When COVID-19 started to affect Italy, the team at Roche was ready to respond. Thanks to close relationships with local health organizations, the company was able to prioritize its employees and keep them safe, and then actively work to inform the public about health risks and how people can protect themselves.

As Benedetta Nicastro, Head of Communications for Roche Italy’s Pharma division, explains, the company’s COVID-19 response had four pillars that focused on employee well-being, public health, and community service. The extensive effort would not have been possible were it not for teamwork across the company—including a large number of employee volunteers who have stepped up to provide clarity during a very confusing time.

We spoke with Benedetta about the company’s response, and why smart collaboration within a purpose-driven organization has made all the difference. Here is what she told us.

The RepTrak Company: The COVID-19 emergency developed very quickly. What led you to decide it was the right time to take action and respond?

Benedetta Nicastro: Being in pharma, we realized pretty quickly that the healthcare system was under a lot of constraints, and under an overwhelming amount of pressure. Our first priority was to keep our employees safe. So we implemented very strict measures to protect our employees. But then we had 1,000 employees who were working at home—including our customer-facing functions, who couldn't visit their doctors, and couldn’t go to hospitals. It is a highly trained, highly specialized workforce (96% has a higher education degree) that could be employed in helping the system in the forefront of the emergency. The challenges of this exceptionally difficult moment combined with our sense of social responsibility led us to decide to place our human, economic, pharmaceutical, and diagnostic resources at service to tackle this unprecedented emergency. 

The RepTrak Company: What did Roche do in response to the COVID-19 situation?

Benedetta Nicastro: At the very beginning of March, we reached out to the Ministry of Health, our Civil Protection Agency, and the Red Cross, and to our stakeholders, to have a reality check and see what was needed. Then, on March 12 we launched an initiative that is called—in English, it would be “Roche Runs on All Four,” because it's a four-pillar initiative. In Italian, it’s Roche si fa in 4. Each pillar is in collaboration with public and private partners as to better address the needs of different stakeholders

The first pillar is about drugs and services. One of our anti-arthritis drugs was used off-label in China to treat COVID-19 pneumonia, and we wanted to confirm the use through careful examinations rather than relying purely on encouraging anecdotal stories. Through a partnership with the Italian regulatory Agency (AIFA), we are supporting a widespread clinical trial that is aiming to demonstrate the efficacy and safety of the drug in this setting of patients. We are providing the drug for free. As part of this pillar, we’re also providing free tele-monitoring services for diabetic patients, so those patients don’t have to go to the hospital to monitor their diabetes. We are now adding home delivery of several of oncology drugs in order to protect these especially fragile patients. 

For the second pillar, we donated 1 million euros to help buy medical supplies for physicians. Of that, 400,000 euros went to our Federation of General Practitioners; through them, we are buying sanitizers and goggles for GPs. And then 600,000 euros went to our Civil Protection Agency to help them buy intensive care supplies for the intensive care units. 

The third pillar involves our employees. The majority of our employees have degrees in either science or life sciences. We partnered with the Ministry of Health, and 250 of our employees are volunteering from their homes to support a toll-free number that has been implemented by the Ministry of Health to respond to questions from the public, such as, What are the restrictions in my town? Can I go out? Can I go visit my parents that are in another municipality? What if I have symptoms? By doing this, we’ve doubled the current capacity of the toll-free number. The toll-free number receives 23,000 calls per day, so they were really, really under pressure. They were losing probably around 50% of the calls because they didn't have enough personnel to answer the number. The fact that Roche is doubling the current capacity of the call center is an amazing achievement for us. 

The fourth pillar is an initiative that we call “Stay Home and Read a Book.” We partnered with our Ministry of Education, and with an important editor in Italy, Istituto Treccani, we are supporting an online platform, free of charge, for distance learning across Italy. The project was co-created with the municipality of Milan and Monza, where we are based.

The RepTrak Company: That’s a very impressive effort to come together in what sounds like a very short amount of time. What was it about your organization that allowed for such coordination?

Benedetta Nicastro: It has to do with our mission, I believe. Our mission is: Doing now what patients need next. We truly put patients at the center of everything we do. But we realized in such an emergency effort that we have to do now what patients need now. So we came together in a cross-functional and cross-division effort. As you can imagine, many people started working around the clock to make sure that it could be launched in only a few days. I would say the key success factor was a strong vision very much aligned with our mission, but also the motivation, the engagement, and passion of an entire organization that is so dedicated to the well-being of our customers. We are truly walking the talk. 

The RepTrak Company: How have you kept your employees connected and aware of what's going on during this time, while they’re all doing “smart working” at home?

Benedetta Nicastro: We put our staff in smart working since the end of February—well before any lockdown measure. But I have to say, in terms of internal communications, we pretty much use all the tools that we have to keep our employees informed and aligned. We have weekly emails, and a weekly webcast with the entire organization. We make sure that our employees, even at a distance, hear from our top management at least once a week. This is so our people not only are engaged, informed, and aligned, but so they could pose questions to our leaders. And we have a very outspoken organization. So our employees really do speak up. 

Based on their feedback, we’ve put together a lot of materials: FAQs, videos, leaflets. At the beginning, it was very informative. It was like, How do I wash my hands? What are all the protective measures that I should implement myself? And that evolved into, What is Roche doing? When we launched the initiatives on March 12, we began informing our employees about the programs. And we asked them to collect feedback from our customers—and that is nurturing our content strategy and communication strategy, incorporating the feedback that we're getting from our customers. 

We’ve also created an internal community for the entire organization where our employees can post, comment, and engage with each other—sort of like an internal social network. We’ve used all the internal communications tools that we have at our disposal to make sure that we are properly cascading all the information, and that we do it in advance before going public with an initiative. Our employees are our strongest ambassadors, so they are receiving in advance even our Facebook posts so they can comment, they can share, and they can invite their friends.

And one more thing is that all the initiatives that we have implemented externally, we have also implemented internally. Meaning that our HR department has implemented a whole set of services for our employees who are working from home. So, for instance, we have a service that will take care of expenses if you get sick. We normally have a gym on Roche premises, but now we have online fitness courses. We have resources to explain coronavirus to your kids. We have mindfulness courses. We have courses for caregivers. We have a counselor who is available by phone, seven days a week. And we also have support services, if you're getting sick or you're quarantined, and you cannot go out. 

The RepTrak Company: This is all very impressive. With so much going on, is there a part of the response effort that you’re most proud of?

Benedetta Nicastro: I'm most proud of the volunteering effort, because seeing 250 of your colleagues in 24 hours jump at the opportunity to serve as volunteers—it's such an amazing response because those are the people you're working with every day. And these people didn't hesitate one second in putting aside their families and their work to serve a higher purpose. That is really amazing to see. 

But I also have to say that the task force that is working and ensuring that the drug gets to the patients—they're working 24/7. They're working day and night, and they're responding to phone calls, they're in contact with hospitals. These people are my heroes. It's just amazing to see colleagues so motivated and so dedicated to their job and to making a difference.

If you’re interested in sharing your company’s COVID-19 response story, please let us know.

Sara Fargion Vice President, Italy The RepTrak Company sfargion@reptrak.com