SEATTLE — Microsoft’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, was at home, relaxing after a trip to India and Indonesia, when he started seeing news alerts on his phone.
About 10 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 29, local officials said a man in Kirkland had become the first known person in the United States to die from the coronavirus. Then came news that more than 50 people associated with a long-term care facility nearby were also sick.
For Nadella, the 52-year-old executive credited with turning around Microsoft’s slumping business, the news was personally alarming. His son has cerebral palsy, which weakens his immune system.
“We essentially have a nursing home at home,” Nadella said. “It struck me as this is a real issue for many of us, and in our own community.”
Four days later, he and his executive team told tens of thousands of Microsoft employees in the Seattle area that they could work at home. The day after that, they insisted that workers work from home, making the software giant one of the first major employers in the United States to do so.
More than 40,000 employees are usually on Microsoft’s main campus each day. By the end of last week, that number had dropped below 5,000. Globally, the company is asking employees to work from home only where health officials recommend it (and that is the case now in a number of countries).
The blunt conversations among Microsoft’s executives were a harbinger of what has been occurring inside the executive suites of America’s biggest employers. Can their businesses — and technical infrastructure — continue to operate if the office is closed? And does the public health risk of bringing large groups together, possibly aiding the spread of the coronavirus, outweigh any business discussions?
Around the country, professional sports leagues have canceled their seasons. Airlines have trimmed staff and cut routes. The jubilant tech campuses in Silicon Valley have been largely vacated.
Microsoft’s executives saw it all coming more than two weeks ago. With its headquarters in Redmond, Microsoft’s executives and employees worked and lived near the first major coronavirus outbreak in the United States.
They were seeing firsthand what people in other parts of the country would experience in the coming weeks. Day by day, the number of local people who contracted the virus was rising. Streets had emptied out. Seattle-area schools closed for at least six weeks.
“You have the outbreak in the nursing center, and you had indications that it was actually coming to Puget Sound,” said Kurt DelBene, a senior executive who has overseen the response. “From that point forward, we were meeting every day, constantly.”
Nadella, DelBene and three other Microsoft executives directly involved in the company’s decision-making spoke with The New York Times last week.
Other giant, Seattle-area employers have faced similarly difficult choices. Before officials announced a virus-related death in America, Amazon was one of the first large companies in the country to halt nonessential domestic travel, and has created a fund for infected gig workers and other contractors who deliver packages. It is also giving grants to small businesses that depend on foot traffic by its headquarters staff. Boeing has worked to keep its production lines open even as more than a dozen members of its workforce have tested positive.
“We are dealing with the most serious outbreak of COVID-19 anywhere in the nation,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine,, when he called on employers to encourage staff to telecommute on March 4. “Our actions are forming the model that will be followed in other parts of the country.”
More than a supply chain problem
Until the outbreak in Kirkland, the coronavirus had largely been a supply-chain problem for Microsoft, related to the Chinese factories that produce personal computers and Microsoft devices. It caused enough of a disruption to the company that in late February, Microsoft told investors that sales would fall short of its estimates.
That changed on Feb. 29. By 4 p.m., Nadella and his leadership team were on a call, trying to make sense of the news.
“This was all unfolding in real time,” Nadella recalled in a recent video conference from his office.
Microsoft’s sheer size meant its decisions reached beyond its own workforce, he said. Act too rashly and it could cause panic. But by retrenching, Microsoft could help the safety of a whole community, particularly people at high risk like his son.
On the call, Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, said he was concerned that the mysterious spread of a virus was the kind of issue that could lead smart people, without expertise, to make poor decisions.
“I said, ‘This is interesting, but none of us have a Ph.D. in public health,’ ” Smith said. “At that point, Colleen said, ‘Well, actually you all don’t really know me, but I have a Ph.D. in public health.’ ”
Colleen Daly, an in-house specialist who works to improve the health of Microsoft’s workforce, had been asked to join the call. Nadella had never met or talked with Daly before.
While on a ski slope in Canada, she contacted people she knew at Seattle-King County Public Health. She quickly learned the outbreak was centered on the nursing home facility.
“I was able to really help the senior leadership team understand the situation and kind of bring down the alarm a little bit,” Daly said.
Having that bit of expertise was invaluable. “She was able to ground us in all of what is the fact and the data,” Nadella said. The company’s senior leaders decided to stick to public health guidance.
That night, they emailed employees with a simple update: They should stay home if they were sick, and health officials did not have indications that there was wide community transmission of the virus.
A cascade of decisions
On Sunday, a day later, as officials announced a second death and that a quarter of Kirkland’s firefighters were quarantined because they had been to the nursing home, Microsoft’s leaders talked with executives at other companies.
Amy Hood, Microsoft’s finance chief, spoke with Luca Maestri, her counterpart at Apple. And Smith and others joined an evening call with executives across the region organized by Challenge Seattle, a group whose corporate members employ more than a quarter of a million people locally. The executives promised to share their plans in advance so other companies could consider doing the same.
Over the next several days, the senior team met nightly. Daly started each briefing with two PowerPoint slides that showed data on the growing infections from the virus and changes to public health recommendations.
Soon after, Amazon would confirm that an employee at its Seattle headquarters had contracted the virus, and Microsoft would have two employees in the area test positive as well. Smith spoke with Amazon’s general counsel, David Zapolsky, swapping announcements they had planned to release.
Microsoft scaled back travel, stocked up on equipment to let more employees work from home and canceled events. DelBene capped each day with an email to employees with the latest information.
Smith said Microsoft had gotten advance notice that on Wednesday, March 4, local officials would recommend telecommuting and other forms of social distancing, such as telling people 60 or over to stay home. At the time, they were the most sweeping measures in the county. That was when Microsoft issued its own guidance, and the mass exodus from the headquarters began.
The next morning, Smith said, they realized the reverberations of that decision: 4,500 hourly workers who supported the campus were no longer needed as the headquarters turned into a ghost town. Hood figured out what it would cost to still pay them, and Smith discussed the idea on a call with other executives hosted by Challenge Seattle.
“It was apparent from the reaction on the call that if we went quickly, we’d give air cover to other employers who are trying to make a similar decision,” Smith said. “Amy and I said, ‘Well, let’s go.’ We talked with Satya. He said, ‘By all means, go.’ ” They wrote a blog post and put it online 90 minutes later.
As working from home kicked in, the executives tracked how many times engineers submitted changes to the computer code the company uses — a proxy for productivity. After a small dip the first day when most people left the office, their pace rebounded.
Employees who had to go in — to monitor a data center, or perform certain cybersecurity tasks — still did.
The virus continued to spread. Last Wednesday afternoon, several major school districts in the region announced that they were closing the next morning. A little after 10 p.m., DelBene emailed employees. Parents could get an additional two weeks of paid time off, he said, if they couldn’t work from home because they needed to watch their children.
“This has been a test, and continues to be a test,” Nadella said. “But, you know, we’re working through it.”