Last week, I had the pleasure of representing Werk at the annual LEAP HR Life Sciences Conference in Boston. Werk came on board as an Expertise Partner, giving us the ability to connect with life science HR professionals from all over the country. This conference reaffirmed to me how deeply committed life sciences companies are to approaching their people strategies with thoughtfulness and an eye to the future.

Here are some of the key trends that emerged from our conversations:

There really is a war for talent

Talent attraction is top of mind for life sciences companies right now. In the midst of a STEM talent shortage, many of the folks we spoke to said they've had difficulty filling the growing number of jobs in their company (a study by the New American Economy confirmed this gap, showing that in 2016 there were more than a dozen STEM jobs posted online for every available, trained STEM worker). Flexibility and more “human-centric” benefits came up as a key theme to help differentiate employer brands and attract the best and brightest. In fact, a number of companies told us that qualified candidates are explicitly turning down job offers because flexibility wasn’t available, or at least not overtly available.

Turnover during a drug development cycle can be crippling

For life sciences companies, employee retention is especially important due to the drug development cycle, which can take up to 12 years. The quality of the work depends on the talent of the people, and when employees burn out it becomes challenging to retain them. Replacing employees during a development cycle can be costly beyond the obvious expense of recruitment and time lost—when employees leave, they take crucial legacy knowledge with them. To combat this problem, we talked about using flexibility not just to prevent burnout, but to personalize the work experience in order to bolster the entire employee value proposition as a whole.

Creating space for breakthroughs

For an industry that is powered by scientific breakthroughs, nothing is more critical than building environments that foster creativity and innovation. Some of the topics we discussed were the importance of cultivating self efficacy and carving out time and space for employees to engage in uninterrupted focus time. And, of course, no conversation about innovation would be complete without touching on the importance of diversity and inclusion, and this is where flexibility came back into play. Our research has proven that flexibility doesn’t just help get new folks in the door, it allows them to thrive.

It’s challenging but possible to create similar value props for corporate and lab staff

When it comes to life sciences companies, flexibility has historically been more available to office staff than lab staff. We had a number of conversations with companies who are beginning to think creatively about extending that offering to lab staff. One idea was to rearrange the workday so employees could spend 3-4 days in the lab and the remaining 1-2 days at a location of their choosing to focus on writing and documentation.

Reconciling old guard vs. new guard

Millennials currently make up the largest generation in the U.S. workforce, and Gen Z isn’t far behind. For this crop of employees, flexibility isn’t just a differentiator—it’s table stakes. If life sciences companies want to poise themselves for growth as baby boomers transition out and these generations take over, flexibility must be a core part of their culture. A great pace to start is by structuring and assessing data on flexibility to measure its impact on your key business metrics.