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Tuesday, November 27, 2018


“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” says Gena Restivo from AstraZeneca: The company received HRDC’s prestigious Best Workplace Culture Award this year


In 2018, Gena Restivo, Vice President, Human Resources & Communications at AstraZeneca Canada, and her HR team accepted one of twenty-five of the most renowned and distinguished HR Awards of the year. Winning the spotlight for the “Best Workplace Culture”, Gena said, “AstraZeneca is committed to helping employees be at their best; as a result, we’ve got a phenomenal culture, where people continue to push themselves everyday.

Indeed, her team members candidly claim that they cannot wait to go home at the end of the day and tell everyone where they work and why they work there.

As a loyal and valued member of SCNetwork, we congratulate Gena and her team at AstraZeneca for this significant achievement.

In todays highly volatile and dynamic workplace, having a workplace culture that employees boast about isn’t common. Therefore, building the best workplace culture is a feat that does not happen overnight, and Gena rightly points out, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

We recently caught up with Gena for her insights on corporate culture, and what makes AstraZeneca stand out. Here’s what she shared with us:

Gena, can you tell us a bit about Astra Zeneca’s core values and what the company stands for?

At AstraZeneca, we have this innate belief that our people are the foundation of our business. I believe that our culture is infectious and that’s because it’s based on the principle that our ongoing success is built by great people with a deep connection to our company’s purpose, and a passion for science. AstraZeneca Canada’s core values are that we “put our patients first” and we “follow the science.” This purpose is ingrained into who we are and what we stand for.

The company also places a lot of emphasis on creating a great place to work that’s dynamic and engaging where every employee can thrive. We want our employees to reach their full potential. This means nurturing growth, development, health, and wellness. Because fundamentally we believe that as an organization we are at our best when our employees are at theirs. When we connect employees to the science, our purpose as an organization, and the patients it creates a great place to work.

We do this in many ways. We often share powerful patient stories to help build peoples’ understanding of the patient journey and inspire employees. This helps reinforce what we do. We really keep the patient at the center of all our business decisions.

AstraZeneca received the award for “Best Culture” this year. Can you dig a little deeper and tell us what made Astra Zeneca stand apart?

The first thing I would say is that we’re incredibly proud to have won the “Best Workplace Culture.” I believe that it truly recognizes the work of every single employee in our business. Building a winning culture is a marathon. It’s not a sprint. It’s a combination of the vision, decisions, and practices that you put in place around your business, your people, and how you hire. Your values need to live in every decision. And I think this award is a recognition of that commitment. It represents the dedication of all our employees at present to those in the past, who have helped build this vibrant culture that we have today.

However, where I really think we have upped the bar in the last few years, is around our people strategy. We call it Thrive @AZ. People strategies are based on the fact that we recognize that helping people succeed is not just about supporting them in their day to day job or even just about professional development, although both are important.

But we also recognize that every employee has a busy life and sometimes the everyday pressures of raising kids, taking care of the elderly, managing finances and workload, and trying to live a healthier life can be challenging. There are times that we could all use some extra advice and support.

So, inspiring and supporting the whole self is critical to what AstraZeneca stands for. This whole-self approach has really come about in our Thrive@AZ strategy, where we focus on three strategic areas. The first, around employee growth and development. We’ve done so much in this category, making sure that every employee has an opportunity to learn and grow. Second, we concentrated on health and wellbeing. This embraces the whole-self aspect. It’s about supporting them and their families. We looked at our practices and policies to help this work, and thirdly, cultivating a vibrant and energized workplace. Our employees take their work very seriously, but also know to not necessarily take themselves seriously all the time. We make sure that they’re having fun and we’re creating an engaging place where everyone’s voice is heard, that everyone feels they belong, that everyone feels empowered to take risks, challenges status quo, and drives innovation.

Can you give us specific examples of how your people strategy gets translated into day-to-day operations?

Absolutely. Let’s take employee development and growth. That is key to who we are. We really believe in developing our people and building capabilities for change tomorrow. So, the first thing is that we have a fundamental belief that people can achieve things sometimes, even if they don’t see it for themselves. We think, development should be available to absolutely every single person in our company. We support development in a courageous and non-traditional way so, it’s not uncommon for us to move people from sales into medical, medical into finance, or marketing into other parts of our business. For example, I moved from IT into HR. And the reason why we’re doing this is because we want to make sure that we are building capabilities for not only the roles that we know of today but for the roles that we don’t know will materialize. We really instill a lifelong learning culture at AstraZeneca.

We want our employees to expand their breadth and capabilities and try new things around the business. That way they have all the tools we need to succeed, no matter what the world throws at us.

I can think of another example, where we moved an employee with a PhD in genetics, who was heading a track of our medical program, over into our marketing area to launch one of our oncology brands. It’s important to have transferrable skills and if we stay open, have strong learning agility, we’re willing to take risks.

Does that mean that we must put some support around people who make these big transitions to build up their skills? Yes, of course, those things are important, but it’s worth it because what we’re doing is building a pool of leaders in the future who could take on the challenges ahead of us.

I’ll give you an example in a metric that we track. We track how many employees have had a move or a stretch assignment in the last 24 months and our recent tracking was 75 per cent. We have clear definitions around what a move looks like, what a stretch is, but that tells you that we are constantly having conversations about pushing our employees to try new things, take risks, and be courageous in their development.

