Scott Fortlage, director at pharmaceutical giant Genentech, talks about management and motivation of employees during COVID-19

Interview by Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly

We live in difficult times and it is hard to find the balance between staying at home, avoiding the virus and saving lives, and keeping the business running, saving our companies and employees. This was the topic of my conversation with Mr. Scott Fortlage, one of the directors of Genentech Inc. in San Francisco, CA.

Every company and organization is suffering at the moment. What recommendations can you give us for motivating the staff and surviving?

These are challenging times and a true test of one’s personnel and professional character and resilience. With so many different work conditions occurring, the one thing I can say that is common for our survival, is to remember the entire world is going through this and having empathy and understanding for your colleagues is vital. Remember there may be unseen benefit and areas for opportunity during this time of uncertainty. If your business is considered “essential” and continues to stay open, it is obviously a bit easier to motivate employees. Challenging them to innovate with new ways of working and perhaps finding a niche to help support COVID-19 response provides a sense of community and humanitarian support. Also, revisiting the company’s vision and mission will help focus attention on why the work they are performing is so important. Lastly, as a senior leader, I believe it’s incumbent on me to spend extra time (virtually) with each of my employees and connect with them on a more personal level. By doing this, I’m able to provide immediate guidance, recognition and motivation which otherwise would not be so deliberate in our normal business operation situation.

How do you expect that companies and organizations will have to adjust to a new reality: the desire for their employees to continue to work at home after the pandemic is over? (Avoidance of commuting, flexibility in working time, etc.)

This situation could most definitely create a fundamental and permanent shift in how and where employees work. Many businesses such as tech, already accommodate a work from home (WFH) structure and I know of some tech companies here in Silicon Valley have already extended their WFH arrangement through September 2020. For us at the Genentech site in San Francisco, a WFH policy has been in place for many years for employees who are in roles not requiring on-site work execution. We consider this a privilege and have worked hard to ensure employee productivity and business continuity are maintained. If companies want (or need) to develop a WFH policy, there are a few essential elements that need consideration. First, develop a policy that outlines the guidelines and expectations; second, ensure your employees have the proper tools to be productive (e.g., ergonomics, conductivity, dedicated space, technology, etc.); third, on-site work should be balanced with working from home to ensure employees do not lose connection with the business and their colleagues.  At first, managing staff who work remotely can be challenging and, honestly, not everyone will find it appealing. However, once things settle into place, you’ll find that employees can thrive, be very productive and ultimately appreciate the flexibility.

How has shelter-in-place affected managers’ ability to “manage”? Has technology – like “Zoom” – produced more benefits or more problems?

Speaking from my personal experience, it has been a short learning curve to manage 100% remotely. Technology has certainly made it easier, but like anything else, it takes a while to get comfortable and efficient. Fortunately for us, we were already working in an environment that supports remote work so most of the tools were already deployed and stable. The entire Roche network uses the Google suite of tools, which provides immediate on-screen collaboration for programs such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint. Google Hangouts is used for all face-time meetings. Probably the biggest technology issue was bandwidth for our secure network login, which has mostly been resolved 4 weeks into the shelter-in-place.

The remote work situation has also provided windows into our colleagues’ personal lives, which has been very fun and interesting. I have seen my colleagues’ partners and children, homes, and animals. We see each other without make-up or our hair combed and in our favorite cozy sweater. This is all ok, and it is this authentic interaction that has deepened our relationships and allowed more personal disclosure in a safe and supported environment. Because of this, we will all be closer colleagues and potentially a bit more understanding of one another when we get back to “normal”.

Have you been able to measure the effect on corporate productivity of people working for technology companies from home? If productivity has been unaffected, what do companies do with all their physical space being now unused? 

We have prioritized the work we perform and concentrated on our primary mission, which is to supply lifesaving medicines to patients. Since Roche and Genentech are considered an “essential business”, this has not stopped and we continue to evaluate current and upcoming campaigns to ensure the supply chain is not interrupted. Therefore, from that perspective, productivity has not been impacted. There are, however, departments that have slowed their work but I believe it is too early to calculate the true impact on productivity.

How has Genentech been able to blend successfully its mission and focus with Roche, the company that acquired Genentech, particularly when trying to address answers to a pandemic like COVID-19? Who does what?

Roche wholly purchased Genentech in 2009, but Roche had been invested in Genentech since 1989 in a minority stake. For the first few years after the buyout it was like any new marriage, it had its challenges. Intrinsically, the mission and vision of both companies were never too far apart and Roche and Genentech have worked hard to embrace and leverage each other’s strengths and create robust business partnerships and efficiencies. Genentech discovers and produces biologic therapeutics for unmet medical needs using protein-based cell culture and bacteria (large molecule), where Roche’s drugs are primarily chemical based small molecule. Roche also develops and manufactures diagnostics and drug devices, which Genentech does not.

In support of the COVID-19 situation, Roche developed, manufactured and distributed millions of the high-speed reliable virus tests in record time, while one of Genentech’s drugs, Actemra, is currently in late stage clinical trials to determine if it can be used to treat people suffering from severe pneumonia caused by the virus. Additionally, many of our discovery scientists have been using their discretionary time to research new treatments to combat COVID-19.

How do you envisage life after COVID-19? What can we learn from this crisis, what conclusions can we draw?

It will not be overnight, but the world will transition back to a stable way of life. The pandemic has been a true resiliency test of health care systems, supply chain logistics, and our personal lives. I’m hopeful individuals and businesses will be better prepared for future events, which may alleviate some of the “panic” behaviors we’ve seen, at least in the United States. Unfortunately, many small businesses have not or will not survive, but with that comes opportunity. People who lost their jobs will eventually get back to work and help contribute to a stable society and economy. We may see “new norms” around social interaction and messaging about healthy behaviors.

I think people will, hopefully not just for the near term, appreciate the things they have, understanding they don’t need as much as they think, and actually realize the fundamental things needed to survive and be happy. I see and experience all types of kindness in my community right now, and my hope is that we can carry that kindness and empathy into the future. For me personally, this time has helped me slow down, reflect and spend some quality time with my family – which I will never forget.

Mr. Fortlage, thank you for this interview!

Scott Fortlage is an established Facility and Compliance leader with expert level GMP, quality systems knowledge and a history of driving a culture of quality within biotech organizations. Rooted in maintenance and facilities, he has three decades of experience building strong teams capable of designing, implementing and overseeing efficient and effective GMP maintenance systems and processes in accordance with global standards leveraging risk management principles. Having a profoundly rewarding mentee experience early in his career, Scott is passionate and takes great care regarding people development, and truly believes the organizations’ primary and most valuable asset are the employees. Scott focuses on situational learning and mentoring and strives to develop his staff and other employees to become star players in competitive environments. Specialties: Pharmaceutical Quality Systems, auditing programs, compliance consultation, inspection preparation and management. Excellent mentor with strong leadership and collaborations skills. Excellent business process development skills. Lean/Six Sigma facilitator. 

Current position: Genentech Inc, Facilities Compliance Director, South San Francisco, CA

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