In the wake of the new coronavirus outbreak, businesses globally are embracing remote work to ensure employee safety. Here’s what you need to know about the current situation and what some of the biggest companies are doing to mitigate their employees’ risk.
The New Coronavirus Drives Need for Remote Work
As the world anticipates the declaration of a pandemic for the new coronavirus, the business world’s cautionary response may change the way we work forever.
Join us as we take a deep dive into the new coronavirus’ effect on our workplaces, the rapid implementation of remote work internationally, and what this all means for the future of work.
The Global Situation
Now exceeding 113,000 confirmed cases and reaching nearly 4,000 deaths worldwide, the new coronavirus is a source of growing concern. The virus’ incubation period of more than 14 days and the uncertainty of all the ways the virus is spread is what experts are saying makes it so dangerous. Originating in Wuhan, China, the COVID-19 epidemic has now infected patients in more than 85 countries, and earned the title of “global health emergency” by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Outbreaks continue in China, Iran, Italy, South Korea, and Japan and the Center for Disease Control discourages any travel to these areas. While the disease is not yet widely spreading, the U.S. alone has already seen more than 500 cases and 24 deaths. Efforts to develop a way to stop the spread of the virus are in progress, but a vaccine is at least a year away.
In the United States, nearly 50% of all organizations are implementing remote work policies because of the COVID-19 epidemic, according to an employer survey by Willis Towers Watson.
The New Coronavirus and the Workplace
In response to widespread COVID-19 cases and the World Health Organization’s statement that the international crisis will inevitably become a pandemic, many businesses are conflicted with how to respond. Do they continue to require personnel to come into the office hoping the fact that none of their employees have been diagnosed with the virus is assurance that employee outputs will remain almost identical to normal, all while risking everyone’s health? After all, coronavirus’ incubation period aside, even the best healthcare systems in the world cannot prevent the spread of an infectious disease when 9 out of 10 U.S. workers continue to show up for work when ill.
Conversely, do business leaders tell everyone to telecommute, as a purely precautionary measure, yet risk hard hits to their business if staff aren’t prepared enough for remote work, technology gives out, or any other unanticipated factors impact worker results?
Does Remote Work Protect Us From COVID-19?
Unlike the typical flu, which is dangerous as well, there’s not yet a way to cure the pneumonia-causing COVID-19. The best healthcare professionals can do is treat symptoms. Since we know the virus is shared via close contact, meaning being within 6 feet of an infected person, who may or may not have symptoms, and researchers are still trying to determine whether shared surfaces can also be a point of transmission, traditional workplace offices could be extremely hazardous for employees, especially those considered high risk.
For those going into the office, the WHO stressed the importance of preventative measures, including regular hand-washing, disinfecting surfaces, coughing or sneezing into your elbow, washing clothes with warm water and remaining home when sick. The CDC also suggests routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls, etc.
Tech Companies Contribute Remote Work Essentials
As the world’s workplaces attempt a large-scale remote work contingency, U.S. technology companies Microsoft, Google, LogMeIn, Cisco Webex, and Zoom are offering free tools to help.
From video conferencing, live streaming, recorded meeting access, “Emergency Remote Toolkits” for nonprofits, schools and healthcare organizations, and toll-free dial-in meetings, businesses around the world have a better chance of “landing on their feet” after the new coronavirus crisis since remote work is an options because of these tech giants’ social responsibility efforts.
Videoconferencing giant Zoom has even extended its free plan to China, allowing unlimited meeting times and breakout rooms.
Although goodwill is appreciated and ideal, most people recognize “free” is rarely free. Many of these free technology downloads are trials, which users must remember to cancel in order to avoid charges. Be sure to read the privacy statements and “terms and conditions” in detail before agreeing to your download. To further protect your privacy and devices, make sure you scan all downloads with a credible security software or application.
With frequented spaces being portrayed as a breeding ground for infectious disease, many businesses are opting to have employees work remotely. Here you’ll find some of the most notable U.S.-based businesses choosing this solution and details about their decisions.
