XRCC employees producing hand sanitizer Credit: XRCC

There is little doubt that 2020 will be remembered as the year of the COVID-19 shutdown, when all manner of businesses and offices simply closed their doors while everyone stayed at home. But the reality behind that image has been more complicated. The ongoing need for essential services like food and energy meant that people in many enterprises not only remained active but were in fact busier than ever.

That has been especially true for those working in the chemical sciences across Canada. At universities that were almost devoid of students, the lights have burned through the night in laboratories where investigators were charged with understanding the pandemic virus and developing a treatment or vaccine for it.

Likewise in the industrial sector, many companies have carried on with manufacturing or research activities that were not subject to shutdown orders. Nevertheless, those activities have generally not resembled business as usual.

At the beginning of the year, when COVID was still regarded as a relatively limited public health problem, San Francisco-based Gilead Sciences assigned its Edmonton research and manufacturing facility to begin work on remdesivir, an experimental drug that could potentially treat this viral infection. By mid-March, when the Canadian government imposed formal lockdown measures on workplaces across the country, the anticipated demand for remdesivir meant the Edmonton facility would be considered essential and allowed to stay open.

At that point, according to executive director Zhongxin Zhou, life within the facility began to look very different. The site usually had about 370 employees, engaged in process development, analytical method development, and manufacturing as well as groups like quality assurance and maintenance that who provide essential support for these functions.

As soon as the lockdown was declared, employees who could effectively work from home were asked to do so, while many others continued to work on site. Schedules were arranged so that only about two-thirds of laboratory staff would be present at any given time, ensuring that people could maintain sufficient distance from one another and remain safe. Enhanced cleaning measures ensured that these workspaces were even more hygienic than they had been previously, and we encouraged staff to share their feedback on the new controls.

“In the pharma industry, we put our emphasis on business continuity,” explains Zhou, who adds that this is key to ensuring that the Gilead’s products would be available for the patients who rely on them. From the very beginning the company also enhanced its communications with all employees, whether they were working on site or remotely.

“We were always trying to make sure people’s physical and psychological needs were being met,” he says, noting that the goal was to track everything happening within the company’s working population, regardless of where they might be. “Where we used to do general updates about once a quarter, now we do updates two or three times a week to make sure people feel connected.”

Managers at Gilead drafted and distributed a guidance document that captured what had been learned in the early days of the pandemic, as well as helping staff to understand the measures that the company had put in place to keep them safe and what was expected of them while on site. Zhou credits this information with allowing employees feel comfortable as they carried out their daily tasks. Communications emphasized the importance of following the new measures to ensure the safety of staff members and their families.

As demanding as this experience has been, he observes, it has yielded unexpected benefits. For example, people now see the advantages of on-line meetings for many purposes, a practice that is likely to continue after the pandemic has passed. Above all, Zhou notes, no one at the company acquired a COVID infection. By the end of July, when the Canadian government approved remdesivir for clinical use, Gilead’s Edmonton plant had already completed a number of active pharmaceutical ingredient batches, with even more batches planned and in progress. He credits these accomplishments, and the intimately shared challenge that fueled them, with bringing everyone in the company together in a very positive way.

“We had a very good collaborative culture before this, but now people are working together even more closely after they have seen the impact this disease has had on the world, and the knowledge that they have been able to contribute to something that can potentially help so many people.”

That same spirit of cooperation and collaboration was felt at the Xerox Research Centre Canada (XRCC) in Mississauga, another industrial research facility that had to find a way through the unknown landscape of the pandemic. For Operations and Environment, Health and Safety Manager Brent Bryant, who has spent almost three decades there, it was first and foremost a learning experience. Although he had steered XRCC through the SARS epidemic that began near the end of 2002, COVID posed a much more serious challenge.

“What changed was that a lot of the protocols we had put in place [as a result of SARS] were just not suitable for the pandemic as it played out,” he says.

More specifically, screening measures that were more than sufficient to keep SARS at bay turned out to be inadequate for this new virus. Like Gilead, XRCC was permitted to remain open, but managers initially chose to have all but Facilities staff work remotely. Such measures were taken consistently across all of Xerox’s multinational locations as the company worked not just to maintain its business but to find a way to contribute to addressing this public health crisis.

At XRCC, that call to help spawned a formal initiative to produce commercial quantities of hand sanitizer, a much-needed commodity that the facility’s people and physical infrastructure could readily produce.

“Because we’re a materials research centre and we have a lot of experience with formulation and dealing with things very similar to hand sanitizer, it just seemed a natural fit when we thought about it,” says Bryant.

Employees turned out in force to become part of this project, recalls Patricia Hawkins, of XRCC’s Strategic Partnerships and Innovation Services. It was an occasion for groups like scientists and technicians, who might typically have worked in very different areas of the building , to find a shared sense of purpose in filling bottles of hand sanitizer and packaging them for wider distribution to hospitals and clinics throughout the region.

The scale of the operation also meant that this effort could have a significant impact, ultimately yielding 161,000 litres of product. “Our Canadian sales force started putting the word out to all of our clients, with preference to health care,” says Hawkins.

Not surprisingly for a place engaged in cutting edge research and development work, XRCC also turned to new collaboration technology. One of the first steps was re-vamping a well established practice of holding regular town hall meetings to keep all  employees informed of what was happening in every part of the operation. In a now familiar pattern, these gatherings migrated to an on-line setting, one that would be spearheaded by Communications Lead Diane Medeiros, who had previously been responsible for the on-site gatherings.

“This was our first time bringing everyone together virtually,” she admits. “I remember white-knuckling the first meeting, which really was trial by fire.”

And because people across Canada were confronting this same novel environment for everything from medical appointments to greeting family in nursing homes, they were sympathetic to the inevitable glitches in their familiar town hall exchanges. Mercifully, Medeiros adds, those problems were few and far between.

Bryant argues that the spread of real-time, on-line communication was just one part of the pandemic’s effect on XRCC’s working culture.

“It really changed managing,” he says. “You don’t manage the same way when you’re not in the room or in the building with people.”

Xerox also developed its own “Team Availability App” to run on mobile electronic platforms. The app enabled employees to conduct daily health checks and log in with their work e-mail address to confirm that neither they nor any member of their family wre experiencing coronavirus symptoms. The ability to share this information immediately and securely made everyone’s life easier.

“It was a lot easier than using a paper-based system,” Bryant says. “It gives us a way of assessing each day that whoever is coming on site has provided an updated status that they’re okay.”

Above all, he insists that providing people with the ability to receive and provide information was crucial to XRCC’s success in preventing any COVID cases amongst its staff.

“It’s one thing to lay out a set of protocols and ask people to follow them, but you really need that engagement from people to take it seriously,” he concludes. “Otherwise it’s not going to work. Being able to communicate as effectively as we did, we gave people the reassurance that we were looking out for them.”