Cover Feature



The HR story behind the vaccine

In a world-first exclusive, myGrapevine magazine gets the inside scoop on how AstraZeneca’s inclusive and open culture, performance mindset and leadership fostered the right environment for the ultimate COVID-19 success…

Words by Daniel Cave



The HR story behind the vaccine

In a world-first exclusive, myGrapevine magazine gets the inside scoop on how AstraZeneca’s inclusive and open culture, performance mindset and leadership fostered the right environment for the ultimate COVID-19 success…

Words by Daniel Cave

The vaccine story, you might be thinking, is already widely covered by the world’s press every single day. However, in the case of the AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine, there is a yet-to-be-told story about how best practice within subjects that usually sit on the HR agenda – inclusion, diversity, engagement – as well as clear leadership, and the sweeping away of some traditional business structures, fostered an innovative, agile and outcome-focussed working environment – despite unseen-in-this-lifetime pandemic restrictions – from which came crucial jabs that are, as you read, still being administered to the population as a crucial part of the roadmap to getting out of a life diminished by the pandemic.

Below, myGrapevine magazine exclusively tells this story: of how brilliant HR processes and practices and people-minded business operations (or business-minded people operations, both are suitable) played their role in, what many hope will be, the sharp end of this pandemic period.


Vaccine development is a process that usually takes about 15-20 years to develop, according to Life Sciences reporting site BioSpace. Prior to the coronavirus vaccines, the quickest vaccine development that had occurred was mumps, which took four years. However, the coronavirus vaccine was approved by some companies less than a year after trials started.


Research into coronaviruses had been happening for years, providing a solid foundation for research into SARS-CoV-2 (the genome that causes Covid-19).

January 2020

SARS-CoV-2 genome sequenced.

April 2020

AstraZeneca and Oxford announce agreement to develop and distribute a vaccine for Covid-19 infections.

November 2020

AstraZeneca and Oxford announce trial results that show vaccine is highly effective in blocking Covid-19.

December 2020

AstraZeneca and Oxford vaccine approved for use in UK.

May 2021

57% received first dose of vaccine.

The world locks down and HR speeds up

For some people, inklings that coronavirus existed might’ve come sometime in early 2020. Although the first case was recorded in 2019, it wasn’t until the middle of January last year that an official death, from illnesses linked to this new coronavirus, were recorded; lockdowns of multiple Chinese cities and reports of cases all over the world came quickly after.

Yet, despite measures being taken in far flung locations, for most, it might still have seemed to be an exotic disease that was more an interesting news item than anything that would impact their day-to-day life. (For instance, I remember listening to the BBC’s quickly repurposed news podcast, before work and in the kitchen of my then current house, in an attempt to understand what on earth this disease, driving an increasing number of headlines, was. For me, at that stage, coronavirus was nothing more than background noise to breakfast).

Fast forward six weeks and it all seemed very real – and much closer to home. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak of this new severe respiratory illness – COVID-19 or coronavirus, the latter being both the type of virus and the common shorthand used to describe it – a pandemic. Just one month later, according to ONS data, over 5,000 people would be dying from the virus each week in England and Wales. UK newspapers began to plaster their front pages with constant updates about the ‘virus bombshell’, ‘lockdown Britain’ and ‘a national emergency.’ Confusion and panic were the order of the day.

It wasn’t just about sadly astronomical death rates and fears about our own health and the health of others, though. Work, and virus-enforced restrictions upon it, many of which are still in place, were also central to many people’s experience of this time. HR knows this only too well. As Prime Minister Boris Johnson took to the nation’s TV screens on March 23rd, 2020, telling people that we were about to enter a lockdown that would enforce working from home unless it was absolutely necessary that they had to head to a central workplace, the people function went into troubleshooting hyper speed.

