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Amid heightened global uncertainty at the start of the crisis, clinical trial management group ICON established a business continuity team to ensure the company was prepared for any eventuality.

The company, which is listed on the Nasdaq exchange in New York, describes its management style as open and data-driven, and it was that style that drove the company’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

With 15,000 employees in 90 offices across 40 countries, ICON is a global leader at providing outsourced development services on a global basis to the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical device industries.

It operates through a partnership model with customers, and Thomas O’Leary, its CIO, says those partnerships are based on long term relationships with the projects they deliver for clients running for lengthy, multi-year periods.

As such, the impact of COVID-19 on the immediate demand for ICON’s services has been insignificant and there is no evidence to date of any slowing of new business or deferrals of current projects. If anything, COVID-19 is likely to result in increased demand in the medium term for Icon’s business.

However, COVID-19 has impacted on operations, as many countries in which it operates have introduced societal restrictions, which limit citizens’ movement. This has impacted staff as well as the collaborators and participants in the clinical trials.

For example, many staff were no longer able to access ICON facilities, while the activities of 70 per cent of physicians running trials have been impaired.

With the business continuity team in place, the CEO consciously increased communications to staff, customers, and other stakeholders. With technology already in place, 96 per cent of staff were able to work seamlessly from home

The response

With the business continuity team in place, the CEO consciously increased communications to staff, customers, and other stakeholders. With technology already in place, 96 per cent of staff were able to work seamlessly from home.

The company also took several other actions:

  • New protocols were established with physicians and participants in clinical trials to enable the trial to continue
  • In anticipation of a decline in revenue, executive leadership agreed pay reduction, as did most staff
  • Remote technology was utilised, and collaboration increased exponentially and has become an embedded feature of ‘new normal’ 
  • Field-based staff have adapted to the local restrictions, while demand for the services of an acquisition which provides nurses who conduct home visits with participants in clinical trials has increased exponentially

The impact

Face to face interactions with third party suppliers of goods and services have reduced significantly, with most of these taking place through WebEx, email, and phone. Meanwhile, customer and client-facing staff have not been able to conduct face to face meetings, which until now were regarded as essential. These staff are working effectively remotely from their homes.

A key part of ICON’s cost optimisation strategy was the implementation of a temporary salary reduction for all employees based on a sliding scale of salary level. ICON believes this is the fairest way to share the burden and avoid disproportionately impacting staff with a comparatively lower salary.

All staff were paid their bonus in respect of 2019. The ICON leadership team felt it is was important to recognise and reward individuals for the hard work and contribution to the business during 2019. The 2020 merit increase awards were also fully honoured for all staff, so the temporary employee salary reductions are calculated on 2020 remuneration, post merit increase. 

The outlook

The demand for ICON’s services in a COVID-19 world is likely to continue to grow because of the Company’s particular market. Additionally, demand will continue as ICON has demonstrated resilience and a capability to adapt.

The firm has developed and defined new working procedures which will enable most staff to return to working in the office (signage, split teams/working hours, temperature checking, PPE etc.) and the process of bringing staff back to offices is starting.

For staff who work in the field, it is unlikely their way of working will return to what was normal six months ago – driven to a large degree by customers, by collaborators, and by participants in trials.

ICON’s business has been focused on treatments. There is evidence which suggests there is an increasing market for the firm’s services for development and testing of vaccines. There are emerging opportunities in markets which ICON has not previously targeted such as nutraceuticals. 

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