Merck China Prepares for the Unexpected Through Teamwork and Trust
By Norris Tangen
The senior leaders from Merck China’s emergency response team share, in their own words, the lessons learned from the pandemic period. The AmCham China Quarterly spoke with members of the company’s team to learn about how they effectively built trust, managed a crisis, and prepared for the unexpected.
The lasting effects of the pandemic are still glaringly evidents from global production delays and disrupted supply chains to international travel restrictions, the world is still reeling from the consequences of COVID-19. Also in the past few years, we’ve witnessed businesses work to reckon with the unprecedented challenges, often to varying degrees of success. One company that has stood out from the pack for its effective, resourceful handling of this black swan event is Merck China. In an effort to understand their approach and share best practices, we reached out to Merck China’s President Allan Gabor. However, Gabor responded that he alone could not take credit and instead suggested we also speak with the team at the heart of Merck’s pandemic response, after all, as he says, they could not have done it without teamwork.
During the initial outbreak, what were the biggest high-level challenges?
Allan Gabor, Merck China President, Managing Director of Electronics China:
The biggest challenge was we had to shut down very quickly, and in a business like ours, where we are dealing in manufacturing, specialty chemicals, and equipment for the semiconductor industry we have to be very careful from a safety point of view. We had to tackle how to stop and restart facilities safely. We always put the colleagues first to stay safe and supported and understand the objective.
At the outset, we didn’t really have a lot of guidance on what was doable. We learned about closed loop, about what we could do and could not do, kind of on the fly. That’s why our fundamental understanding of principles like safety and a cultural commitment to customers were key. You can’t learn those in the middle of a crisis, they need to already be deeply embedded values in your organization. That’s why our team did extremely well, despite the situation.
Allen Lee, Site Director, Shanghai Jinqiao site, Electronics ISC Display:
My first priority was to figure out the first action to take: What does it mean for operations? If we want to operate, what does this mean for colleagues? How long will this last? Can we maintain a quality operational environment? Roy really helped us during this time. He was constantly updating us and letting us know the most up-to-date situation so we could react accordingly. With his help we were able to react quickly and be prepared. When we were given the go-ahead to resume operations, we were ready.
All of this needs to be coordinated flawlessly, we’re all remote and we need to communicate the correct information very quickly and efficiently. After that, they also need to come back with feedback, let us know if in their situation, they are able to execute, and find out the challenges. That’s when we go back and forth to find solutions and resolve the situation and achieve what we set out to.
Albert Peng, Merck China Site Manager, Shanghai Versum WaiGaoQiao site:
I agree with Allen: during such a critical time, quick decision making is very important. We needed the whole company to respond when they were called on and really work together.
Roy Bao, Merck China Senior Director of Corporate Affairs:
During the Covid, when we face challenges, the government is also facing high pressure. So working profoundly and closely with local government is very important for company operational problem-solving. Firstly, based on the new covid situation, the most critical issue to resume work is not about working resumption itself; it’s about quick response and cooperation with local government to analyze the resume situation. To estimate the daily status of Covid, a systematic working relationship with all levels of government is critical. This supported MNCs in making an immediate reaction plan. As an MNC with a complete supportive supply chain strategy in China, we are faced with orders from overseas, and our priority is to provide the best support and service to local customers. So, another essential thing was developing the supportive trust between our local customers and local government that could help Merck while facing the logistic issue. Working with the government to establish a Merck Covid protection plan could help working efficiency during the Covid period. That alignment was constructive since good influence power from the industrial perspective in China.
Lastly, executing China’s COVID-19 strategy means the local authorities must reduce to a minimum economic operation and keep the necessary emergency services. CEO office led a food support network to lead efforts in delivering food supplies to our employees. Even with the support of our vendors, it was still challenging to arrange deliveries, but despite this, we are proud that 95% of our colleagues received the supplies.
Jayden Zhang, Head of Merck China Office:
I want to really highlight the teamwork element. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 wave that hit Shanghai, we’ve seen great teamwork. Nobody can be fully prepared for this situation, but we were as prepared as possible. In fact, we had already developed our Merck China COVID contingency plan, which basically regulates who does what – it’s an SOP for our internal usage. We also have our local COVID Fast Response Team, which is a team effort across departments: Mary communicated accurately and quickly with both our colleagues and external stakeholders, Roy led the GA department in securing the proper permits for operation, site directors ensured that the closed-loop system was in-place and safe, and from the office side, we have a large office here that usually has around 700 employees that we had to shift to working remotely.
I’d like also to point out, as Roy mentioned, the supplies and support we provided our coworkers. This COVID situation did not only hit businesses and supply chains, but people on a very personal level. We were committed to leveraging our capacities and relationships to support not only workers on site but to all of our 1,800 Shanghai employees. I am proud of that, it really reflects our commitment to taking care of people and dedication to high impact culture.
Mary Li Ma, Head of Merck China Corporate Communication:
I can share some experiences from a communications perspective. During the lockdown period, we didn’t treat the situation as ‘crisis communications’ we viewed it as ‘change communication’ both internally and externally. This was not a ‘one shot’ deal, it was about creating a campaign to communicate effectively to different target audiences. We identified the kind of messages we needed to communicate, what kind of format would be best, what channel is best, and how to craft the messaging to be both timely and efficient.