As myGrapevine magazine wrote in a late 2020 magazine issue: “When the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year, it presented a raft of challenges which ended up being given to the HR function to fix.” Workloads for HR practitioners went through the roof as they became in-real-time designers of new working structures, comms hubs and health and safety experts. For those working in this space, even 18 months on, they are still at the forefront of ensuring that changes to organisational and business structures pass key HR litmus tests and helps individuals deliver against their responsibilities, so can continue to drive great business outcomes on, what seems to be, a permanently changed work landscape.

Innovative & agile vaccine development

As changes to every aspect of life as we knew came about, a very important thread within the larger pandemic narrative was also unspooling. At first in the background, but then increasingly at the centre of the media limelight: those important steps in the development of the vaccine. In fact, before the first coronavirus case had even been reported in the UK, the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus had already been published, an important first step in creating vaccines.

This breakthrough sparked intense research activity around the globe as many sought to use this information to create a workable jab that could be distributed worldwide. As the world’s leading multidiscipline science journal Nature described at the time, “global vaccine R&D effort in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in terms of scale and speed”. It was clear that organisations who could offer help in this area were being innovative and agile in their reaction at this time of crisis, despite novel restrictions around work.

One of those innovative, and speedy, vaccine development, manufacturing and distribution responses came into play when Oxford University and AstraZeneca announced, in April 2020, just months after the first cases were reported, their partnership. As Rebekah Martin, Senior Vice President of Reward and Inclusion, at the 75,000+ employee firm exclusively tells myGrapevine magazine, the pharmaceutical giant was not a traditional vaccine supplier company so to get one out needed an agile response that could navigate intense pressure, scrutiny and expectation, as well as unusual working circumstances. It required, as she says, “getting commercial, development, factory and supply chains [aligned]...and to work at pace as people have needed a light at the end of the tunnel”.

It’s a goal-oriented approach that has clearly worked. On January 4th, 2020, less than a year after the Oxford-AstraZeneca linkup was announced, the first dose of the vaccine was administered; a vaccine described by Professor Kate O’Brien, Head of the WHO’s department of immunisation, vaccines and biologicals, as “efficacious” and “an important vaccine for the world”. Indeed, as the BBC reported: it can be kept at regular fridge temperature, is up to 90% effective and is completed via two doses. A seemingly simple way to chart a path out of this mess.

Rebekah Martin,

Senior Vice President,

Reward and Inclusion

Why AstraZeneca focuses on inclusion and diversity

During her exclusive interview with my myGrapevine magazine, Rebekah reveals much about AstraZeneca’s close attention to inclusion and diversity. Noting how the firm measures both the makeup of its workforce, as well as workforce sentiment regards how inclusive employees feel the organisation is. Furthermore, she shares that this area is a key CEO prerogative, and it is thought about down to the smallest details such as how meetings are setup. This isn’t just because it is a moral good.

Whilst it is hard to pinpoint exact causation between a firm’s diversity and its business success, there is certainly a strong correlation between the two, and there is a lot of HR and business literature on this subject. For instance, research from Bersin by Deloitte found that the factor that had the highest impact on business performance was diversity and inclusion. A separate study from the University of Chicago found that diverse teams drove higher revenue and better market share. As Bersin added at the end of his report: “[These businesses] are not just better at HR – they are higher performing companies.”

Setting up the structures for vaccine success

What won’t have been so simple is getting there – especially for the organisations tasked with, or who tasked themselves with, getting vaccines out into the world. Not only does it require top talent to work at pace but also the right kind of working structures in place, as well as adequate support and the right goals to focus efforts. The New Yorker, a US longform journalism outlet, pinpointed the complexity of this challenge well. In a piece titled The Long Game of Coronavirus Research, it published comments from Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – a rough equivalent of Professor Chris Whitty, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer – which went: “I thought H.I.V. was a complicated disease. It’s really simple compared to what’s going on with Covid-19.”

