How Putting Culture First Helped One Small Business Grow During the Pandemic

January 6, 2021

Screenshot of EQRx team Zoom call

Prior to joining EQRx as VP of talent branding and recruitment, I had my own talent brand consulting company, working with notable brands on strategies to attract the right talent. I was up for a new challenge in biotech, but had not anticipated the impact of a global pandemic on my new endeavor. 

Our company, EQRx, a Massachusetts-based pharmaceutical company, had approximately 20 employees when the world started shutting down due to the pandemic. The company was coming off an exciting fundraising round and launch, and we were full-steam ahead toward building a bold, disruptive organization. Fast forward to today, and you might be surprised to learn that despite the year’s challenges, we surpassed 100 employees closing out 2020

Building EQRx in a time of such uncertainty came with challenges. That said, COVID-19 hasn’t changed our drive or our bold mission — to bring forward a market-based solution to one of society’s biggest healthcare challenges by developing innovative medicines and offering them at more affordable prices. If anything, our mission to remake medicine has become even more important due to increased economic impact of the pandemic. To ensure we can continue our progress building our business, and importantly our culture, we’ve mobilized with great diligence and intention. 

So, how did we, a newly-formed company with minimal brand awareness, grow so quickly during a global pandemic and in an employment market like we have never seen before? We’ve found success through transparency — from our talent brand that highlights our purpose-driven mission, infusing the bold values right from start through our in-house recruiting team and curated candidate experience, all the way to authentic employee engagement and focus on culture. 

1. Invested in creating an authentic talent brand — and embraced social media

Even during a pandemic, competition for talent is especially high in the life sciences. While many other industries have seen major slowdowns and layoffs, hiring in life sciences has only accelerated. In fact, I’ve found it’s akin to hiring engineering talent for tech companies in recent years. 

To satisfy our big hiring goals and differentiate EQRx from our life sciences brethren, we invested the time and effort into building our talent brand from launch in January. Sure, we might get some applications for just being “shiny and new,” but as the new kid on the scene, we knew we had to build awareness of what we stand for to make sure we’re attracting the right people. While most companies think of talent brand as a “nice-to-have”, it has been a crucial element in helping us gain fast-footing in a time where much of the economy has slowed to a crawl.

Building a first-of-its-kind healthcare business requires us to attract people who have the desire to bring their own unique views, experiences, and opinions without fear of repercussion. With a focus on individualism and “culture-add versus culture-fit,” we firmly believe that allowing people the space to be themselves enables thinking big about the challenges in front of us. We’ve coined the hashtag #BeYouAtEQ — a call to bring your true self to work every day.

We also have a Professional Superpowers “quiz” on our website that then suggests job openings based on each person’s unique results. (Go on, we know you want to take the quiz — are you a Champion, Warrior, Dreamer or Disruptor?) More than 3,000 people have taken the quiz in the few months it has been active on our careers site. These are the types of initiatives that allow people a unique lens into our culture and values and either self-select in or opt-out — something that’s incredibly important to us. We get it — we’re not a great fit for everyone looking for a new opportunity in biotech.

To start a new job at any time can be daunting. To join an existing team and build new relationships in an exclusively virtual world is even more difficult. At EQRx, the majority of the team has started remotely so we’re all in this together.” — Rona Anhalt, Chief People Officer at EQRx

Our approach to talent branding is grassroots, leveraging the digital touchpoints that have been augmented by our new work-from-home reality. Our employees have been gracious in sharing their personal stories to create a compelling and relatable illustration of our culture and mission. And we’ve been gaining momentum as an employer of choice by communicating the importance of company reviews. We’ve empowered employees as brand ambassadors to their own networks, providing fun, engaging content and simple guidelines to help get the word out as well. While most companies in life sciences have been very apprehensive with social media, we have embraced it to some great results.

In the past 6 months, we’ve seen incredible increases in key metrics from our efforts thus far:

  • LinkedIn: + 360% followership
  • Instagram: + 228% followership
  • Glassdoor: + 28,000% pageviews
  • Comparably: + 2,877% pageviews

Our careers site has also experienced increased traffic month-over-month, with a current average of 33.3K views per month — all for an average of 35 openings per month.

