Inventing for Life: How to Keep Employees Connected, Engaged and Productive while Transitioning to Remote Working 


Since March, companies in every industry have adjusted to remote working practices, which, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, would have seemed out of the question. The IT acrobatics necessary to enable an entirely remote workforce would have been assumed impossible for most IT organizations.

Yet across the globe, IT teams rose to the challenge and created remote working environments that enabled companies to continue to be not just operational, but productive and profitable. This was no small feat for any business, but for organizations whose business it is to save lives, the pressure was especially intense.

Based in New Jersey, Merck & Co. is an American multinational pharmaceutical company and one of the largest in the world. For more than 125 years, the company has been “Inventing for Life,” developing medicines and vaccines for many of the world’s most threatening diseases. According to Susan Carroll, Executive Director of Global IT infrastructure, ensuring that everything associated with the technology that employees at Merck use to connect and collaborate is literally a matter of life or death.

Carroll appeared on a recent episode of Cloud Council, during which she and Nutanix CIO, Wendy M. Pfeiffer, discussed the criticality of IT in providing business continuity during Covid-19, as well as other factors influencing productivity and innovation within the new remote work paradigm.

Much More Than Profitability Is At Stake

In December, 2019, Merck brought to market a vaccine for Ebola that had a huge impact for the people of Africa, and the company aims to do the same with respect to Covid-19. On May 26, this year, they announced plans to develop and manufacture two different COVID-19 vaccines, as well as an experimental antiviral compound that is currently in early clinical trials. “Literally the entire world is waiting for a Covid-19 vaccine, and it’s hard to imagine work that is more important to the world economy, to business, and to people's livelihoods and health,” Carroll said. “The stakes have never been higher.” Equally pressing is the need to ensure business continuity, so that work toward developing the vaccine can proceed. 

But the challenges of remote working have put IT to the test. Enabling secure telecommuting for millions of employees across the U.S. took grit and determination, as IT teams in every industry scrambled to provide connectivity and access in a matter of weeks. During the transition, many organizations were concerned about profitability, but for healthcare and pharmaceutical organizations such a Merck, it wasn’t about making money.

Merck was proactive in readying its workforce to make the transition, which they knew was imminent. In fact, preparation for handling the pandemic began in January, when China experienced its outbreak. “We had to focus on enabling and securing that ‘last mile’ of the network, so people could work effectively from their homes, with adequate bandwidth and the VPN licenses they needed,” Carroll said. “We addressed the situation holistically to ensure our business would continue to be operational, because people rely on us for their medications.”

Nutanix had a lot at stake, too, as its clients — many of whom are in the healthcare industry — rely on the company’s solutions for essential infrastructure and connectivity to function. Any lapse in worker productivity would have downstream impacts, so the transition to remote working had to be seamless. “I think of my team as the folks down in the engine room working to make sure the battleship continues to move forward,” Pfeiffer said. “We have thousands of employees connecting with our critical systems, writing code and supporting our customers from their living rooms and kitchens — all over the world. Making sure they're not struggling with technology helps keep them focused on helping customers.”

Fortunately, Pfeiffer’s organization already had a well-developed change management process in place — but in the coming months, new skills and technologies will be needed. “At the beginning, it was kind of like a sprint, but now it’s more of a marathon,” she said. “We will need to develop different muscles — and methods — to keep moving forward.”

"We Have Your Back"

The pressure on IT to help Merck’s workforce stay productive throughout the transition to remote working was intense. One way Carroll kept everyone focused and positive was by implementing a program she dubbed “We have Your Back.” 

“Our employees weren’t just under pressure at work — just like everyone else, they were adapting to having their children distance learning from home, taking care of elderly parents, going to the store to buy food, and so on,” she said. “But they were worried that if they left their desks, something might go wrong — a bandwidth issue would need attention, or an employee would be unable to connect to WebEx, for example. ‘We Have Your Back’ made a difference because it gave people peace of mind that there would be coverage if they needed to tend to personal matters.” 

This support was especially critical during the first few weeks of the lockdown, but has also proven helpful during the summer months, enabling people to take vacations and spend time with their families. 