Of course, there has been lots of focus on this complex problem as it seems to be the only way out this mess. Understandably, most of the media has been covering either the Government's role in the vaccine, the science behind it, or, currently, how many jabs have been administered. There’s little on how bringing the right people together, at the right stages, to develop, to deliver, to innovate and administer – requiring deep understanding of how organisations and people intersect – played its part in the pandemic endgame.

However, those in HR know this intersection – of business, of people – and would have needed to be carefully managed to have any chance of delivering against a problem of pandemic proportions. They also know this management, or at least understanding of it to then share with leaders, usually falls under their remit.

The way people interact with one and other is what enables our success and that’s where HR has a big role in influencing that…

Arranging HR support against desired business outcomes

So, what role has HR at AstraZeneca played in setting it up for pandemic success? Whilst many won’t automatically connect the present favourable results of the vaccine programme with the function, some of the structures needed to get there successfully in place are inarguably linked to business thinking that relies heavily on what HR teams usually focus on.

Of course, this ‘HR thinking’ doesn’t exist in a vacuum. During our conversation, I put some of this to Rebekah, asking how the function at AstraZeneca created programmes – whether in support of vacinnes or otherwise – that are guided by business needs. She is clear that AstraZeneca’s HR is always focussed on what is demanded to drive results. Whether its leadership-driven organisation-wide inclusion efforts, the novel issue of getting a new vaccine to market, or tweaking the minutiae of how meetings are structured, she says: “It is all in support of great business outcomes.”

We hadn’t even started using [Microsoft] Teams across the organisation [before pandemic]

Focussing on the organisation not the individual

As Rebekah tells myGrapevine magazine, a crucial part of how HR supports what the business needs is about ensuring individuals and teams learn quickly and make quick decisions; inarguably crucial for the pandemic period. In practice, this means employees are encouraged and empowered to put ideas forward at AstraZeneca, with a clear understanding of who holds decision making power. There is also a focus on making sure that the organisation’s goals rather than individual performance is centred in decision-making. In the case of the vaccine year, the implication is that HR would’ve been structuring actions to deliver against ‘what does my company need me to do in order to deliver this crucial programme’ ahead of ‘how can I boost my own pay packet or be an individual superstar’.

To help with this, AstraZeneca decided to implement its plan, during the pandemic, to remove performance ratings and switch to being a coaching-first organisation. This decision needed some lateral thinking to circumvent pandemic working conditions – “In an ordinary climate you would get the project team together to meet face to face and do ‘brown paper’ exercises where you figure out the moving parts and get everyone together,” Rebekah says, “but we couldn’t do any of that and we initiated whole programmes through virtual environments – it was done with the clear vision of cohering the organisation’s efforts towards whatever goals the business had.” It's something that, yes, would benefit the business regardless of it being the vaccine year but would inarguably help deliver against this new goal.

Rebekah explains that this doesn’t mean the organisation jettisoned a performance-centric approach: “We still have a global scorecard which has the measures we’re all striving towards, and when it comes to end of year decisions [on bonuses and pay] they are based around the contribution made towards the company and in that we consider ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘so what’. They need to be smart and contribute to the team and overall company. It is a step change and it focuses on the impact someone is generating through their work – whether it’s a difference to themselves, team or company.”

AstraZeneca’s leadership

Pascal Soriot, CEO

  • August 2012, becomes Chief Executive of AstraZeneca.
  • Chairs AstraZeneca’s Global Diversity Council – showcasing that leadership is bought into D&I and it is top priority.
  • “Understands fundamental connection between inclusion and diversity and company performance.”
  • Focus on autonomy and empowerment since taking helm.

HR’s supporting role

If all activity within the firm is guided by clear business outcomes and a ‘one team’ dynamic – in the case of the last year, Rebekah confirms that one of those goals was about bringing vaccines to the world on a not-for-profit basis in the middle of the pandemic – I ask what HR’s role specifically is within this: do they have to become champions of an organisational culture that boosts agility and innovation, whilst being stewards of engagement, communication and inclusion?

