Labs on the Frontlines: Balancing Re-Entry and the Race to a COVID-19 Cure

Published on: 
In the Lab eNewsletter, Pharmaceutical Technology's In the Lab eNewsletter 09-02-2020, Volume 15, Issue 9

How real estate can accelerate productivity as life sciences companies prioritize COVID-19 therapeutics, vaccines, and new diagnostics R&D amidst new guidelines.

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated activity within therapeutics, while at the same time making productivity harder to sustain. After all, drug development requires sensitive research environments that are not so commonly found in the average work-from-home scenario.

To meet this moment, pharmaceutical leaders face a unique challenge: how will they fill out the front lines of the global fight for a vaccine, therapies, and diagnostics while abiding by challenging social distancing precautions and modified procedures to protect their staff and communities?

The answer, at least in part, lies in a commercial real estate and facility management strategy that balances near- and longer-term priorities.

Navigating industry uncertainty, through the lens of real estate

As we speak, labs around the world—from global players to small start-ups—are actively pursuing COVID-19-related vaccine and therapy development as well as better and more abundant diagnostics. And they have been doing so amidst widespread closures, use restrictions, and rotational staffing.

According to a BioInformatics/Science Advisory Board survey (1) of 1178 scientific researchers, concerns over the COVID-19 outbreak prompted nearly half (48%) of their labs to close temporarily and restricted 39% to operating at reduced capacity, leaving a mere 13% fully operational.

In addition to the sheer logistical test of navigating re-opening while limiting interpersonal contact in the near term, industry leaders will also grapple with other, less immediate COVID-19-related uncertainties. For one, the pandemic poses yet-to-be-seen impacts on the supply chain (2), with chemical delivery delays and diminishing backup supplies expected across the board.

Uncertainty over funding sources is also growing, stymying even the best-laid plans. While the CARES Act provides FDA fast-tracking and $11 billion for the development, production, and manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics, it alone cannot counteract increasing variability in critical venture capital and private equity funding. Considering such resources typically make up the lion’s share of R&D, operations, and capital projects funding long-term plans are being disrupted, with many proposed expansions and construction projects now held up to divert capital to more immediate needs.

Uncertainty abounds, but one thing is clear: industry leaders must find novel ways to ramp up efficiency and productivity. Enter commercial real estate and facility management strategy.

Bringing visionary, data-driven insights to these complementary functions can play a crucial role in fueling organizational productivity now and into the future. First and foremost, it can build on the industry’s already rock-solid experience in compliance to re-open labs safely and effectively. Informed real estate strategy will also support longer-term continuity planning, to help maintain productivity as the world prepares to navigate a potential second wave of COVID-19 in the fall of 2020.

From reimagining lab design and leveraging technology, to improving work-from-home strategies, now is the time to prepare for near-term and future performance in the frontline field of breakthrough drug development.

Short-term plan: three keys to re-opening labs safely and effectively

It will take more than the flip of a switch to safely resume work in a facility that has been closed or restricted. For starters, executives must consider the many variables in federal, state, and county reopening guidelines. Amid localized physical distancing requirements, they will need to find novel ways to keep up with ongoing operations, R&D, and capital projects.

But perhaps the most pressing consideration is how to balance the priorities of continuing scientific work with mitigating risk to teams. What is the balance of risk versus reward for re-entry and re-staffing?

Fortunately, the life sciences industry’s knack for maintaining robust health, safety, security, and regulatory compliance should help smooth the transition to pandemic and post-pandemic protocols. The industry’s relatively early adoption of data-driven insights should also play a supporting role in determining the best way forward.

The following are three ways industry leaders can rethink the life sciences work environment, especially labs, in the near term:

Work collaboratively to ramp up existing quality and safety protocols. The good news is that the pharmaceutical industry is better prepared than most other sectors to facilitate rigorous safety measures. Prior to the pandemic, laboratory leaders were already well-versed in achieving compliance with strict guidelines for hygiene, like handwashing and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE).

Still, more preparation will be needed to make labs COVID-19-ready. Every facility will need to develop new standard operating procedures and policies to better protect physical safety and security. And more than any one departmental focus, safeguarding facilities will become an all-hands-on-deck call.

Janitorial strategy, for starters, will need a major refresh. Cleaning crews will need to step up their game and scour facilities to standard multiple times each day, rather than each week. Facilities teams will also need to double down on air quality as well as heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) operations. How can they keep things running efficiently, while also limiting contagion risk?

Human resources teams, on the other hand, may be tasked with coordinating temperature checks at entry points, and a plan of action for employees who run a temperature—or more challenging yet, are diagnosed with COVID-19. They will also need to work with leaders across the proverbial hall to develop new staff training and communications programs to help staff adjust to new processes, as well as a means for monitoring and confirming individual and team compliance.


Power up social distancing and space planning with data-driven insights. Every scientist knows that effective data strategy is crucial to any research initiative’s success—and the same holds true for facility initiatives amid COVID-19. To properly safeguard employees, while optimizing the facility to the best extent possible, it pays to understand how people worked best prior to the pandemic and how requisite new adjustments will affect their productivity and engagement going forward.