2. Focused on building a best-in-class candidate experience

As anyone who’s worked at an early-stage company, you know that the most compelling details of the business can’t yet be shared externally, so we’ve leaned into leveraging our purpose to attract the right people, ie. we’re charting a new approach in drug development and drug access. Our talent brand was created to put our resolve on full display.

When faced with the reality of a situation like the one we’re in right now, the gravity can invoke the innate risk-taker within us. That's who we're trying to attract.” — Rona Anhalt, Chief People Officer at EQRx

While most early-stage companies rely on agency assistance and very rarely build an in-house team at launch, we have taken the opposite approach, hiring outstanding full-cycle recruiters and specialists who are hyper-focused on the best candidate experience. This investment in our own team has allowed our candidate experience to be a differentiator in our ability to hire at scale during this turbulent year. We intentionally over-communicate during our hiring process, and to really lean into the #BeYouAtEQ philosophy, we have even implemented a “Come As Q Are” guideline for all interviews before they meet with us.

  • List of Frequently Asked Questions for “The Day Before Your Virtual Interview” at EQRx.

While many of the details of our business model is still under wraps, we’ve created authentic content that we share ahead of the interview process to give candidates the opportunity to get to know us and our approach. We created videos, our How Do You EQ? podcast hosted by Susan Hager, our chief communications officer, and a monthly LinkedIn Live series with Rona Anhalt, our chief people officer.

We want every person who interviews with us to walk away with a positive perception of the company — even if they didn’t get the job. We survey every hire as well as our finalists and review these results monthly. So far, 80% of survey participants said they were “very satisfied” when asked: “Overall, how would you rate your interview experience with EQRx?” We haven’t had a negative response yet to this question — a stat that we’re extremely proud of. 

Our talent and communications teams also work in seamless partnership together. This has enabled the talent team to be much more agile, which in turn has helped them in their individual sourcing and inbound attraction efforts. As a matter of fact, the talent team has social media activity as a key part of their job description and success metrics.

3. Maintained strong engagement with a culture of transparency

For us, engagement starts upon first exposure to our brand and continues throughout the hiring process and onboarding experience. This unique situation caused by the pandemic has pushed many of us to new levels of comfort with working from home. We’ve lost the ability to stop by someone’s desk to ask a question or bump into someone new in the kitchen, and are now dealing with virtual learning, kids, dogs, and a lack of personal space.

A recently conducted remote work survey by FinanceBuzz revealed that 46% of workers feel isolated from their team and a reported 30% admitted it’s challenging to collaborate with their colleagues. Our quirky talent branding “Q” puns are more than just catchy taglines — #ComeAsQAre and #BeYouAtEQ are pulled through to how we operate. They’re words we live by to encourage everyone to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance here. 

Transparency is also vital to our inclusive culture. It is the key to building a culture of trust and authenticity — an approach that can make all the difference in keeping people motivated and feeling connected in this virtual working environment. Similar to our focus on authentically representing what it’s like to work here through our talent brand, we maintain a consistent approach to how we communicate internally as well. Our focus on consistent and open communications has brought the team together, most of whom have never met each other in person. 

To further encourage this openness, our company, team, and individual quarterly goals are widely available to encourage conversation and collaboration. We even try to have a bit of fun along the way with virtual activities, like happy hours with entertainment for the whole family and team-building games and activities.

Final thoughts

At EQRx, there’s been an intentional focus on culture from the beginning. We firmly believe that  culture needs to be cultivated by individuals as part of the larger whole, not just from the top down. We celebrate individuality, inclusivity and collaborative spirit. We’re all working to address this broader societal problem of access to medicine in a meaningful way and we need to work together to get there. You can hear more about our people-first approach on our podcast, How Do You EQ?

This pandemic might, in fact, be the world’s biggest social/work experiment of our lifetime, and we feel fortunate to be building our company during this time. It’s challenging us as an organization to think critically about how we build and how we evolve — and because we don’t have legacy systems or set processes, we’re able to adapt along the way.

We have bold growth goals going into 2021 and beyond, and while we’re not sure what the future of work looks like in terms of our “new normal,” we are confident that we have a solid foundation as we work toward our mission of remaking medicine.

This post was co-written by Ed Nathanson and Rona Anhalt. Ed left his own talent brand consulting company to build out the talent brand and recruiting function at EQRx and has never looked back. Rona has a proven track record of scaling organizations for growth and building high-performing teams in life sciences. She joined EQRx in September 2020.

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