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Continued from Previous……

In Pakistan, the Pakistan Day holiday (23rd March) has provided a Godsend 2-3 days break for most people. Meanwhile, the government is also reviewing and taking steps. Sindh government is apparently in the lead in this case. The others are also catching up.

Lockdown is talk of the town. Some advocate it, some fear it, some are eagerly awaiting, and some are desperately looking for it. Curiously, no one from any industry, other than healthcare, has made any statement. Textiles, footwear, cosmetics, consumer goods, food items, transport etc. employ a huge number of staff. There is no public information as to what they are doing or going to do about their employees. Some of these industries are already known for the worst kind of employee exploitation and we pray and hope they will do better this time.

Doctors have been asking for better protection, closure of regular OPDs, and stopping all patients other than emergency to come to hospitals. They are also asking for more facilities for treating the patients. The ventilators are in acute shortage and our hospitals are unequipped for mass treatment of COVID19, if the need arises.

Government resources, which are already limited, will reach the ultimate limit quickly. A new SRO says that a list of equipment related to respiratory treatment such as ventilators can be imported at zero rated duties, for three months. It is a good gesture but with very limited practical utility. This type of equipment is expensive, not available in bulk even in good times, certainly in shortage internationally at this time, and difficult to import due to logistic issues.

Pharmaceutical companies and related people are visibly active. President of All Pakistan Chemists and Druggists Association, Khalid Saeed, has posted a message urging their members and pharma companies to ensure uninterrupted supplies at regular prices. The senior management of Getz, CCL, Pharmevo and some other Pharma companies have posted public messages showing their support for their own staff and healthcare professionals.

General public is still ambivalent. Some have truly restricted their movement, others are still not sure, while yet others are taking it casually. It is in line with our usual temperament. We are happy-go-lucky type people who keep pushing the limits. Good thing is that a lot of people are making passionate appeals in video, audio, and text messages to take precautions seriously. It is expected that better sense will prevail, sooner than later.

Pharma managers have three categories of employees to take care. There is a large production related staff, a large field sales staff, and lesser number of office-based support staff. No one policy will fit all, and relevant measures may be considered for different departments.

Production must go on in order to ensure continuous drug availability. Production areas employ a large number of workers, most of whom come from low income strata. Their living conditions are not entirely in line with the prescribed standards of health and hygiene. In addition, households and communities are overcrowded. They are at high risk of getting infected, and of spreading infection. Their other serious challenge is that they live on the edge of subsistence generally. A majority is on daily wages with nothing to fall back on. The management challenges in this area are 1) to keep work going on, 2) to take measures to maintain healthy workforce, 3) to keep a close watch on infection status, 4) to take immediate steps for isolation if needed, 5) and, to keep them financially viable. While, the first four are likely to be taken up, the fifth one may not be considered universally due to financial implications. In the overall scheme of things, it is a nominal cost but even then, it may not be paid willingly. The usual logic of businessmen says that they would happily give a million for religious charity but will not give ten thousand for the treatment of a poor worker. This has developed over long time and is the result of teachings of the so-called religious scholars who had a clear personal interest in promoting such things. For managers, it may pose a confrontational situation which they should handle diplomatically and try to achieve positive results.

Field Sales staff must be kept engaged. Despite recommendations from the senior management, the contact with healthcare professionals even through digital media may not be possible. Managers in this area have two challenges; 1) How to make this time productive, and 2) how to keep the business intact. The steps which may be considered to make this time productive include continuous contact between management (consider head office) and the field staff. The staff should be encouraged to remain connected during working hours, exchange notes, exchange video and audio messages and maintain sense of community. The field management is more responsible for these activities. Between head office and field staff, there should be a daily dose of communication. It may contain information, product notes, product messages, training bits, skills related messages, status updates about organization and about COVID19. This area is entirely the responsibility of head office. Training department and product management should work on it. They can still do it even if they cannot come to office due to lockdown. Field force is likely to lose their working allowance if they do not go out in the field. It is hoped that the management would take it as an exception and not make the field staff suffer. About protecting business, two steps may be considered. One, whatever and whenever possible, contact with customers should be maintained from remote. Two, the field staff must work closely with distributors to ensure ample availability in the market and regular sales.

Support staff is mainly finance and accounts, procurement, IT, admin and HR.

Most companies are using ERP and the work is done in software. However, in many organizations, the software is run on in-house server and cannot be accessed online. Due to this restriction, the finance/ accounts staff may be obligated to attend the office. Even in this case, working hours may be staggered between staff so that everyone does not come at the same time. This would limit the crowding and hence the exposure.

Procurement can more easily work from home. In any case, they have to stop the vendors from visiting them. Everything else is manageable with emails and phone calls.

On a lighter note, if IT cannot work from remote, probably no one else can. Most issues can be sorted out from remote and therefore flexible times may be applied.

Admin can also work on flexible hours without loss of efficiency. They can do field part on the spot and the rest from home.

HR with its usual work can largely manage from home. However, HR should work with management to keep the staff informed, engaged and motivated. This is quite possible with a combination of office and work-from-home (WFH) routine.

Prayers for the safety and protection for all of us, living in Pakistan and anywhere in the world.


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