Product Development Leaders Share Lessons on Keeping Teams Connected During COVID

While COVID-19 forced orthopedic R&D and engineering teams to quickly adapt to remote work a year ago, lessons are still being learned that will influence how we communicate and collaborate moving forward. In a BONEZONE webinar, product development leaders shared approaches that industry can implement during a time that has arguably been the most challenging of many professionals’ careers.

The webinar was moderated by Paul Vasta, Ph.D., Chief Technology Officer for Gramercy Extremity Orthopedics (GEO). Chuck Jaggers, Vice President of Product Development at OsteoMed and Bob Spiro, Ph.D., Senior Vice President Biologics, Development, Scientific & Clinical Affairs at Aesculap were featured panelists.

The Lessons Learned During COVID

All orthopedic device and biologic companies faced dramatic challenges during the spring of 2020, as elective procedures shut down. COVID halted clinical trials and created obstacles for collecting surgeon feedback.

Dr. Spiro leads a large clinical trial for an Aesculap biologic project. According to Dr. Spiro, many companies chose to cut their losses and suspend clinical trials in response to the pandemic, but he and his team resumed their 300-person study after a forced three-month hiatus.

From major shipping disruptions brought on by border closings to not being able to meet with customers in person, Dr. Spiro and his team were forced to navigate through a series of unforeseen obstacles throughout the year. However, he noted it gained them beneficial insight that he’ll apply to his work moving forward.

“From the clinical trial standpoint, moving to remote and electronic patient outcome questionnaires and getting away from the paper system is a big advantage,” he said.

He also praised FDA’s efforts to weather their own pandemic challenges while staying communicative and nimble. “I think some leniency from an FDA standpoint in terms of study visits and being able to work remotely certainly helped,” he said. “I think that will continue. This was an interesting challenge from an FDA standpoint, and they were very proactive and got on this right away.”

Jaggers, whose work relies on collaborating with surgeons, has faced a markedly different set of pandemic-related challenges. Under normal circumstances, groups of surgeons work together inside a cadaver lab housed at OsteoMed. But as the novel coronavirus began to spread in 2020, Jaggers and his team realized that their work wouldn’t be able to proceed as usual.

“It started off with, ‘Well, how are we going to do this?’ ” he said. “Nobody had a process, so we had to define one.”

OsteoMed’s product development team decided to prioritize safety by moving to a one-table cadaver system that required surgeons to work one at a time rather than in groups. The team also tailored safety protocols to differentiate between members of their local medical community in North Dallas from those traveling in from different locations. While Jaggers acknowledged this shift created an “extended deadline” for product development, his team’s nimbleness and flexibility were critical in allowing their work to proceed.

Dr. Vasta commented that a workaround he’s explored is to ship 3D-printed prototypes to surgeons and then review them over video.

“You get on a video call with them and they can hold something in their hand rather than going to meet them,” Dr. Vasta said. “That was an aspect that worked well for us this year. And honestly, I plan to carry that forward.”

The Future of Work

COVID-19 forced companies to figure out how to work remotely. Through that process, the panel said, insights were gained on how and where teams will collaborate in the future. They noted that their companies will examine hybrid work models and extensive travel schedules.

One of the most profound insights that Dr. Spiro internalized during the pandemic was the immense value of remote work, something Aesculap had been leery of until recently.

“We’re a family-owned, very old German company,” he said. “What we learned through this is that working from a remote standpoint, you can be successful. And this is a company that I would say was dead set against it previously. It really presents a much better work/life balance for your employees.”

Dr. Spiro went on to say that another important lesson he’s learned is to reserve travel for situations when it’s truly necessary.

“Being flexible is really the key catchphrase,” said Jaggers, who credited the pandemic for providing a sense of urgency needed for his team to adapt to and adopt remote work. “As companies, we have to be very flexible in our thinking about how we’re going to manage these types of situations; not a COVID pandemic, but product development and the normal every day running of the business.”

He went on to highlight the importance of providing a flexible work experience for a younger generation of engineers who might be seeking non-traditional work environments.

“You also have to assess the personality of the individual,” said Dr. Vasta, referring to the issue of employees adapting to remote work. “Some people just adapt like fish to water working remotely. They are self-starters and don’t mind communicating digitally. Others are more reserved in their openness to communication.”

Dr. Vasta suggested the use of a hybrid model that allowed specific employees to work remotely full-time and for others to report to the office “a few times a week” depending on their unique personalities and styles of working. However, he mentioned the caveat of an employee walking down the hallway of an office and asking a coworker a spur-of-the-moment question. “As great as all this technology is, that’s something I don’t think you can ever replicate electronically.”

Jaggers agreed and brought up the importance of prioritizing authentic human relationships in the workplace during times of stress and uncertainty. “Those interactions are important. The face-to-face meetings do have to happen, and you need to be appreciative of the effort people are putting in and how they’re handling things.”


Patrick McGuire is a BONEZONE Contributor.

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