How One of Vault's Top Consultancies for Firm Culture Empowered a Remote Workforce During COVID-19
To quote a partner at Putnam Associates, one of the industry’s top healthcare consultancies, “our product is our people and the culture is what defines the quality of that product.” As a firm that consistently ranks in the Top 5 of Vault’s Best Consulting Firms to Work for Firm Culture, it’s clear that Putnam’s investment in people is as much a differentiator for the firm as the outstanding services it provides clients across the biopharmaceutical industry.
How, then, has Putnam not only maintained but grown and deepened, its culture during the unprecedented turbulence we’ve faced this year? We spoke with three Putnam employees—Dian Huang, Jack Wildasin, and Matt Riordan—about life at Putnam in the age of COVID-19. In our conversations, these Putnamites discussed leadership’s rapid and proactive response from the outset of the pandemic, the different ways in which they and their colleagues have continued to strengthen their bonds, and how Putnam is supporting clients on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19. What follows is a lightly edited version of our conversations.
VAULT: Please tell our readers about your background, your role at Putnam, how long you’ve been with the firm, and where you’re located.
Dian: I joined Putnam’s San Francisco office as a life science consultant a year ago. My background is in bioengineering and I obtained my Ph.D. from UCLA in 2019. I’m currently working remotely in Los Angeles.
Jack: I’m still relatively new to Putnam, having started as a Senior Associate Consultant back in March 2020 after transitioning from another firm. Maybe I should say, “way back in March,” considering all we’ve all been through these past months. I’ve lived in New York City since graduating from Vanderbilt in 2017, which brings me full circle. Though I grew up in Los Angeles, I was born in New York; we lived only four blocks from my current apartment.
Matt: I’ve been at Putnam for almost two decades. I started as an entry-level consultant after wrapping up my undergraduate education (Boston College, Economics).
I’m a Partner at the firm and in addition to my client management responsibilities I lead our market-facing strategy. I’m part of our Boston team, but now–like everyone– else I’m working from home.
VAULT: How has the pandemic been for you? Have you stayed safe and healthy?
Dian: The pandemic has been full of ups and downs, mentally and physically. I’ve been staying safe at home during the week, but still going outdoors to get fresh air and going on socially-distanced adventures. Putnam has been great in helping me set up an ergonomic home office and reminding me to take time off even with nowhere to travel.
Jack: Like most, I have been hiding as much as possible. Although I’ve always loved New York for its energy–the rush of people and the constant pull to be out and about–I’ve discovered some unexpected new activities this summer. I’ve spent most of my free weekends camping and hiking, and (in case my parents read this) I was also fortunately able to work from my parent’s home in LA for a time.
I’m pleased and proud that Putnam showed incredible foresight in its pandemic response. Early on, we received a realistic timeframe for a return date of next summer (with the opportunity to come in early if desired). Facing reality head-on has allowed us to proactively plan for the pandemic and positively adjust our lives.
Matt: I’m very fortunate, my family and I have all stayed safe throughout the pandemic. Being so close to the medical field, we know how serious this is and we take all recommended precautions. There have been a lot of challenges, but I’ve been inspired by the resilience of my teammates who have remained focused on project work and reimagined what engagement and community mean to ensure the connections that bind us as a firm remain strong.
VAULT: Overall, how would you describe Putnam’s handling of the pandemic? How did leadership facilitate the transition to remote work and what kinds of resources, directives, and support were employees offered?
Dian: I was able to start working remotely in mid-March when SF and LA went into lockdown. The firm and my local SF office were supportive of my decision to continue working remotely and offered employees a generous budget to set up home offices. I have also received snack packs and little gifts from Putnam throughout the pandemic.
Jack: Putnam proactively transitioned to remote work in mid-March. Coincidentally, this was also my first day on the job. But although we were all in uncharted territory, I found it easy to acclimate. That’s a testament to the quality of our people.
While the entire company was transitioning to a virtual environment, most of my new coworkers, whom I had not met in person, reached out for Zoom coffees. That meant a lot–got me fired up to make a good impression. After six months of working together so closely, it’s hard to believe that we still haven’t met. Zoom bonding – it’s real!
Despite all the negative emotions surrounding this pandemic, my work has never been a source of concern. After swiftly setting expectations for a summer 2021 in-office “reset”, leadership got busy making sure they properly addressed the here and now: our new status as a remote workforce that still needed to be in lockstep on projects to maintain the benefits of actually working side-by-side.
To ensure the energy and focus stayed strong, leadership has held regular firm-wide meetings and checked in with us individually to keep everyone updated on company status and address any questions that are swirling around. More than ever, transparency and daily communication is critical, not just with clients but also internally.
Matt: We switched to remote work a little ahead of the curve, right around March 10th. It helped that we have several team members with deep knowledge of infectious disease and we turned to them for guidance. We wanted to minimize the risk to employees and do our part to flatten the curve.
From day one, there has been a huge emphasis on honest communication. At the start of things, we had weekly meetings where our CEO provided us with updates on how the business was doing, the outlook, new initiatives and programs implemented in real-time, and answered all of our questions. Often, there weren’t solid answers to questions around what the future held, but there was encouragement to focus on what we could control, to work together as a team, and to try and make our own luck in these challenging times.