Rebekah responds by explaining that at AstraZeneca HR is instrumental in ensuring that structures – the switch in performance metrics being a key example – are in place to succeed in the face of whatever new challenge the business is focussed on. “HR plays a huge role in both developing where we want to be but also in fostering that reality,” she explains, adding that inclusion and diversity – more on that later – is a huge part of this, in order for the appropriate voices in the business to feel like they were both allowed to add their expertise to whatever challenge the business was facing, and would be heard.

Rebekah continues: “The way people interact with one and other is what enables our success and that’s where HR has a big role in influencing that – whether that’s practical tips or tricks, events that we organise, or the bigger picture, the strategic priority.” If Rebekah’s comments are taken within the context of what Nature journal said was needed from organisations involved in 2020’s vaccination innovation process – “requiring novel vaccine development paradigms involving parallel and adaptive development phases, innovative regulatory processes and scaling manufacturing capacity,” the journal wrote last year – it seems plausible that within AstraZeneca’s wider people tack, as well as its focus on smaller details, HR’s efforts helped foster key organisational structures and mechanisms that would drive the innovation, new paradigms and scaling the vaccine challenge required.

HR plays a huge role in both developing where we want to be but also in fostering that reality…

Communication culture

The “way people interact” hasn’t just been a focus for AstraZeneca. Communication has obviously been a big agenda point for, likely, all HR functions and businesses this year, too. Mostly, coverage of this has focussed on the irks – Zoom fatigue and, as a Harvard Business School study found, the growing number of meetings – and the strategic quirks – what a pivot to remote-first or hybrid will mean for organisations in the long-term, whether new structures demand new modes of communication, why we keep waving at the end of calls – but there’s been something of a damascene moment regards how important communication is considered and how much it impacts both people and everything on the people function’s remit. (One chief people officer revealed to us last year that, at least during the early moments of the crisis, HR became a makeshift comms hub, a role it hasn’t really relinquished yet).

For AstraZeneca, like many others, there has been a focus on making communication effective ny measuring it against metrics the pharma giant holds to be important: inclusion, and, those central business outcomes. In fact, so important was effective communication to the business that part way through 2020 it changed its meeting norms, and not just because of largescale enforcement of remote working. Dubbed ‘Meeting of Minds’ – AstraZeneca’s new way of communicating involved presetting roles in a meeting so that everyone gets to have a say.

By making meetings an inclusive space whereby all voices can be heard – an inclusive practice that Rebekah believes is supported by a wide range of business resource groups centrered around giving space to demographic groups that can often be underrepresented in media, society and decision making processes in the wider business world – it not only makes, Rebekah says, “people feel welcome and [gives them] a sense of community” but, and here’s the important part, “drives better business outcomes”. This is HR practice that clearly links to the pharmaceutical giant’s pandemic contribution over the last year.

A focus on business outcomes

Rebekah confirms that everything, from HR programmes to individual performance, are all thought about at AstraZeneca with the idea of “supporting great business outcomes”. Whilst most in HR will know the benefit of setting goals – research published by EY found that firms with a clear purpose make more money, have more engaged employees and more loyal customers – few might have the global coherence that AstraZeneca does. This tack is helped by the use of a global scorecard that measures the company needs all actions to strive towards.

HR’s role in guiding communication

These two channels – diverse representation via resource groups and more effective meeting practice – Rebekah tells myGrapevine magazine run alongside a joined-up strategic focus on the constant improvement of multi-directional communication at the pharmaceutical giant. Rebekah explains there has been an effort to develop “empathetic, inclusive leadership” and an open, recognition culture, where feedback, both good and bad, is shared immediately so lessons can be implemented quickly. “If someone has done something great, we say thank you or if someone has done something wrong say thank you as well, because failure is important in an organisation like ours as long as we learn from it,” Rebekah adds.

