Workplace vs. Coronavirus: ‘No One Has a Playbook for This’

SAN FRANCISCO — At Facebook on Thursday, the questions from spooked workers got here thick and quick.

The night earlier than, the social community had disclosed that the coronavirus had been identified in a contractor in its Seattle workplace and had stated all workers in that metropolis ought to earn a living from home till March 31.

Other Facebook workers, a few of whom had not too long ago traveled for work, quickly started asking their managers and each other: Who was the contractor? Had that particular person been close to them? And what did that imply for their work?

That similar alarm has now unfold by way of different firms all over the world, regardless of escalating efforts by lots of the corporations to cope with disruptions from the coronavirus outbreak that began in China. Microsoft, Amazon, Ford Motor, CNN, Citigroup and Twitter have put workers by way of work-from-home drills, dusted off emergency-response plans and ordered more and more stringent security measures to guard their staff.

Even so, the coronavirus has moved quicker than their preparations. Amazon stated this week that two workers in Europe, who had been in Milan, had been contaminated with the virus and that one worker at its Seattle headquarters had examined optimistic for it. HSBC stated on Thursday that the coronavirus had been identified in an worker at its international headquarters in London. And AT&T stated a retail worker at certainly one of its shops in San Diego had examined optimistic.

“Could it be true?” he wrote. “FWIW,” he noted, the corporate emails telling employees to work from home “don’t mention that NO Microsoft employees had been infected.”

Frank Shaw, Microsoft’s chief spokesman, said the company was not aware of any verified cases in its work force. He said Microsoft had tried to communicate clearly to its employees that “we are using the advice being given from local officials and public health officials.”

Inside Amazon, while some workers emailed each other about whether masks provide effective protection, many were scrambling to deal with business problems caused by the virus, according to four employees, who were not authorized to speak publicly. Those included whether Amazon will have enough products to offer for Prime Day, its summer sale event, or have enough drivers to handle a surge in online grocery orders as the virus spreads.

The depth of employee anxiety has forced senior executives to take calming measures. Uber sent out a memo to staff on Wednesday saying it had formed an internal task force to handle its response to the virus, according to a copy viewed by The Times.

The ride-hailing company urged employees to have empathy for one another, to make “data-driven decisions” and to restrict all nonessential travel until April. Uber added that it was working with an epidemiology consultant for further guidance.

“Much of this situation is new — not only for Uber, but for the world,” Andrew MacDonald, a senior vice president at Uber, wrote in the memo. “We won’t get everything right from the start.”

At its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Google also increased the amount of hand sanitizer available to employees, putting it in conference rooms and kitchen areas.

Other companies have tightened their travel restrictions. Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase have said senior managers must approve international business trips. Walmart said on Thursday that employees could travel internationally only for “business-critical trips” and that it was limiting their travel to conferences and trade shows in the United States. And at CNN, the chief executive officer has begun personally vetting all intercontinental travel.

How companies have altered their response to the coronavirus over time has been evident with Twitter. On Sunday, the San Francisco social media company said it was suspending all nonessential travel for employees. A day later, it encouraged all of its employees — it has just over 5,000 — to work from home if they were able to.

Then on Thursday, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, appeared at a financial conference in San Francisco and said he was rethinking a plan he had formulated to work remotely from Africa for three to six months this year.

“Everything happening in the world, particularly with coronavirus, I have to reconsider what’s going on and what that means for me and for our company,” said Mr. Dorsey, who is also facing a challenge from activist investors.

The measures that companies are taking in response to the virus may shift workplace behavior over the long term. Telecommuting, which has been in and out of favor for decades, may become more ingrained. The use of digital tools for remote collaboration may also rise.

Yet in the near term, having workers stay home could be devastating for some smaller businesses. Robert Luft, who runs a company in Cincinnati that installs technology in health care facilities and distribution centers, said an outbreak that prevented his technicians from showing up to work would put his business in a precarious situation.

“If it’s unsafe for people to have them on site, that definitely impacts my business,” Mr. Luft said. “Unfortunately there isn’t any type of contingency plan.”

At Facebook, the company has been working on contingency plans for the impact of the coronavirus since January. Executives have tried to walk the line of hewing closely to advice from public health officials while trying not to cause a panic among employees, two Facebook employees said.

The social network quickly canceled its participation in a half-dozen events — from its annual F8 developer conference to its presence at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas — and has worked to use its products to help health experts study the spread of the virus. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said in a post this week that the company was giving unlimited free Facebook ads to the World Health Organization to distribute information to users.

When one of its contractors was found to have the virus on Wednesday, Facebook shut down two of its four offices in the Seattle area — in Bellevue and Redmond — for a deep cleaning, according to two employees.

An Amazon employee who was later found to have the virus had also separately visited one of Facebook’s Seattle offices last month, prompting fresh concerns among employees. Facebook said it had carried out “targeted deep cleaning and enhanced sanitation measures” at the office building that the Amazon employee visited.

The company has also tried to keep its 44,000 employees sticking to business as usual. On Wednesday, it held a training session for managers on how to supervise teams of remote workers, the two employees said. And the social network was staying on course with a weekly question-and-answer session led by Mr. Zuckerberg on Thursday, which would be live streamed from Facebook’s Silicon Valley headquarters.

Mike Isaac reported from San Francisco, David Yaffe-Bellany from New York, and Karen Weise from Seattle. Reporting was contributed by Kate Conger, Michael Grynbaum, Michael Corkery, Geneva Abdul and Iliana Magra.

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