So, how have researchers typically interacted with a lab space? Did they spend most time collaborating side by side on benches, before removing to areas designated for private work? How difficult and disruptive will it be to impose physical distancing requirements?Answering such questions—with the right data points and predictive analytics—can help determine new protocols that bring together the best of the pre-pandemic ways of collaborating, with the new normal of hygienic distancing.

For example, detailed utilization rate data can help inform new safety standards and inform criteria for physical distancing floorplans. By virtue of going beyond guesswork to reflect real-world employee space demand and usage, such data can help leaders plan space usage to support both epidemiological standards and employee comfort levels. It can also empower executives to consider whether more drastic measures are called for, such as leasing more space under flexible terms.

Harness technology to optimize the COVID-19-ready workplace. Making sure all systems are a go, and remain that way, is a tall task anytime, but particularly so with the all-new standards needed in the face of a pandemic. A variety of real estate and facility technology tools can help companies monitor both employee and facility performance, to support health and performance alike.

For instance, space utilization tools like real-time WiFi login, security badging, and heat or motion sensors can help ensure personnel are adhering to COVID-19 capacity limits. Occupancy planning data from these same tools can also enable leaders to more accurately assess future needs, potentially adding up to meaningful savings over time.

On the facility technology side, wireless equipment sensors can help monitor and manage indoor air quality in real time, supporting health, well-being, and productivity goals. Moreover, smart building systems can automatically self-adjust to improve building efficiency and reduce energy costs—limiting the need for more engineers onsite.

Looking ahead: foster productivity remotely as well as onsite

Personnel safety is paramount. But productivity is also essential to maintaining innovation, whether employees are working at home or in the facility itself.

Unlike many other industries, where remote work has long been the norm, life sciences jobs are generally more suited to onsite work. But even prior to COVID-19, many pharmaceutical companies had been considering the potential of facilitating at least some remote work. And now, in a post-COVID-19 reality, more will likely seek to increase remote work capacity.

Their effort will be supported by the shift in recent years to integrate more data science into pharmaceutical R&D. Advances in big data and cloud computing, as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning, have been enabling pharmaceutical companies to pioneer new methods, such as quickly processing massive amounts of real-time data and even performing virtual experiments.

The resulting evolution in research has already had a direct impact on facility usage, with total space composition having begun to shift in recent years from almost entirely wet lab space to a more even mix of wet lab, flex lab, and computational science space. With a greater proportion of work now taking place in more office-like space, it is becoming easier in turn to facilitate remote work.

By giving employees the opportunity to work remotely when appropriate, companies can not only support meaningful social distancing rules, they can also enhance employee satisfaction and productivity and ultimately derive greater value from real estate.

Supporting more remote work is a prominent way for pharmaceutical real estate strategy to keep up with the race for a COVID-19 cure, but there’s another key way forward that generally gets less attention: facility operations.

Despite the fact that facilities must remain the hub of the action, their foundational systems are often under looked. Yet building and equipment maintenance processes can play a big part in the success, or disruption, of promising research initiatives.

Consider maintenance strategy, for instance. A traditional approach relies on time-consuming visual inspections and clunky, preset schedules. Next-generation predictivemaintenance, however, helps companies keep facility and production lines running smoothly with sophisticated analytical techniques to monitor performance in real time. With techniques in place, such as accelerometers and sonic listening devices, they can efficiently monitor for variations to keep equipment running longer and better, while reducing the risk of a shutdown.

As the industry persists in innovating through and beyond the era of COVID-19, the practices put in place can now help support future innovation, too—whether it takes place at home, in a wet lab, or a ‘moist’ lab somewhere in between.

A holistic view of the post-COVID-19 industry landscape

COVID-19 has upended how and where people work in every industry—with especially unique implications for the life sciences. Pharmaceutical companies must consider not only how to protect their people and communities by practicing social distancing, but also by advancing breakthrough therapies and diagnostics. And they must do so against a backdrop of mounting economic uncertainty.

There is no one simple path forward. From leveraging data in space planning to facilitating prudent re-opening, to fostering remote working as well as preventive maintenance strategies to spark productivity independent of location, pharmaceutical leaders should investigate how to best support people and productivity alike. A holistic approach to real estate and facility strategy will be key.

The industry, and the global community as a whole, must move forward amidst historical uncertainty. It may be overwhelming, and yet, some of history’s most challenging times have also inspired humanity’s greatest innovation. It is in this spirit that the life sciences sector will help not only provide grounding for the US economy, but also help end the pandemic.


1. S. Black, “COVID-19 Shuts Down Research Labs as Concern Grows Among Scientists,”, April 2020.
2. R. Mullin, “COVID-19 is Reshaping the Pharmaceutical Supply Chain,” C&EN 98 (16) (2020).

About the author

Roger Humphrey*,, is division president, Industries, JLL.

*To whom correspondence should be addressed.