May 3, 2022
Tapping the Power of Positivity in Clinical Research - Nikki Osborn
CEO at Meridian Clinical ResearchGuest
For many sites, retaining staff is difficult. The nature of the industry, trial complexity, costs and regulatory burden can lead to high levels of attrition and even burnout. However, one woman is on a mission to bring cultural change to sites. Nikki Osborn is CEO of Meridian Clinical Research – which she founded in 1999 and built up to a network of more than 30 research sites and 90 principal investigators. From charitable bucket lists to fleur-de-lis tokens, Nikki explains more about her goal to bring the power of positivity to sites.
“We have the same struggles that a lot of people have when it comes to hiring and employee retention. And so what we've done is we try to think out of the box a little bit.”
Hello and welcome to the Totally Clinical podcast brought to you by tech guru, Totally Clinical is a deep dive into the freshest trends, big time challenges and most excellent triumphs of clinical trials. I'm Hannah, your host. Join me as I chat with industry experts, trailblazers, thought leaders and, most importantly, the people benefiting from clinical research. So tune in.
Settle back and don't touch that dial. It's time to get Totally Clinical. This week, CEO of Meridian clinical research, Nicole Osborne, joins the podcast to talk about meridian's unique company culture and how by listening to employee feedback and developing powerful staff and incentives, the company is fast becoming the industry employer of choice. Nicole also discusses her own career and how she's built meridian up to a network that includes more than 30 research sites and 90 principal investigators across North America since she founded the company over 20 years ago.
Welcome to the podcast, Nicole. Could you start by explaining more about your journey, setting up and building meridian? I have a nursing background by trade, and I started out in the industry with a family practice physician who had dabbled a little bit in clinical research, and that was my first exposure into what clinical research really was. In 1999 I decided to start meridian by hiring physicians within the Omaha, Nebraska, community to be principal investigators and to conduct clinical research.
We started with a really small office with two exam rooms and two principal investigators, and over the years we slowly began to grow. And over the last few years, we've become more strategic in our growth and expansion. And fast forward to today, we have over 30 sites and 90 investigators within our organization. It's pretty crazy to me.
If you would have told me in 1999 that we would be where we are today. And as big as we are, I probably would have said you were crazy. But we're fortunate to have a really strong leadership team who helps to drive our company and who has a really solid foundation for what meridian is today. So that's quite a journey then.
But one thing I do know is that employee retention and loyalty has been the ticket to building up meridian as the successful company it is today. You've developed a very employee focused outlook by soliciting feedback on what makes employees thrive in the workplace. Could you explain more about this and how it's benefited the company? We're not immune to two turnover as well as everybody else.
You know, we have the same struggles that a lot of people have when it comes to hiring and employee retention. And so what we've done is we try to think out of the box a little bit and try to implement things and solicit feedback from our employees to what they really want in their work life. So what we do is we send out surveys, we ask through SurveyMonkey or things like that. We get this feedback from them so that they can tell us what's important to them.
But work-life balance, we find is huge. And what work-life balance means to people are different things. So we have to kind of dive into those and understand its work-life balance, meaning that we give half a day Friday off to our employee, our employees. It gives them a little bit more time going into their weekend.
That makes a lot of people really happy. You know, we worked very, very hard, especially through COVID. We work hard every day, but through covid, we expanded so much. And we literally doubled the size of our company and in two years time.
And we realized that during that time, a lot of these people had never met in person before. And we because everybody worked really hard, we thought, you know, what can we do to bring all of these new folks together with the people that have been here all along and let them have a really good experience to bring them together? Because as you get bigger, the company can become fragmented and we didn't want that to happen. So what we did was we hosted a summer camp where we brought everybody together.
It was adult summer camp. It was super fun. We got tons of great feedback from our employees. They were so excited to not only be together.
Everything was very virtual during covid, of course, so they were talking through lots of technology platforms and those things. But to be able to be together to do a lot of team building things. We we realized very quickly that this was an important part of what we of what we do as a company and that it would continue to be so important that we can have these employees feel a bond with each other, even though they may be in different areas of the country. Very similarly, we're back to hosting our annual physician and staff training meeting, which brings all of the physicians together for training they get.
A brainstorm they get to see each other in person. So we're excited about that, they are always excited to get back together, but it becomes a very important part of our culture to get that feedback from those employees on what kind of things are important to them. Those are a couple, just a couple of the things that we do to bring those folks together. I certainly agree that seeing people in person.
There's nothing like it. So work culture has really developed over the last couple of decades. Could you elaborate what's really stood out to you over the years? We have really simple core values at Meridian.
It's all in on it, teamwork and share it. And we hire to those core values. What we found that it's become more and more important, especially to the younger employees that they are at a company that shares their same core values. So when we're interviewing potential candidates for employees, we really start out with sharing what our core values are because we want the people that come to Meridian to share the same, the same values as we do.
We found that that's important to them, too. You know, one of our core values is share it. That has become a big part of our hiring. It's important to me.
It's always been important to me to give back into our communities. Share it as a core value. You can have many meanings sharing your knowledge, sharing, giving back into your communities, but sharing it as is one of the key parts of our fabric of who meridian is. And we find more and more, especially of the young people that are coming to meridian, that that's more important to them than we've ever seen in the past.
