The most pressing challenge for our society is the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the global population and economy. Protecting the health of the population is the chief priority, and then stabilizing the economy is the next most urgent priority. However, as pharmaceutical companies navigate this challenging landscape, we find that leadership also is grappling with how to keep field teams engaged and productive during this uncertain time. With travel restrictions, bans on community gathering, work-from-home guidance and understandable restrictions on access to healthcare settings, leaders from across the pharma industry are asking some key questions:

  • How do we best serve our customers during this period?
  • How do we stay in touch with them?
  • What should we be asking our field teams to do with their time?
  • How do we manage the field teams’ spirits?

It’s inevitable that the crisis makes us want to act quickly and decisively on practical issues. Companies are rapidly surfacing issues like incentives, targets and rewards, and they’re accelerating initiatives in digital communication and virtual learning. The instinct is to fix the “what” and the “how.” These are important issues, but COVID-19 has changed the landscape so dramatically that we also need to carefully consider the “why.” 


In times of extreme uncertainties like these, it’s less important to have accurate predictions of the future than to have a clear sense of our obligations and what we want to accomplish during this crisis. That is what we call purpose. Does the field force’s purpose remain the same in light of COVID-19?



Customers and field teams have their own very human struggles with this crisis. COVID-19 has disrupted the status quo in a multitude of areas for customers and for field teams. A pulse check of current sentiment of pharma field teams reveals both practical concerns and some warning signals about a disruption of purpose.


Current Concerns of Pharmaceutical Field Teams

Basic psychological needs

  • Concern for the health of friends, family, colleagues and self
  • In some cases, grief for someone close

Fundamental need: Safety

  • Concern about job security, income, performance evaluation, threats to business

Fundamental need: Belonging

  • Confusion about how best to serve customers
  • Sudden disappearance of their habitual mission
  • Impact of self-isolation on people who thrive on social interaction

Fundamental need: Esteem and self-actualization

  • Frustration that they are impeded from having an impact

If we want to maintain positive engagement, then we need to address the whole human and his or her fundamental needs, particularly during this time of crisis.



Many of these concerns reflect a sudden uncertainty about purpose. What is the field team for during this period? What are we seeking to achieve right now? Leadership teams are attempting to make operational decisions quickly but likely haven’t had the time to step back and strategically answer this fundamental question first: What is the purpose and role of the field team during COVID-19?


If you assume the organization’s purpose is the same as always—to deliver the same customer contact and business results as before the crisis—then your challenge is simply to find a way to deliver this through different means. You will attempt to drive up your existing measures of productivity and upskill on digital interactions. However, the landscape has changed so dramatically that we need to ask if this should remain the focus. Other options for field team purpose could include:

  • Patient focus: Support continuity of care for existing patients, ensuring that they get all of the information needed to help current patients on medication
  • Public health focus: Use our experience in the healthcare provision sector to help in the efforts against COVID-19
  • Relationship focus: Improve the customer perception of our company through sensitivity to their current needs and pressures
  • Transformation focus: Prepare the organization to serve customers in the changed landscape that is likely to exist after COVID-19

Each of these brings different implications for the operational decisions that we take (activities, skills to learn, incentives, etc.). Establishing a clear purpose that reflects the new landscape created by the crisis brings two key benefits:


1. It provides a basis for taking consistent and confident decisions across the whole range of customer engagement and operations issues. This reduces dissonance for the team and helps to address their need for safety.


2. It provides a new mission behind which the team can align, creating a renewed sense of belonging and a new definition of impact, enabling them to feel valuable again.



Managing the field team through this crisis requires us to consider purpose (our yardstick for valuable outcomes), productivity (valuable work by whatever standard we have set) and energy (the commitment of the team to our purpose). Every company will find its own solutions to these issues, but some key things to address include:


1. Immediately address basic human concerns. Take the team out of direct personal contact and remove any hint of pressure to put themselves in harm’s way. Acknowledge their concerns and confusion. Make it clear that the top priority is to care for themselves and their family. Listen carefully. Stay in touch even more than you normally would. As one sales leader put it, “We have to communicate like we are going through our largest-ever launch at the same time as completing a merger.”