Can you talk a bit about AstraZeneca’s health and wellness strategy?

I’m incredibly passionate about building a vibrant, energized and healthy workplace where people feel they belong and can ultimately thrive. We’ve done three key initiatives around this most recently in the last year. First, we recognized that people are wearing many hats these days. Mothers, brothers, sisters, hockey coaches, and professionals. However, occasionally, everybody needs a little support and inspiration to get through all their roles. We’ve introduced a program for our employees called LifeSpeak, that we extend to their families. It provides tools, advice, and webinars to help deal with things like how your kids feel with a transition at school, building your own brand for your own personal development, or supporting caregivers. These are all access tools that our employees and their families can use to help them through their 24/7challenges and successes.

The second thing is that we believe that health is critically important to our employees who are dealing with not just theirs but also their extended family’s. So, we’ve introduced Best Doctors, a service that provides a second opinion on a medical diagnosis. This really helps our employees navigate our healthcare system. But it can also support them if they are taking care of elders, finding care, finding doctors, finding homes, etc. This program provides a way for our employees to cut through the clutter quickly and get the support they need, when they need it.

And finally, we have this fundamental belief of supporting our employees through the exciting times in their lives, along with the challenging ones. We really dug deep this year and looked at some of our policies. We made some significant changes to three key policies. First around bereavement, the second around maternity/paternity leave for our employees, and third around our education policy. We’ve really beefed up all three of those policies in a very progressive way, again, supporting our employees to be at their best in all facets of their lives.

Can you give us some examples of how you celebrate your employees?

Yes, for sure. Celebrating our employees is a key part of being a great place to work and having a great culture. We are constantly celebrating the great work that they do. We have an annual cultural celebration that showcases and celebrates the rich and diverse culture that we have here. Of course, we have some great food that goes along with it. We also do several great impromptu events. We call them #FLASHTHANKS, where we recognize employees just, you know, on a Tuesday in the middle of November let’s say, because we know they’re working hard. It’s a “Thank you for all you do.” We have a lot of fun with this. It goes back to the point that we take our work incredibly seriously because it’s important work to help bring life saving medicines to Canadians, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s not uncommon to hear tons of laughter in our office. Our office buildings are full, not because we tell people you must be here but because they want to be here.

#FLASHTHANKS, is like having pop up shops of gratitude, that we do real time, throughout the year when no one is expecting it. For instance, when we did it in February and our tagline was “you do a waffle lot. Thanks, a latte.” We celebrated with waffles and lattes, of course

That sounds like a lot of fun. So, Gena, this year we have seen HR dealing with a lot of tricky things. We had the #MeToo movement, and in Canada, we had the cannabis legislation. What are some of the strategies or future plans at AstraZeneca to address these changes?

So, I think those are very, very different.  When you are a values-based organization, it means that you have policies and education for leaders to make sure that people understand what you stand for as an organization, how you support your employee, and that all your decisions will be based on the values of the organization. I think that if you have built that trust in an organization, your employees know that through the peaks and valleys of a business cycle, they will be supported.

At AstraZeneca, we have a very strong respect in the workplace culture. We also have a very strong speak up culture. We believe in every voice and make sure every voice is heard.

From a cannabis perspective. I think that there’ll be a lot of legislations that continues to change how we operate as an organization. And we just must look at them in a way that makes sense for the business. We treat it just like we would treat other intoxicants in the workplace. We want our employees to show up to work at their best and as a result of that, there are certain things that are safe and certain things that aren’t. It’s about communicating and making sure that employees understand where you stand for that policy. We just made sure that we’re creating the best environment where everybody can thrive and be their best. That means coming to work at your best self and that means the absence of intoxicants.

Can you share some plans that you’re excited about at AstraZeneca, especially when it comes to culture?

Yeah, sure. Our passion for people development will continue. We will continue to learn, lean in to create the most compelling learning organizational and coaching culture. If you look at the world ahead of us, people will be living longer, they will have longer careers, they will be shifting and changing into different careers. Therefore, we believe that learning is a key component that will help us be differentiated in the future. We remain passionate about it.

Everyone talks about us going through the fourth industrial revolution. That means unprecedented change that will be happening in the workplace in the next little while.

At our company, we are leaning in around embracing and developing and empowering the every day entrepreneur. Really celebrating and supporting our employees to be “everyday entrepreneurs”, to take risks, to be open to new ideas. Resiliency and creativity will drive our initiatives. We believe every employee can innovate in whatever job or activity they are doing. So, going forward, we want to support the everyday entrepreneur across or organization. That will continue to be a key characteristic of our culture.

We’re also going to look a little bit deeper into embracing a digital mindset. Here are my two cents in the world of technology. We hear about the future of work and the advent of the robot. But personally, I believe that human beings have really maxed out on what they can take on. And we’re at a point where we need technology to help us.  I know my organization is embracing technology because we know it will help us create space and we know we’re not afraid about jobs going away. In fact, I think it’s going to create new opportunities because I know, that the best parts of the human mind will never be replaced such as compassion, empathy, judgment, and the ability to inspire and solving complex problems. Finding the proper balance with technology will be a key component of our culture going forward and I want to see how much I can take off the plates of the employees, so they can do what they’re best at.

And that’s being amazing humans with incredible minds doing very purposeful and meaningful work.

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