Prominent U.S.-Based Companies Encouraging Remote Work During COVID-19
Locations Impacted: Seattle, San Francisco Bay, China, South Korea
Headquartered in Seattle, Washington, which has been deemed the U.S. epicenter of the new coronavirus, Microsoft asked all its Seattle (54,000 individuals) and San Francisco employees to work from home until at least March 25. Company President Brad Smith wrote in a blog post that Microsoft recognizes the hardship lost work can mean for hourly employees and emphasized that the company will take care of its people.
“This will ensure that, in Puget Sound for example, the 4,500 hourly employees who work in our facilities will continue to receive their regular wages even if their work hours are reduced,” Smith wrote.
Microsoft offices abroad were advised in a company email, viewed by The Seattle Times as follows:
- China: Half of Microsoft sites in mainland China, where case numbers are beginning to decrease, are now open, with limited services. Employees in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao also have the option to work from home.
- Japan: It is recommended that employees work remotely.
- South Korea: Employees were directed to work from home.
Locations Impacted: Seattle, Bellevue
After an Amazon employee tested positive for COVID-19, the company issued a statement recommending its employees in Seattle and Bellevue, who are able to work from home, do so through the end of March.
Locations Impacted: Seattle, San Francisco, China, Japan, South Korea
In a March 1 blog post, Twitter announced it is strongly encouraging all “employees globally to work from home, if able.” For employees in China, Japan, and South Korea, remote working is currently mandatory, “due in part to government restrictions.” On March 6, the company tweeted a Seattle-based employee is awaiting final testing to confirm a highly likely diagnosis of COVID-19, adding that the employee has not been in the Seattle office for several weeks, but they are closing the location to do a precautionary deep clean.
“We are operating out of an abundance of caution and the utmost dedication to keeping our Tweeps healthy,” said Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s head of human resources on the company’s March 1 blog post.
Locations Impacted: Seattle, San Francisco Bay
At the start of last week, Google gave its more than 4,500 employees the option to work remotely. Now, the company is requesting all employees in Washington and the San Francisco Bay area who can work remotely, do so. Additionally, the company stressed it will continue to pay its hourly service vendors, who cannot work from home. Google has more than 70 offices in 50 countries.
In a series of emails sent to employees and first viewed by CNBC, Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, and CFO, Ruth Porat, acknowledged the infection of a Zurich employee and told employees it is important they approach the situation with calm and responsibility, noting Google has an important role to play. This was likely partially in reference to Google’s commitment to dispelling miscommunication during the virus. They also informed employees to be vigilant about preparations for remote work.
“Given the dynamic nature of the COVID-19 epidemic, everyone should be prepared to work from home unexpectedly,” Porat said “Take your laptop home every night.”
In a blog based on an update email sent Friday, March 6, Pichai called the virus “an unprecedented moment,” and people are turning to Google to remain productive while working and learning remotely.
“We’re also trying to build resilience into our operations—and our products—by testing our own capacity to work remotely,” Pichai wrote. “And it is also important to think about how we can help our local communities as we make these changes.”
Locations Impacted: Seattle, Silicon Valley
Following the positive diagnosis of a contractor at Facebook, the company is encouraging all Seattle employees to work remotely through the end of March. Based on Santa Clara County’s March 5 advice, Facebook is “strongly recommending that all Bay Area employees and contingent staff work from home.”
Ahead of the game of preparing for more wide scale telecommuting, Facebook held a March 4 training session for managers regarding how to supervise teams of remote workers.
Locations Impacted: Indeed has 9,500 employees worldwide, with offices in Austin, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Amsterdam, London, Paris, and Tokyo.
Job-search behemoth Indeed sent an email March 3 asking all employees to work from home until further notice.
“Our goal is to minimize the risk to employees and help to lower the probability of the spread of the virus to you, your families, and the communities where we operate,” the email read.
