Podcast: Developing a Return-to-Workplace Plan

The ability to target, flex, optimize, and scale. These are the four principles guiding the development of a new companywide operating system at Mercury after Covid-19. Join Ian Dunn, SVP of Sensor and Mission Processing and leader of the Mercury Return-to-Workplace taskforce, as he discusses the return to healthy facilities and employee wellness and prevention.

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Ralph Guevarez:

Hello, and welcome to Mercury Now, a weekly podcast brought to you by Mercury Systems. I am your host Ralph Guevarez. Today we will be discussing the return to workplace task force. And joining me is Ian Dunn, Task Force Lead and Senior Vice President of Sensor and Mission Processing Group for Mercury Systems. Ian, hello.

Ian Dunn:

Hello, Ralph.

Ralph Guevarez:

Ian, before we dive into the task force and its functionalities, I was informed that you are amongst the few who were selected to remain at our corporate headquarters. Tell us, how have you adjusted and how long was it before there was a sense of normalcy to your workday?

Ian Dunn:

When we decided to send as many people as possible to work from home in the light of the crisis to flatten the curve, we used our business continuity playbook, which stipulates what emergency personnel will remain in the facilities and under what circumstances to ensure continued operation. As the emergency site lead for headquarters, I had remained in the facility and I’ve been part of the COVID-19 response deployment team, and continue to work with the staff that’s still in the building on how we evolve the facility to be a safe place to work. Luckily, headquarters has very little manufacturing. So out of the almost 500 people that we had in the facility, we sent well over 80 percent of them home. In fact, there’s really only about 20 people that come into the building on a regular basis.

              I’m normally on the road half the month in my role as an SVP for the company and kind of running one of the businesses. So I don’t actually spend a ton of time in the facility like I am now, and have gotten in the habit of only going to the cafeteria a couple of days a week. So when you ask about, what’s the facility like, obviously all of these things now are largely empty. With only 20 people in the building, I don’t think I’ve run into someone in the cafeteria in weeks. At first, working in these nearly empty facilities was a little discombobulating. You don’t run into people at coffee, people don’t stop by your office. You don’t even really have an excuse to get out of your chair that often, except just to go grab coffee or lunch.

              When you go to meetings, you’re doing them virtually. I thought about hosting meetings in empty conference rooms, but thought that would be more distracting to the employees working from home than it was worth. So I’ve largely operated my job from my office and then I’ve just gone out as needed for lunch and snacks. One of the more interesting experience is I went down to the cafeteria on day one and thought, all right, well, I’ll buy lunch. So the first thing I didn’t really know was what lunch would be available because since everybody was out of the building, certainly the cafeteria was going to scale back and they had. I grabbed a salad and bought it and then I thought to myself, gosh, I don’t really even know whether COVID-19 can be spread through food and this kind of food doesn’t grow on trees, it has to be prepared.

              So for the first week, I have to admit, just out of sheer paranoia and not knowing what to do, I microwaved all of my purchases from the cafeteria, including one particular day where I microwave a salad, which in the end of the day, later in the week proved okay. You could eat a warm salad. But the bigger problem was the packaging that the salad came in was really not supposed to be microwaved. So I had a bit of a catastrophic packaging failure one day and so I’m used to it now. I’ve backed off on the protocols that I don’t think are too useful personally, like microwaving salads, and have adjusted to it. Now I know fairly well who’s in the building and stopped by to see how they’re doing. So there’s a little bit of a social protocol within the building, but not much of one.

Ralph Guevarez:

Well thank you for sharing that. I can tell you on behalf of the Mercury Team that is working from home, thank you for continuing to drive the ship, and I’m sure that I speak for many when I say we are anxious to join you again. Could you please give us a brief background on your current role at Mercury and also the scope of the task force leadership role?