In fact, Rebekah explains that this feedback culture is now so ingrained at AstraZeneca that there has been a recognition moment every minute at the organisation. She believes this improves communication, too, and links with other facets to create “the right type of environment where people are collaborating without organisational borders”; a focus, at least the reducing of borders, that has, Rebekah tells me, also been on the leadership agenda. It all works towards, she explains, fostering better intra-team connections, and, likely, better innovation – that key vaccine development word again – adding that “absolutely” HR had a pivotal role at shaping these interaction norms and creating an engaging environment.

HR and leadership’s role in guiding innovation

Alongside a leadership with a clear idea of how business should be done – Rebekah cites the influence of CEO Pascal Soriot in ensuring that the performance of the organisation and individual is always central to thinking; as well as empowering people to ‘just get it done’ – the SVP of Reward and Inclusion also believes that the influence HR has at AstraZeneca drives the innovation so clearly symbolised by bringing a vaccine to market so quickly and in less than favourable conditions. “What we can see [in the outcomes] is HR’s influence in making sure people can be successful, be true to themselves, and collaborate to drive success. That’s from a collection of different initiatives, there is no magic key,” she says.

She doesn’t think HR operates alone, though. It’s worth focussing on AstraZeneca’s leadership here, as Rebekah believes AstraZeneca’s CEO has had a crucial role in the way the company is geared up for success. Rebekah credits Soriot, who joined as Chief Executive in 2012 from Roche, with dismantling unnecessary hierarchy – that “reducing borders” piece – and getting rid of decision-making by committee. “If you think about the company I joined [Rebekah arrived at AstraZeneca in 2011] it was pretty hierarchical... [it’s now] less hierarchical than it used to be which means it’s a more liberating environment for people: you can be honest, you can be direct, you speak truth to power and that’s critical.”

[It’s about] making sure you have the right people involved [and] making sure we’re getting different thinking into discussions so we can move fast

Quick decisions and the right kind of inclusion

The kind of collaborative environment that Rebekah believes Soriot has fostered can perhaps be seen in AstraZeneca’s new communications norms – “making sure you have the right people involved, thinking about making sure we’re getting different thinking into discussions so we can move fast,” Rebekah explains – as well as in the focus on inclusion, not that these two pieces are separate. With accountability and decision-making streamlined under Soriot’s helm, Rebekah states that there has been a focus on ensuring that the right voices are involved at all the right points to, as noted previously, drive collaboration and quick, not to mention informed and correct, decision-making.

This has to be more than a statement of intent, though. Inclusion isn’t just window dressing. With 30+ nationalities in senior vice president roles and nine different nationalities represented on the senior executive, Rebekah explains that diversity is embedded across the organisation: from the senior examples she shares to mid-level, where 47% of senior managers are women, to the fact that 50% of the workforce are women. It’s not just about ending there, though. “It's one thing to have [a diverse range] of people working here but if you’re not getting the most out of that – i.e. having good interactions – then it's not good,” she says.

This is why AstraZeneca, Rebekah tells me, has also focussed on how inclusive its organisation is. Much of our conversation focusses on how that has worked via the way meetings are set-up and how traditional hierarchies have been taken away, but it has to measure if this is effective. The firm does this by rolling out regular pulse surveys. From these it has found that 84% of its workforce feel like they can speak up, the same number feel like good effort is made to get diverse opinions whilst 90% say their managers support inclusion and diversity. This feedback, Rebekah explains, helps the HR function tweak everything from hiring to development.

This isn’t done for the sake of it, though. As with everything Rebekah tells me, there is a clear goal in mind. She adds: “It’s [inclusion] the right thing to do. It's great for engagement and for making people feel motivated to be there and also making them feel like they can be their best selves at work but if you don’t get the different thinking coming together in the right way and environment where people can share different opinions, you're not going to get innovation.” (Here, I would argue, that the vaccine rollout is a great example of the innovation that AstraZeneca so desperately wants).