Pfeiffer said that creating smaller, specialized teams at Nutanix helped her organization work more efficiently. “Large global teams take a lot of middle management, and when you’re connecting remotely, smaller teams with focused objectives often collaborate more effectively,” she said. For example, since end user computing became so essential to business continuity, she created a new team dedicated to that effort. “Their skill set covers cybersecurity, VDI, and client engineering for both Macs and PCs, and they understand how to configure a webcam or microphone for a home office,” Pfeiffer said. 

For both organizations, employee engagement has been a top priority. “Not being able to engage face-to-face has been a stress across our team, so we looked for fun ways to keep people connected and engaged,” Carroll said. “For example, we had everyone wear Hawaiian shirts to their Zoom meetings one day, which helped add some levity to the situation.” 

But some employees are thriving in their remote settings, and will want to stay there. At Nutanix, they’ll join the 30% of employees who were remote prior to Covid-19. As such, an ongoing focus on engagement will be critical moving forward. “Our global teams have been remote from headquarters from the start, and we now have much more empathy for their experience since now we’re all in the same boat,” Pfeiffer said.

Carroll and Pfeiffer have also found creative ways of keeping employees emotionally healthy. For example, Carroll hired executive coaches to provide outside counsel for Merck employees who were having difficulty with the transition. "These types of programs will help us transcend the challenges of remote working and adjust to the new normal,” she said.

Pfeiffer said that supporting employees’ strengths helps bring out the best in people, even in challenging times. “At Nutanix, we have a wide spectrum of personalities,” she said. “Some are individual contributors who are brilliant at writing code or configuring systems, and others are brilliant at support and helping customers. It’s important to enable everyone to play to their strengths.”

“Literally the entire world is waiting for a Covid-19 vaccine, and it’s hard to imagine work that is more important to the world economy, to business, and to people's livelihoods and health”

New Tech Offers Hope, Enables Flexibility 

Will emerging technologies such as IoT, 5G, and 3D printing support a new hybrid work environment as some people return to the physical workplace and others remain at home? Definitely, according to Carroll and Pfeiffer. 

Merck, for example, is reinventing the manufacturing process by leveraging 3D printing technology to try out creative design techniques and visualize new concepts. “With the help of CAD and CAM systems, we can test the interactions of a drug on a particular disease, without involving humans,” she said. “We can even print body tissue with a tumor on it and conduct clinical trials in a fraction of the time, because we don’t have to wait to observe the effect on a person. It’s helping us adapt to new ways of working and accelerate the pace at which we introduce new products to market.”

For Pfeiffer, technologies that enable flexibility have been essential during the pandemic and will continue to add value in the coming months. “Having a software-defined network has saved me in my datacenters,” she said. “My entire network is referenced as code, so my team can rapidly make changes to accommodate new processes and modes of operation — and they can do it remotely. It may not be as cool as 3D printing human tissue with tumors, but it’s extremely valuable for supporting our workforce and ensuring our clients have scalable, secure access to their infrastructure.”

Pfeiffer noted that there are so many opportunities to be innovative about how employees use technologies they already have in new and better ways, as the company works to solve the new challenges of remote working. “As leaders, we need to listen and be open to new ideas, determine what is required now, and create the structure that enables us to operate efficiently in this new environment.” And those ideas can come from anywhere, she said. “As we tackle the challenges we face today, I am actively borrowing from the consumer technology space and learning from my peers in other industries, as well.”

Physical or Remote, Bring Your Best Game

Now that the myths of remote working have been dispelled, and organizations like Merck and Nutanix are operating effectively and keeping employees engaged and productive via digital channels, many companies will make the practice a permanent option for employees. According to Carroll and Pfeiffer, it’s important to remain flexible.

“It's a mixed bag,” said Pfeiffer. “IT people have the reputation for being introverted, and for some of us, working remotely is a dream. Others will want to return to the physical workplace as soon as possible.” Either way, Pfeiffer says that like Merck, Nutanix is ready. “Ultimately, there's no way to control it, she said. “You have to relax into it, go back to your training, and as each new phase begins, bring your best game forward.”



Deep Learnings for our AI-Driven Future

Cloud Counsel

The Race to Save Lives with Susan Carroll, Merck & Wendy M. Pfeiffer, Nutanix 

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