Ian Dunn:

Sure. So I’m a senior vice president for the company in charge of one of the company’s product divisions. In particular, the product division that I head up is really the historical core of the company. Mercury Systems used to be called Mercury Computer Systems, so the group that I run is really that original computer systems. We’ve done some acquisitions to augment it. So it also includes our facility in Geneva, Switzerland, it includes our new facility in Alpharetta, Georgia and also a facility in Mesa, Arizona that would not have been part of the original group that I head up.

              And all of it’s focused on processing, digital processing. So really all kinds of computers and processing subsystems that go into other instruments. Defense sensors, weapons, helicopters, avionics panels. Anywhere you might now find computers in a defense environment, we’re one of the potential suppliers.

              I have loved this business ever since I was here. I have been here 20 years, I came as a systems engineer originally. My graduate work was in computing, was in supercomputing and so I came to Mercury because of its status in the industry, it’s still to this day one of the most important computer processing assets in the US arsenal, and so that’s what brought me here and that’s what drives me into those doors every day even though there I’m now one of the rare few actually in the buildings.

              As the crisis started to unfold inside of our supply chains in January, partly because we get much of our, not much of our supply, but an element or a key component of our supplies does come from Asia, from China, memory and other semiconductor components come from Asia. As the crisis unfolded in our supply chains, Mark Aslett appointed Amir Allahverdi, who was head of global operations, to manage our response from a business continuity perspective.

              At the time we didn’t know how the crisis would unfold in the US and what it would mean to our employees, but to be on the safe side, Mark also established the COVID-19 executive team that meets daily actually to manage the company’s overall response to the crisis. And he established a couple of really important goals at the beginning of this, that we’ve used on a daily basis to guide what we’re doing and the decision making and the discussion that we’re having around this crisis. First and foremost as he’s told the employee base a number of times, it’s really about protecting the health and safety and livelihood of our employees, which are really the heart and soul and kind of engines of the company. Number two, is to mitigate or reduce operational financial risk, really in support of that first goal around livelihood, to continue to deliver on our commitments to customers and shareholders, and then finally to deliver the mission critical work we do to the men and women in uniform really are our most important and customer for the company.

              So key to the success of these four principles are some very important cultures and values as well that we’ve found enhanced by this crisis, amazingly enough. And that’s really teamwork, communication, and the overall goal that company community wants to establish, care for each other principal. And so all of that together has created an environment where we’ve been able to manage this crisis up to this date, create some leadership in the industry, we’ve been ahead of our peers and they’ve been asking us how we’ve been doing it. And so it’s been a real honor and pleasure to have worked on this project so far.

Ralph Guevarez:

How is Mercury leveraging its approach to COVID to create its return to workplace strategy?

Ian Dunn:

Right, that’s a great question. The leadership team, when we started this, it was started as a crisis response and we adopted a terminology that it was really a sprint. And for those of you who left on a Friday and didn’t return to the facility the following Monday, it really was a sprint, right? You grabbed what you needed, the equipment, the files, the documentation, whatever you needed, and you went home with it, and many of you have been there ever since. The second phase of this, or the second period of this is really a marathon. And so Mark asked that we stand up a second task force effectively, a second group of people that we really look at this marathon phase and address the core principles that he had already established, but also work on a fifth principle then.

              And that was to foster an enduring kind of valuable legacy for the innovations that have driven us to this point, particularly the innovations in a business agility. So we’ve recognized some things that we do better now than we did before. And we want to take advantage of that and make that part of the Mercury culture going forward. Through surveys and direct feedback, we now know that this community led the way for its industry in that initial sprint period. And in many cases provided some guidance to people’s personal communities, which we find very heartening, and we want to continue that tradition and continue to pioneer a special role for Mercury in this industry, and also continue to be a leader of information for our personal communities.

Ralph Guevarez:

So let’s discuss the purpose of the task force and its desired outcomes both internally and externally. What are some of the essential principles embedded in this new Mercury operating system?