Overall, the goal was to make sure employees understood the situation and know that we also understood their concerns. We wanted them to call us and reach out if they needed assistance. Not only in terms of materials and supplies, but also psychological support. We worked with our HR team to offer sessions to support colleagues’ mental health during this uncertain time.
Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, what are some of the new challenges arising for foreign businesses? What challenges are still ongoing?
Allan Gabor: I would say there are at least three big lessons that could be learned from this experience. First, is that trust in the company, both inside and outside needs to be established ahead of time. At the moment of the crisis you need to be sure you already have the trust currency, that you’ve been building up with your stakeholders and colleagues for some time. Trust is then the foundation that allows you to work through the crisis. It doesn’t mean you will have all the answers, but when colleagues trust each other they feel empowered to come together and effectively leverage their combined wisdom to deal with the situation. I remember a conversation with a colleague who in this conversation said, ‘I’ve never been through this before, I don’t know exactly what to do.’ My response was I’ve through SARS, but this is different. I told him I trusted that he knew better than anybody what to do under the circumstances, and he did!
The second lesson is that you can always be more prepared. But, if you have a preparedness mindset, you can minimize the risks you inevitably encounter. For example, we positioned food and supplies early on in the offices and sites early on, but most importantly we established an emergency response team in November 2019, which was before anyone even called it “COVID.” Mary helped to bring us together and teach us about crisis communication and we’ve applied many of those principals ever since. This team has also stuck together, after the first wave of COVID was over, we did not dismantle the team, we actually went into another training to further sharpen the roles and responsibilities of crisis management. Now with the most recent wave of COVID, we’ve been even better served because of this. Of course, this is not only about handling the next COVID outbreak, this team is equipped to handle any kind of major event or disruption inside or outside the company.
The third point, is that while the communication process was very much steered by Mary and the communications department, it’s still all of our responsibilities. This is where we all had to practice real-time, multi-channel communications and also work to synthesize all of the feedback we were receiving to get a full view of the situation. And, one channel cannot give it all, clearly the top management channel will not give a full picture, you need to have the network of talent from the emergency response team deeply engaged throughout the organization to have a real feel for what’s going on. That means we have site managers letting us know their situation, Jayden doing another thing, Mary monitoring communications, EHS involved, and then collectively we come together and compare notes. We find out what is working in terms of food delivery, what communication channel is most effective, how to best help employees with the anxieties of isolation. One example is we realized we wanted to provide more support mechanisms to employees, there was one program for women in leadership, which many men joined too, and another that was to support employees more broadly to deal with the stress of working remotely. We understand that one action cannot solve an issue completely, that’s why we take the systematic approach of communicating, listening, and synthesizing to really understand what’s going on. Of course, all of this is going on in real time, so this group and others are meeting frequently to understand the lay of the land, how it was changing, and where we could improve for employees and customers.
“Trust in the company, both inside and outside needs to be established ahead of time. At the moment of the crisis you need to be sure you already have the trust currency. ”
What channels did you identify as the most effective?
Mary Li Ma: For us, especially our internal WeChat platform is very effective for communications. WeChat is everywhere so it’s the best way to reach many of our employees. However, it also depends on topic, sometimes a conversation requires a virtual meeting to align. For example, we also arranged a virtual coffee hour so the top management could communicate directly with employees, it was a good way to reassure and support each other. Actually, during those coffee hours, Allan’s cat would sometimes even join!
Allan Gabor: As ambiguous as the environment was for us, you can imagine the headquarters’ leadership team sitting on the other side of the world, trying to interpret what was happening on the ground. Because I sit on the global leadership team, my connection with the CEO is very close, and we actually use WeChat to communicate. It was important to have the real-time communication with the global leadership so they can receive both the factual information of what’s happening on the ground and also the contextual feel of what we are going through. That provides them with an accurate, factual representation of the business environment.
You have discussed the need to plan and prepare as much as possible while also remaining fluid and flexible as situations evolve. If you were speaking to global executives in similar situations, what advice would you give them?
Allan Gabor: The principle that I’ve used for a long time is that any decision that’s made that is legal, moral, and within regulatory guardrails can be further optimized. If you make a decision that isn’t perfect, but it’s within those three guardrails, you can fix it. However, if the team doesn’t have trust and confidence to speak up early in the process, you will not be able to fix it. That’s why I cannot underestimate the importance of a culture that allows people to raise their hand, to tell you what they think, when they think, so that you’re as agile as you can be.
We’ve crossed some bridges for the first time, and there will be great case studies and learnings. But the thing that ultimately really helped us is that the people closest to both the challenges and opportunities were empowered to speak up and offer the best advice.
Mary Li Ma: To echo Allan’s comments, from my experience it is a culture issue. You have to build the culture of trust and transparency to accumulate influence.
Allan Gabor: There is a balance, every company has hard systems and soft systems. The hard system of an emergency response team touches all of the businesses. This small team who meets on a regular basis, allowed for the hard systems of bringing the team together to enact SOPs, roles, and responsibilities in maybe the most effective way. I can’t tell you how many crisis communication workshops I’ve been through over my years. We don’t have a big book. In fact, it would probably only be a few pages. That’s because the team works on principles and principles are robust. And SOPs – have an SOP for everything, because frankly, you can’t know everything.