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The tech industry’s early work-from-home mandates helped California and Washington flatten the curve

Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc., left, speaks as Marc Benioff, chairman and co-chief executive officer of Salesforce.com Inc., listens during a keynote at the 2019 DreamForce conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

On March 19, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a statewide shelter-in-place order to stem the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee followed four days later.

While they were moving aggressively relative to the rest of the country, the top employers in their states were weeks ahead of them.

Twitter was the first to move, strongly encouraging its nearly 5,000 employees to work from home on March 1, because of the rapidly spreading coronavirus, and making the order mandatory on March 11. Amazon told its roughly 50,000 Seattle-area employees on March 4 to work from home if they could. Facebook informed its Bay Area workers the next day that it was “strongly recommending” they work remotely. Over the next week, Google, Microsoft and Salesforce mostly emptied out, keeping about 200,000 people away from the office.

Tech has taken a beating in recent years as critics have attacked the industry’s growing power, privacy abuses and executive malfeasance. But the industry’s early social-distancing moves are a big reason that California and Washington, two early U.S. hotspots of virus outbreak, have bent the infection curve while other states are deep in crisis.

“lt comes down to a real sense of civic responsibility,” said Amy Weaver, Salesforce’s president of legal and corporate affairs and general counsel. “If we’ve got the ability to work from home and save lives we’ve got to be doing that.”

In California, Covid-19 has killed two people for every 100,000 residents, and in Washington the number is eight, according to data collected by the New York Times. Both states are seeing a slowdown in the number of new cases. New York, meanwhile is at almost 60 coronavirus deaths per 100,000 people, New Jersey is over 35 and Louisiana and Connecticut have reached 24.

Early government moves on the West Coast helped, such as banning large gatherings and closing schools. But tech companies led the way in getting people to stay home.

Steve Grobman, chief technology officer of security software vendor McAfee, says the industry was able to respond because it’s been spearheading the move to a world of cloud computing and collaboration, enabling people to work from anywhere and on a multitude of devices.

By contrast, banks in New York, auto companies in Detroit, and big retailers, energy producers and food producers in other regions don’t have the same luxury. The same is true for Amazon’s hundreds of thousands of warehouse workers.

“The Bay Area is largely a digital economy and digital workplace,” said Grobman, who’s based in Plano, Texas, but supports about 400 of the company’s employees in and around Silicon Valley. “Workers were largely familiar with remote working technology and businesses were well-suited to run many aspects of their business remotely.”

Salesforce saw what Trump missed

For Salesforce, the problem started to become clear in late January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, said Weaver, who attended along with about a dozen other company executives, including CEO Marc Benioff. Panels were beginning late, she said, because leaders from various parts of the world were taking calls about the coronavirus, which at the time was centered in China.

President Trump said not to worry. In response to a question on Jan. 22, about the coronavirus, Trump told CNBC in Davos that, “We have it totally under control” and “it’s going to be just fine.”

Weaver was seeing something different.

“I got the sense something was going on even though it wasn’t in the headlines at that point,” Weaver said.

By Feb. 10, Salesforce had a steering committee meeting daily, and nine days later the company canceled a big event scheduled for March in Sydney and made it virtual-only. Then came an end to non-essential travel and handshakes. Finally, on March 7, employees were asked to work from home.

Of Salesforce’s 50,000 employees, more than 7,000 are in San Francisco. It also has a large presence in Seattle after the company’s acquisition of Tableau Software last year. 

Hundreds of miles to the north of Salesforce’s headquarters, Challenge Seattle, an alliance of 19 CEOs from the city’s top employers, convened a dinner on Feb. 25, to discuss how to take unified action. It was four days before Washington state officials confirmed the first U.S. death from coronavirus, a man in his 50s in the Seattle area.

Former Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, CEO of Challenge Seattle, said the group snapped into action right away, putting health experts out front in regular briefings to describe the severity of the coronavirus, which blew up in Seattle with an outbreak at a senior center. Executives from Microsoft and Starbucks also detailed what they experienced at their operations in China.