Ian Dunn:

Right, so we launched the task force really to develop a return to the workplace plan, and I’ll articulate in terms of the working groups kind of what that means. But underlying that there were four operating principles that we wanted to adopt from the operations team, which has been rolling out a new operating system for the company at the company’s manufacturing facilities. And when I say operating system, of course, as a computer scientists many know what that is. But in this case, we’re really talking about the systems, the procedures, and the people that the company uses to conduct work, uses to conduct business. And so the four principles in this Mercury operating system are the ability to target, and that is to rapidly prioritize and refine the work that individuals and teams do to always keep in front of us the most valuable opportunities for improvement, and you can imagine how valuable that would be in a time of crisis.

              The ability to flex, right? So you don’t always have the resources you need tomorrow, you need today, so you have to flex with what you have. You have to flex your systems, your people and your processes to create that, that outcome that drives future success. And that involves all the elements of your systems. So one of the fundamental key features of it is really communication. Because you have to put everything together and make people act coherently, create a systemic coherent view of what’s going on and then execute opportunities for improvement against that. And again, you can imagine how important that was in this crisis where, on an hourly basis, the view of this crisis would change. Once you’ve targeted what you want to work on, once you’ve flexed up to, to create some results, built a team around what you’re trying to accomplish, then you really move into optimization. And optimization is about making it a continuous enduring process, making it an efficient one and installing it in the system and getting adoption. And then the final dimension of these is scale. So target, flex, optimize, scale.

              With that in mind, we launched the taskforce and divided it up into seven working groups. And the seven working groups are a little bit time-based, and I’ll describe that here in a second, but these seven working groups have the principal responsibility for designing our return to work place plan over the next couple of months, to highlight and instill in the organization that the systems and procedures we will use to execute this plan and to make some of the changes enduring, and we don’t know exactly what changes yet will be in during that something that taskforce is working on.

              The two beginning work in groups are what we have named, the return to healthy facilities and the employee health wellness and prevention. These are the two foundational elements of the taskforce. Obviously our facilities, which we intend to go back to. And then the people that will be returning to them, primarily the work from home population. And so these two working groups are collaborating on that immediate plan of how to return the workforce to these facilities. Two very important, external working groups, focused on the externals are also working in coordination with these two teams. And one of them is the external benchmarking and liaison. This is the team of people that are really responsible for looking for best practices among our peers, government, industry organizations, whoever is going through the same thing we are, and of course, there’s an entire globe of companies and governments doing that. This is the group that we want to hear from, with respect to, what are the best things we could be doing that’s in line with our business, our cultures, and our values.

              The other external organization is really the government. The one that is responsible for monitoring government mandates and requirements that we have to meet in order to safely return our workforce to these buildings, to these facilities. If you shoot out a little bit ahead, and you say, once we start this process, or maybe once we’re well underway, what would we like to preserve out of this process? We’ve established two additional working groups that are forward facing. One called rebooting external experiences and the other one called the workplace of the future. These are both the groups that will chart out that enduring legacy for us, be external experiences, One is about conferences and customer interfacing and visitors, all the things that we would have done just a few months ago without a second thought now need to be reinvented, rebooted, rebooted a little bit.

              And then the workplace of the future is really the one that speaks to what the facilities look like, how employees will work inside of them. There is a one other element of the task force that’s diffused kind of across the whole task force, and that’s really the use of technology. So those are the fundamental characteristics of the seven working groups. And we’re looking already, they’re formed. The teams have been working for a couple of a weeks now, and we’ll probably start to see resuming the workplace plan coming out and start to be implemented over the next couple of weeks.

Ralph Guevarez:

Thank you, Ian, having a plan in place that will help reprioritize opportunities and discuss roadblocks is key to a successful return to the workplace. So, Ian, thank you for joining me today. Best of luck with the taskforce, and I wish you safety and good health.

Ian Dunn:

Ralph, thanks for taking the time to talk to me, stay safe, and I’ll see you soon in Andover.

Ralph Guevarez:

This has been another edition of Mercury Now. The weekly podcast brought to you by Mercury Systems. I’m your host, Ralph Guevaraez signing off.