Training & Learning

How Dermira Keeps Employee Engagement High During COVID-19 

Right now, a lot of companies are struggling to keep their teams motivated.  As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, employee engagement and morale is at an all-time low. We’re dealing with the uncertainty caused by months of isolation, subsequent lockdowns, and waking up to bad news. 

This situation raises the stakes for employee engagement. Remote teams have a new set of needs - especially for people who aren’t used to working from home, such as field sales reps. If employers can’t keep their teams motivated and productive, things can quickly fall apart. As an L&D leader, this is your chance to step up by providing the tools and support to help people stick together.

In this expert L&D interview, I spoke with Joe Wilmoth, Executive Director of Learning & Development at medical dermatology firm Dermira, about some of the key strategies he used to maintain a sense of community and team connection during 2020. 

We started off by chatting about the specific challenges Dermira was facing in 2020.

Acquisition during COVID-19: 2020 was a year of major change for Dermira

“Every organization is facing an uncertain time right now, and we’re no exception,” says Joe. “We’re a small biotech company focusing on medical dermatology. We have around 450 people, including 200 field sales reps. One of my main challenges as an L&D leader in 2020 has been keeping these reps motivated and engaged.”

As it turns out, COVID-19 wasn’t the only major development for Dermira in 2020. “Earlier in the year, we were acquired by Eli Lilly. We’re still a wholly-owned subsidiary, but the acquisition did create some additional changes to the working environment for our field sales reps.” 

As Joe explains, the COVID-19 crisis has forced Dermira to face some tough questions around employee engagement - particularly for their sales teams. “Our salespeople are meant to be in the field engaging with communities. They’re used to being around people. So, what do they do when they’re stuck at home? That’s the big question we had to answer.”

“For us, the uncertainty around COVID-19 really sparked an interest in keeping people engaged and inspired,” says Joe. “We realized the most important thing was to make employee development the top priority, no matter what was happening in the world.”

We realized the most important thing was to make employee development the top priority, no matter what was happening in the world.

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Taking extra care to keep field sales reps engaged

For Dermira, the subsequent lockdowns due to COVID-19 created a significant challenge in keeping sales reps motivated and engaged. Ensuring a focus on employee development is one thing, but how could L&D give these reps the support they needed?

According to Joe, the answer was to stay nimble and offer new learning resources. “In 2020, every L&D professional has to be flexible and stay ready to adapt. The environment is always changing, and it’s our job to keep up with whatever is happening.” 

“We’ve kept the focus on field sales rep development front and center by offering different learning opportunities,” says Joe. “Most notably, we’ve offered a range of programs and employee training through our learning portal to help keep people focused and motivated.”

Beyond the unique challenge of keeping field sales reps motivated during lockdown, Joe also had to consider how to engage Dermira’s other teams from a distance. To meet this challenge, he knew he had to try something new.

“We rolled out our playbook, which is a weekly resource of curated learning materials,” says Joe. “This was designed not only to keep people productive and sharp, but to help them stay in touch with each other. We knew we had to help our teams stay connected during the crisis.”

Related: The 3 Biggest Challenges of Remote Sales Training and How to Overcome Them

Boosting employee engagement with a weekly learning playbook

For Dermira’s L&D leaders, this learning playbook was a great way to sustain team connection and keep their teams sharp during the lockdown.

“At first, we delivered this playbook every single Monday morning, but in recent months we’ve shifted to every other week,” says Joe. “We had about 30 issues altogether. It was a lot of work for L&D to curate this material from different stakeholders, but we knew we were making a positive impact. Every week we heard people getting excited about it.”

This playbook wasn’t just a way to keep people focused on learning; it also showcased Dermira’s community spirit. As Joe explains, there were two reasons why the playbook was such a success: first, it was peer-driven, and second, it was short, sweet, and focused.

1. Peer-driven, with real stories from employees

According to Joe, messages of resilience and positivity can’t just come from the top-down during a crisis. Instead, L&D needs to play a role in facilitating peer learning and celebrating a sense of community. “As the L&D team, we wanted to show real-world examples of people dealing with difficulties in their lives. This helped to show our vulnerability and connection.” 

“Our issues showcased what people were doing at home with their families, their communities, and with their neighbors. We asked people to submit their success stories, and to highlight the incredible things that were happening in their communities despite the pandemic.”

For Dermira, this approach helped to boost employee engagement and foster a sense of belonging - even from a distance. “It was a gesture that showed everyone we were all in it together,” says Joe. 

2. Short, sweet, and focused

Even though the learning playbook was given a warm welcome, Joe also knew he had to avoid overburdening busy people with new tasks. “We kept the playbook easy to read, and not too time-consuming, because people had plenty to focus on at home. They had health issues to worry about, and they had to care for their children and their families.”

“The key question we wanted to focus on was: how were people making a positive impact with their time?” says Joe. “We used embedded videos to show people talking about how they were staying motivated and positive. People were really excited to see who would be featured each week. This peer engagement really helped to keep people visible during a tough time.” 

A lot of organizations have struggled to adjust to working during COVID-19. For Joe, Dermira’s learning playbook really helped to smooth things out and keep people positive. “We have a strong focus on our overall wellness as an organization, and L&D has the fun job of sponsoring that. We love the idea of being our best selves in our organization.” 

Related: How Disneyland Keeps Remote Workers Happy and Productive Through the Pandemic

As the L&D team, we wanted to show real-world examples of people dealing with difficulties in their lives. This helped to show our vulnerability and connection.

Turning a crisis into an opportunity to boost employee engagement

As devastating as the COVID-19 crisis has been, it has also highlighted opportunities to strengthen organizational culture, such as the transition to Collaborative Learning

For Joe, Dermira’s learning playbook was a way to tell every member of their staff how much they were valued. “We heard loud and clear from people across the organization about how grateful they were for keeping them engaged, and giving steady updates on the business.” 

“The playbook was a touchpoint for people,” says Joe. “Despite all the craziness of 2020, it was something that was secure. We had an engagement survey go out across the organization, and right now, we’re at an all-time high for employee engagement in the history of our company.”

High employee engagement = high retention 

This great result highlights the opportunities that can come with moments of crisis. “It shows that we’re building trust within our employees, and that people feel genuinely cared for by our leaders,” says Joe. “It’s also done a lot to prove our transparency in our communications.” 

So, what do things look like for Dermira in 2021? “Even with the COVID-19 situation, our retention is high,” says Joe. “People want to stay, because they believe in what we’re doing and they’re grateful to  be supported. They know we’re all in this together.” 

People want to stay, because they believe in what we’re doing and they’re grateful to  be supported. They know we’re all in this together.

Thanks again to Joe for taking the time to join me for this inspiring discussion! 

While you’re here, check out my expert interviews with Thane Bellomo of Exelon on how he uses technical frameworks to bring the right focus on people strategy, and with Theresa Cook of PwC Luxembourg on how she handles complex L&D demands.

Want more peer insights on transforming workplace learning? Check out #CLOConnect, our interview series with top L&D leaders on driving growth and scaling culture through Collaborative Learning. You can subscribe (below 👇) to our weekly newsletter to receive our latest posts directly in your inbox.