While neither Indeed nor the surrounding area of its main offices have seen any COVID-19 cases, the company has chosen to “act out of an abundance of caution.”
We are well equipped to continuously serve our job seekers and our clients in a remote work environment,” the company said, We are constantly evaluating this evolving situation and adjusting tactics based on new information to keep you safe.
Locations Impacted: Bay Area
LinkedIn is recommending its 5,500 employees in the Bay Area work remotely until the end of March, a spokesperson told Business Insider.
Jon Addison, vice president of talent solutions at LinkedIn, said businesses should be prepared for this type of emergency, explaining that they will inevitably find it more and more difficult to sustain “business as usual,” if they lack the technology required to work remotely or implement flexible working policies. He believes COVID-19 will be a necessary “wake-up call” for these organizations.
Locations Impacted: San Jose
Videoconferencing leader Zoom is requesting San Jose-based employees work from home for the time being, citing concerns about the new coronavirus.
Since the start of the COVID-19, Zoom’s stock has been climbing. Business Insider attributes this to the expectation that many more people will have video software needs for remote work in the midst of the new coronavirus.
Remote Work Around the World During The Novel Coronavirus
Before the new coronavirus, China lagged behind many other developed countries in remote work, a Market Watch article claims. Given its counter-normative relationship with the culture’s views on supervisory roles, this isn’t largely surprising. However, as the center of the new coronavirus outbreak, China’s streets have stood still since mid-January. With more than 80,000 cases and 3,000 deaths on the books currently, millions of Chinese citizens are still working remotely.
According to Baidu, which operates China’s largest search engine, and The South China Morning Post, online searches for ‘telecommuting’ have surged to 6.25 times the norm, as the more than 60 percent of Chinese companies with most employees still working from home try to navigate all of the nuances between office-based and remote work. Some are coining the rapid shift from office-based to remote work the largest work-from-home experiment.
Similar to any country adapting to telework, China has experienced its share of technical and relational snags. Li Min, a self-employed writer in Chengdu, China confirmed the cultural expectations to Market Watch.
“In China, if the boss is paying you money, he wants to see you working in front of him,” she said. “If they pay you money, they buy you.”
A China technology reporter on Quartz at Work interviewed Chinese workers about their experiences with this enormous and rapid work-mode change.
The reporter describes how some workers detailed “ad hoc surveillance measures” they were being “subjected to.” She also addresses the role low-trust plays in China’s remote work challenges.
While most commenters described companies working hard to find balance between supervision and micromanaging in a remote environment, there were some more maladaptive stories:
- “I am so mad. My supervisor asked me to send them a selfie every half an hour, and share my real-time location with them using WeChat…I suspect my manager doesn’t really trust me. What should I do?” user Chen Renyi posted, according to the article.
- “An employee who claimed to work for Meituan Dianping…complained in a post that they were asked by their department to keep cameras switched on to live stream” the reporter wrote.
Among the well-known Chinese companies asking all employees to work remotely are DDD Online and Beijing Chukong Technology, Alibaba, DJI, and DingTalk.
Recent numbers show a slow in the spread of the disease within China, but it is unknown how long it will be before the Chinese workplace returns to its face-to-face dominated daily grind.
With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games still on track for June, tensions are high in Japan to protect its residents but also to save face in order to maintain the world’s confidence that it’s safe for thousands of athletes and tourists to arrive this summer.
As a result, many Japanese companies are relying on remote work to keep employees well, especially given the country’s heavy use of public transportation to get individuals to their offices. A few of these companies include Shiseido cosmetics, NTT, Hitachi, and Dentsu Group, Inc., which had already developed a program allowing workers with small children to telecommute.
Japan’s labor ministry is providing substantial subsidies to small and medium-sized enterprises in order to cover half the cost of introducing telecommute systems to their firms.
Prior to the spread of the new coronavirus, remote work made big strides in Japan. In fact, the country’s goal for Tokyo is to make telework enough of a norm that upcoming Olympic events will not suffer from overpopulation.