On March 4, Microsoft encouraged employees in the Seattle region and Bay Area to work from home. 

“When the larger employers did so, the medium-sized to small businesses began to follow suit,” Gregoire said. “No-one here doesn’t think that has contributed significantly to why our curve really flattened faster than anybody anticipated.”

Gregoire calls the collaboration between corporate executives and government leaders the “most heartwarming thing I’ve ever seen” in terms of public-private partnership. For example, when the National Guard said it was having trouble getting and distributing personal protective equipment (PPE), Challenge Seattle put out a call and got experts from Microsoft and Amazon to run the process for the state, she said.

Gregoire said Challenge Seattle is still leading daily calls with experts, and on Wednesday 200 people joined.

Richard ‘Rich’ Barton, co-founder and CEO of Zillow Inc.

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Real estate marketplace Zillow is one of the group’s members. In late February, the company put together a taskforce to meet daily and prepare its facilities, human resources, communications, operations and finance teams for what was coming. 

The company asked all employees to cancel non-essential travel on March 1, and Zillow CEO Rich Barton opted not to attend Morgan Stanley’s technology conference in San Francisco the next day, dialing in instead. A couple days later, on March 4, it recommended that 2,500 employees in Seattle and 400-plus in San Francisco work from home.

“We feel that we certainly took action as quickly as possible,” said Dawn Lyon, Zillow’s chief corporate relations officer, adding that it took longer for the company to shut down other parts of the business in markets where conditions were different. In Seattle and the Bay Area, “talking to government and city officials and working in collaboration with other businesses was super helpful,” she said.

Lyon said Zillow learned of its first known Covid-19 infection two weeks ago and that there haven’t been many within the company.

Joseph Ansanelli is still in the early stages of building his San Francisco-based company Gladly, which sells customer service software. He sent his 100 employees home the first week in March.

Ansanelli, who was previously a venture capitalist at Greylock Partners, suggested tech executives were quick to act partly because the industry appreciates scientific data and understands the concept of viral growth. Businesses like Facebook, LinkedIn and Airbnb (all Greylock companies) took off because one person who liked the service would tell three people who would each tell three more. Tech investors compare the phenomenon to an infectious virus for a reason.

“We understood theories of virality, not from a medical standpoint but from a growth standpoint,” Ansanelli said. “We said this may be in the early stages, but this thing grows geometrically, and in a week it’s going to be really bad.”

Trying to reboot

Saving lives, however, is very different than saving the economy.

Tech start-ups in Northern California and the Seattle area are getting battered with layoffs, particularly for companies tied to travel, tourism and mobility. A website, Layoffs.fyi, was created to track job cuts at start-ups. Since March 11, the site says, 253 companies have eliminated over 24,600 positions, and many more are expected. Even Google is slowing hiring for the rest of the year.

But because of the effective shelter-in-place efforts, the West Coast is now mapping out a plan for restarting the economy. On Monday, Newsom, Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced a regional partnership to coordinate their efforts, and on Tuesday, Newsom outlined six indicators that will guide California’s decision. They include the ability to protect residents through testing, the health system’s ability to handle a possible surge, the development of therapeutics and the ability for businesses and schools to implement physical distancing. 

As government leaders start planning to reopen, tech companies that switched quickly into remote mode can take their time returning to the office, and can even become more flexible as they look to the future. 

Outreach, which sells software for salespeople, started sending its 450 employees home on March 2, the morning after CEO Manny Medina returned from a trip to the U.K. 

“We made it not a hard stop, but you have to have a damn good reason for coming to the office,” said Medina. 

Outreach CEO Manny Medina

Outreach

He’s since been holding office hours on Zoom multiple times a week, inviting employees to ask about anything — personal or business-related. The Seattle-based company has continued to on-board new hires as well, bringing in more than 50 employees this week. All of them are working remotely.

Seeing how the business keeps chugging along, Medina is now considering ways he can be more efficient.

“If I don’t have to spend on real estate, that’s very attractive,” he said.

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