And they want to work for companies where they understand the core values and the mission that a company has. We've also, you know, we have an inclusive culture. And it's important to those folks that are coming in that we share those same values when they're coming into the company and giving back into our communities. Could you elaborate on what type of initiatives you have developed around this idea of people, especially younger people, wanting to give back?
We have a program called strength in numbers. The way that program works is that we have $2. Every time a patient is enrolled, we put a certain amount of money into a bucket, which is a dollar that gets distributed throughout the company from every single person that works at the company. And that bucket gets split up at the end of the year.
We have another second bucket that the other part of the money is put into and that becomes the charity bucket. So what happens is during the year. We have a process where everybody in the company, there's a form that they can go out and fill out if something is near and dear to their hearts that they want to share out into their community. They fill out a form requesting that charitable bucket, a portion of that gets donated to whatever that charity is that they are looking at, that can be anything from we sponsor a lot of little league uniforms.
We we use that money to, for instance, help build a school in an area that is underserved. We do things like the Alzheimer's association, a lot of cancer organizations. We host a lot of walks. But that's really driven by our employees so that they get to direct where that money is spent.
We are very proud of it. It's probably that the most gratifying thing that I think that we do because it's so important for us to be out in those communities and to be giving back to the communities that are supporting clinical research. And so our it's definitely been a game changer for our employees and what that means to them in giving back. And I personally love it.
I know that we do a video at the end of every year that shows who we've donated to and the things that we've been able to do. And it's very humbling to see the impact that we are able to have in those communities. And it's definitely a cornerstone of who meridian is. And I guess you've got a lot of positive feedback from employees and also potential employees as well.
Yeah, absolutely. We get a lot of feedback from New employees or people that are applying to be part of Meridian. That they've heard about this program, that they've seen what we've done in the communities, and that was kind of their first exposure to Meridian clinical research if they haven't participated in an actual clinical trial. They definitely learn about who we are and what we're doing based on how active we are in the communities that we serve.
Yeah, I guess news about companies that do this kind of thing travels very quickly. So in the clinical research industry, there's a lot of pressure on employees because of the importance of patient safety. I know you've developed a particular program around positivity and celebrating employees. Could you expand on this in our industry?
Perfection is expected, especially at a site level. Patient safety is, of course, always number one for us and our quality of data and all of those things. But it tends to be quite a negative industry because of the perfectionist is expected. And so what we try to do is we try to build our employees up.
We have to make sure that we are celebrating the wins, celebrating the things that we're doing right. And when we got together and we tried to brainstorm, how can we really do that effectively across the company as we grow the way we have, you know, we have to celebrate our wins at the individual site levels. But how can we also celebrate those wins and acknowledge those people across the company in an effective way that can be visualized by everyone? And we came up with a platform called bucket list.
This is a way that employees can give shout outs for lack of a better term to their colleagues on a platform that is visualized by everyone. We at meridian, we give out what we call Florida leads. The Florida floridly is our logo, but that's what we use on bucket list as we give everybody. Every month, every employee gets five.
Florida leads to be able to give out on bucket list to their colleagues for things that they do that they think are great. So for instance, it might be something simple, like my colleague helped me to pull charts yesterday and it was a crazy day and I appreciate that he or she stepped up to do that for us, and they'll give them some of their Florida leads. And each Florida Lee equates to $1. They can save up those Florida Keys and on the bucket list platform, there are things that you can purchase.
So you can go on and purchase gift cards. You could save up your Florida lives and get something more substantial. There are even vacations on there if you wanted to save those up, but it's an investment on our part back into our employees. We want to build them up.
We want to celebrate their victories, we want them to celebrate each other. And we felt like this was really the best way to do that. And it's gotten great feedback. And it's definitely a way that even across the company that someone can say, hey, he or she that is at another site across the country helped me to understand a protocol better.
And I appreciate the time that they put into that. And then everybody in the company sees that post, and anybody can contribute Florida Keys to that post so that they can accumulate those Florida Keys as they go and they feel like they're celebrated, too. And I think it's been very impactful within our organization, and it's fun to see people be able to celebrate each other. So looking to the future, it seems like meridian's really setting the tone in terms of how companies are going to have to start developing in this direction to attract and retain top talent.
How do you see sites and the pharma industry in general developing in this area over the next, let's say, five years? You know, we need to continue to add flexible schedules to meet the needs of our employees and our research participants. That may not mean a traditional 9:00 to five Workday. We're finding, you know, more people are working remotely, having to be flexible for our participants that may not be able to come in at a typical 9:00 to 5:00 Workday that they need to have, you know, extended hours.
So I think we need to really think outside of the box and continue to be able to be flexible. I think we need to continue to give back into our communities to build on that foundation of trust that I talked about and provide research as an option for health care to our participants. You know, COVID helped educate the public on the research process, and we need to continue to build on that momentum as people have started to have a much more active voice in their health care choices and options. We were lucky that was a kind of a blessing of covid, right, is that more people now understand what that research process looks like, so we have to continue to build on that.
And I also think it's also important to think outside of the box, to help promote employee recognition. I think another part of this and we've already started to do this, but I think it can be even bigger and more prominent is that we have a diversity of quality and Inclusion Committee. Their sole focus is to highlight and promote diversity and inclusion across our company. I think that is I think that needs to be emphasized even more in the next five years that it's an important part of what we do and inclusion has to be part of our journey.
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