So, what has HR’s role in vaccines been?

Whilst it’s clear that no one in HR actually developed a vaccine – even at pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca the people function stays away from the sharp end of the science and virologists don’t do the payroll – after my chat with Rebekah, I believe it is clear that HR, alongside a leadership who clearly gets some of the key facets of good people practice, has had a significant role to play.

If we take as read that the rollout of the vaccine, an area that the organisation was not a traditional big player in, as well as the largest cash-and-stock pharmaceutical takeover – of a biotech firm – during the pandemic, as indicators that AstraZeneca has a year where the business outcomes were good, then it is not difficult to assume that the pivot to coronavirus-necessitated working structures went well (a pivot, that many in HR know, was led by the people function). Even if, like many organisations, AstraZeneca experienced roadbumps, changes and learnings along the way. (“We hadn’t even started using [Microsoft] Teams across the organisation [before pandemic],” Rebekah reveals).

Yet, perhaps more importantly, as everyone had to change as a result of the pandemic, is what structures, people practices and ethoses AstraZeneca had in place to support its business goals during this year. Most in HR know that clear structures, leadership modelling, as well as leadership support for key strategic people programmes, are key for the success of any initiative it rolls out. Importantly, these initiatives and structures must be built with both the individual and the organisation in mind, supporting culture, diversity, inclusivity, engagement, development and good communication because there is either a clear correlation or causation between these elements and better business outcomes. There is a staggering wealth of literature, studies and surveys on this.

People feel welcome and [give them] a sense of community

HR supports the business

At AstraZeneca, as Rebekah emphasises again and again during our chat, HR supports the above elements, with “business outcomes” always in mind and a clear understanding of how the leadership wants to structure interactions at the firm for the long term, even if sometimes that means very rapid change. (Take for example a focus on less-traditional hierarchy, and inclusion since Soriot became incumbent CEO and then a quick, and remote, change to meeting norms during the pandemic; clearly linked to improving inclusivity in a real way day-to-day).

Rebekah would also likely argue that AstraZeneca’s culture and working structures are structured for success at any point – it wasn’t that suddenly there was a focus on getting more voices round the table because they wanted to help roll out a vaccine. In fact, a fairly consistent rise in share price since Soriot took over in 2012, means that his leadership style – less hierarchical, more outcome-focussed, more inclusion focussed – was paying literal dividends before AstraZeneca’s pandemic challenges. And it’s clear this focus was supported by the HR function.

Whether this support is more structural and deeply ingrained – there seems to be a clear understanding of how usual HR agenda points impact the business at AstraZeneca – or visible ways – in measuring how the population is doing, tweaking hiring to improve diversity, or coaching people to get better at communication – at AstraZeneca the people function’s impact is clear to see. In fact, as Rebekah explains several times during our chat, everything that HR does – indeed, everyone at the organisation does – is done with business outcomes in mind.

This HR-supported, goal-focussed environment, Rebekah tells me, has fostered an organisation where “they [AstraZeneca] can move fast” and “people are enormously proud to work” for them. It’s also one, and this seems to be the key takeaway, where “groups can come together to share ideas and drive success,” she adds, whether that be more typical business outcomes, boosting internal diversity metrics, improving inclusion, or, more recently, playing a leading role in ending the pandemic.

For me, after my chat with Rebekah, it would seem that, luckily, HR, alongside the leadership, is always alongside its people to ensure that these goals are always in mind – even if those links, outside of the HR community, won’t be talked about much. Yes, the vaccines came from fast-paced scientific development but they were supported in getting to market by an HR team embedded in its organisation, who helped shape working practices.

It might never get the thanks it deserves during the pandemic – whether it's setting itself up for vaccine success or helping to troubleshoot the new world of work - but outside of knowing it did a good job, how much is HR ever congratulated for its part anyway?

It was done with the clear vision of cohering the organisation’s efforts towards whatever goals the business had