The immediate response focused on ensuring the health and safety of our team, and then evolved to making sure everyone had what they needed to be productive at home, including reimbursement for home office equipment. We placed a major emphasis on using video-conferencing and technology platforms to allow teams to engage with each other. As the pandemic continued, the focus shifted to supporting mental and physical health and identifying new ways to engage each other.
That response continues to evolve as we look at several months of remote work. Our firm recently released a set of temporary benefits for Q4 to provide support in targeted ways ranging from assistance identifying caregivers, to adding a few extra days off to allow people to unplug.
VAULT: What do you believe was the key to Putnam successfully navigating these unprecedented times?
Dian: I believe the key to success was early, proactive, and decisive action. It helped give employees clear answers, so we could all form our own plans as best and as early as possible.
Matt: Putnam has been able to maintain and even grow our business through this pandemic. That’s a testament to the outstanding track record we have with our clients, delivering incredible value by focusing not only on the project at hand but on developing long-term, trust-based relationships. When our clients were facing their own challenges, both personal and professional, they knew they could count on us and have continued to seek our support. It’s also a testament to our amazing team. We place an outsized emphasis on finding the “fit” with our hires, people who are smart and hard-working but also display humility, grit, and a team-first attitude. These traits have really shown in so many incredible ways throughout this pandemic. We’ve all been there for each other in times of need. I’m really proud to be a part of this team.
VAULT: You’ve each spoken a lot about culture, which is an aspect of life at Putnam that consistently stands out. In fact, Putnam ranked No. 3 last year in Vault’s Best Consulting Firms for Firm Culture. How has Putnam worked to preserve the core values of the firm’s culture, as well as an overall sense of connectedness, while everyone is working remotely?
Jack: I couldn’t agree more – it’s nice to know, from the inside, that the reputation is real. Putnam’s culture has been an absolute highlight of my experience. Beyond the positive attitudes of my co-workers, additional effort was taken to ensure a seamless transition – activities ranging from virtual Happy Hours to diverse speaker sessions, video workout classes with my team to firm-wide health challenges… it all helped keep us active, engaged, and ultimately brought us closer together. Judging by what I hear from friends, both in this industry and across industries, Putnam’s focus on culture definitely has us ahead of the curve.
Matt: Culture really is central to what Putnam is. As a consultancy, our product is our people and the culture is what defines the quality of that product. Working remotely is challenging, despite all the firm’s efforts. We get a lot of energy and fulfillment working alongside each other, in the unplanned interactions that happen in an office. So, we’ve tried to cultivate those interactions as best we can in a remote environment. Each office has planned some appropriately distanced outdoor meetups along the way to help foster connections, and we’ve had some fun firm-wide contests (e.g., workout challenges and voting on the cutest Putnam pet).
We’ve taken some of our training and team building programs and shifted those to virtual environments rather than scrapping them altogether. But the most important element has been an emphasis that everyone goes the extra mile to check on their team members and colleagues to make sure we are there for each other whenever someone needs it.
VAULT: Putnam is in an interesting position in that many of the biopharma, diagnostic, and medical device clients you work with are on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19. Without divulging anything confidential, are you involved in any projects with clients directly pertaining to the pandemic? What sorts of issues and opportunities are you encountering? How is Putnam serving clients working to develop a vaccine, more efficient testing, or any number of pandemic-related initiatives?
Matt: Putnam has worked on several projects directly involved in the fight against COVID-19. It’s a tremendous reminder that the work we do is important and has a real impact on people’s lives. When our clients turn to us for support on their most important projects, it’s a great reflection of how valued our team is.
Jack: I feel tremendously fortunate to have joined Putnam at such a pivotal time in the world, being given this opportunity to take a deep dive into the life sciences industry, to be part of the professionalism, the thoroughness…. I’ve always felt like it’s such an important area of study; there are so many interconnected factors, from emerging science to our evolving culture. It’s an amazing feeling to be right on the cutting-edge of such critical studies and discoveries. Sometimes it feels like it’s all anyone can talk about – and I’m working in the thick of it all day, but I can’t talk about it!
As a brand new part of the team, I was given the incredible opportunity to hit the ground running on high profile cases, which included contributing directly to the effort to develop, manufacture, and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine. I’ve always felt the work we do in the pharmaceutical industry is essential, but with the relentless impact of the virus, my time at Putnam has taken it to another level.
VAULT: How has COVID-19 impacted Putnam’s recruitment efforts? Do you have any advice for job seekers looking to break into consulting in the current climate?
Matt: We’re in the midst of recruiting our largest class ever and we’re doing it all virtually. The platforms have changed but what we’re looking for has not. Perhaps the most important pieces of advice are some of the old standards – take it one day at a time, count your blessings, and focus on what you can control. Having a long-term view certainly helps; even though it seems like this will go on forever, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. One hidden benefit for job seekers is that you can learn a lot about a company’s real strength and long-term outlook. The strongest consulting firms remain actively looking for talent.