for research and manufacturing workers
  • Work relationships that were limited and fixed
  • A culture that emphasizes conformance to organizational norms and compliance with corporate policy


  • Significantly more flexibility with elimination of artificial limits
  • Much greater flexibility in work scheduling and location options
  • Variable work relationships
  • A culture that welcomes all talent and emphasizes social responsibility (i.e., living corporate values in the community)

By creating a culture of flexibility, this organization has transformed itself into a truly human-centric enterprise that nimbly adapts to meet its people on their own terms, and not vice versa, and that supports the broader community within which it operates.

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