2. Establish a clear purpose for this period and beyond. The urge to take action is almost irresistible but, as noted, it is important to align on an organizational purpose during this period—a set of guiding principles to govern decision-making. Otherwise, actions will be disconnected and will generate dissonance. Consistency of purpose is, if anything, more important than the specific choice of purpose.


Your choice will be influenced by the nature of your customers and products, their adjacency or distance from COVID-19, your internal resources and capabilities, and the over-arching business goals and vision of your company. As such, it may be appropriate to have different answers in different business units.


Put this purpose at the heart of all your communications. If you haven’t been a particularly mission-driven organization before, now is the time to start.


3. Create security by rethinking performance and rewards. Field teams have natural concerns about job security, income (especially incentive compensation for salespeople) and being held to measures of performance that no longer apply.

  • Communicate with clarity and honesty about role security. If this is uncertain, then at least provide a concrete plan by which uncertainty will be resolved.
  • Reassess business and activity targets. Quickly announce that these are on hold and being reevaluated. Track trends carefully to project the likely impact for each month of isolation. The impact is likely to vary significantly by therapy area, so take a segmented approach. Demand will likely decline in some sectors as new patients do not present but could hold steady in other sectors (such as life-threatening conditions that are independent of COVID-19) and could rise in others (like increased compliance with asthma medication).
  • Rethink incentive plans. This needs to be done in line with the purpose and objectives that you have set. Targets could be altered in line with new expectations, although more significant changes could and should be made. Maybe some of the total possible payout should be reallocated from sales outcomes to new objectives, such as patient care provision or learning goals.

4. Create meaningful work that creates new value. People in the field are typically very action-oriented and get much of their fulfillment from their interactions with customers and others. We need to find new work for them, not just because of a desire to be productive but because it will be key to supporting their emotional well-being and energy.

  • Change your approach to customer engagement. The last week has seen a rapid acceleration of many pharma companies’ efforts in digital communication and other remote customer engagement tools. It’s already becoming clear that the content of any communication is even more important than the medium. Physicians are in an entirely new situation, and this must be acknowledged in all communications. Customers are already pushing back on “tone-deaf” messages. Some are saying that they want to talk to the MSL, not the sales rep. Some companies are wondering if it is responsible to be asking for any of a physician’s time during this period. There is definitely an argument to move toward an “on-demand” model of contact. In any of these cases there will be a need to ramp up skills in very unfamiliar modes of customer engagement.
  • Engage the team in problem-solving. This is uncharted and rapidly changing territory. No one knows the right answer. At the same time, people get a sense of purpose and community from being engaged in solving problems. Activate local problem-solving teams to tackle customer and business challenges. Reward creative thought and support solutions. This is not a burden that leadership needs to carry alone.
  • Build your customer strategy and plans. This period requires new approaches, but so will the period when isolation slows down. It’s unlikely that the world will click back to business as usual. Choose specific business challenges (new launches, new indications, competitive threats, etc.) and specific high-stakes customers. Challenge sales teams to create strategies and plans for these customers considering the prevailing challenges.  Use this as an opportunity to discover ideas for new ways to create value.
  • Build capabilities for the post COVID-19 world. Learning should not be simply something that is used to occupy downtime. The market is likely to change significantly once this crisis is over. Identify the capabilities you will need to thrive in this new world. This is a key driver of the purpose and objectives that you establish. Use this period to elevate the capabilities of your people and build the value of your talent pool.
  • Support community and healthcare COVID-19 efforts. The pharmaceutical industry occupies a space very close to healthcare provision. Are there things that we as an industry can do to partner with our customers to support the fight against COVID-19?

5. Don’t neglect yourself. Finally, as a business leader, don’t neglect yourself. Your team needs your leadership now more than ever. Make sure that you take the time to reflect on your own emotions and mental state. You owe it to yourself and your team to keep that ship stable. Self-awareness is also a critical component of empathy. Having an understanding of our own emotions makes us better able to understand what others are going through.


There’s a lot of uncertainty right now, and the best way you can guide your teams through this is with strong, calm leadership, a thoughtful plan of action and a clear sense of purpose as your North Star.