While the government has made clear pushes for Japan’s remote work immersion, not everyone is in support.
“Japanese practice is that people go to work,” said Hiroyuki Noda, a councilor at the Cabinet Secretariat, and charged with the fight against infectious diseases, told the Washington Post. “Whether that can be changed—well that may be a challenging thing.”
An article authored by The Japan Times Editorial Board also brings attention to the remote work dissonance.
One welcome by-product of the crisis is that work-style reform is getting a much-needed boost because more companies are encouraging their employees to telework,” the board writes. “This presents a great opportunity to change the nation’s archaic corporate culture, which demands high loyalty and long working hours from workers. If telecommuting becomes the norm, employees will be able to spend much more time with their families and, most importantly, fathers will be able to spend more time participating in child care.”
Despite a huge spike in COVID-19 cases, major South Korean electronic companies Samsung and LG told employees only pregnant women and individuals whose children’s daycares and schools have been closed can work from home.
“South Korea’s corporate culture—that deems working while sick a virtue—pushes ill employees to show up at the office,” Choi Eun-hwa, professor of pediatrics at Seoul National University College of Medicine, told The Washington Post.
Although Park Won-soon, Seoul’s mayor, asked companies for a two-week “pause,” only some companies are listening.
How to Stay Productive With Remote Work During The Novel Coronavirus
Working at home is always an adjustment. Add in a global epidemic and kids who are tired of being cooped up and you’ve got yourself a real challenge. Fortunately, you’re not alone. In fact, people have been working from home, even with kids, for decades.
If you’re having trouble focusing or concentrating on remote work during the new coronavirus, try these five tips:
- Create and follow a daily routine.
- Establish a home office, even if you have to get creative. Choose the most private and quiet location possible, and only use the space for work.
- Take breaks where you give the kids attention. That way they won’t need it so much when you return to your work, and you can check in on them.
- Get dressed for work everyday. The pajamas aren’t a smart move. This also minimizes germs!
- Eat foods that are the healthiest for you. They give you energy and protect your immune system. With so much sickness going around, you can never be too careful.
Expert Tips on Remote Work Management During the New Coronavirus Crisis
Virtual Vocations CEO, Laura Spawn, has more than 10 years experience managing employees remotely. Spawn suggests professionals who have been launched into remote supervisory roles with little time to prepare rely on establishing priorities and focusing on results-oriented tasks with hard deadlines.
“Try instituting a morning video meeting so your whole team maintains communication with each other during this time of upheaval in everyone’s daily work routines,” Spawn said. “Employees are likely to feel off task and distracted if they are suddenly required to work from home, managers can help by setting up daily check-ins with direct reports, establishing a response time expectation applicable to every team member, and having daily office hours where you are reachable for questions and concerns.”
While not every company and culture is ecstatic over remote work, many are embracing the opportunity to test out their remote work systems. The crisis has create picture of what it will look like for many companies to have a large remote workforce. Uber’s senior Vice President, Andrew Macdonald, puts it well in his memo: “Much of this situation is new—not only for Uber, but for the world,” MacDonald said. “We won’t get everything right from the start.”
So what does this sudden thrust into remote technology and culture mean for the future of work once this devastating epidemic dies down?
Virtual Vocations’ Laura Spawn, who has more than 20 years of experience with telecommuting, expects companies needing to evaluate their current remote capabilities will lead to some changes.
“Undoubtedly, the new coronavirus will bring awareness to the viability of remote work for many businesses that have not implemented work-from-home policies and options for their employees until forced to do so by the current situation,” Spawn said.
Similarly, Twitter’s head of human resources, Jennifer Christie, told BuzzFeed work will never be the same. “People who were reticent to work remotely will find that they really thrive that way,” Christie said. “Managers who didn’t think they could manage teams that were remote will have a different perspective. I do think we won’t go back.”
iStock Photo Credit: filadendron
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