As King County officials prepared to recommend that people work from home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, they first consulted some of the area’s largest employers and business groups, seeking their feedback on the public health guidance.
Shortly after County Executive Dow Constantine announced the work-from-home recommendation last Wednesday, Microsoft, Amazon and many other businesses told their employees that it was company policy to do so, for all workers who could, for at least three weeks.
“The number one issue was, and continues to be, we need to say the same thing in a very transparent way to everybody, so everybody has confidence in the information they’re being given,” said former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire. Her group, Challenge Seattle, arranged an initial call between government leaders and top business executives on Sunday, March 1, as the severity of the crisis began to dawn on the region, and has since become a clearinghouse of information for businesses on the virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes.
Challenge Seattle members represent more than 250,000 area employees and include the chief executives of Alaska Airlines, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Costco, Microsoft, Nordstrom, Puget Sound Energy, REI, Russell Investments, Starbucks and Weyerhaeuser, among others. Amazon left Challenge Seattle a few weeks ago, but has had representatives on the conference calls.
The goal of the calls, Gregoire said, has been to share the best information, directly from officials and experts, and “where we can, act in concert so we don’t have employees from one company calling into question why their policies are different than another.”
The communication and collaboration among businesses and local government leaders who don’t always see eye-to-eye on other issues have helped smooth the response to the region’s coronavirus crisis. Businesses that may otherwise compete for employees or customer contracts are openly sharing information to help each other.
“The crisis has really brought us all together, and disagreements in the past, or competition, have all been set aside,” Gregoire said.
Business leaders on calls late last week traded reactions they’d received from employees and customers, and advice on what to tell front-line workers in retail, such as at Costco and Starbucks, who have a lot of interaction with the public, she said. There were also discussions about the impact on contract and hourly employees as tens of thousands of people began working from home.
Microsoft and Amazon committed last week to keep paying for contract and hourly workers whose services were no longer needed, and Amazon said it would subsidize some small businesses that lease space in its buildings. On Tuesday, Amazon announced up to $5 million in grants to help restaurants, coffee shops and other small businesses in South Lake Union and the Denny Regrade whose sales have abruptly dried up.
Challenge Seattle’s daily calls now draw more than 170 people, including representatives of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, Washington Technology Industry Association and Greater Seattle Partners, Visit Seattle and the Port of Seattle. Public-health officials from Snohomish and Pierce counties and the governor’s office have also joined calls this week.
As Washington Gov. Jay Inslee considers mandating social-distancing measures, which could be announced as soon as Wednesday, he has also kept the business community apprised. On Tuesday, the Association of Washington Businesses hosted a call with Inslee and several state agency leaders, including those from the Washington National Guard, the state’s Emergency Management Division, the Department of Health and the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Shannon Anderson, director of talent at venture capital firm Madrona Venture Group, which is a Challenge Seattle member, said the coordinated action among the area’s large employers and public-health officials has been a model for other businesses, giving them “confidence about the right direction to go.”
Madrona has brought together leaders of its more than 80 portfolio companies for regular morning phone meetings to share information on their responses, Anderson said.
She and other business leaders know people elsewhere are paying attention and want to learn from Seattle’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
“My hope is that whatever we’ve been able to do at Ground Zero as a VC firm can perhaps inform models for other VCs and organizations like ours as this thing moves across the country,” she said. “We didn’t have a playbook so we made one up as we went.”
Gregoire said she didn’t anticipate an emergency response role for Challenge Seattle when she set up the group about five years ago. Its focus has been regional issues such as education, transportation and housing affordability.
This week, the discussions have included lessons learned from Italy and China on communication and large-scale work-from-home operations, with a presentation from a Microsoft executive in Milan; seeking help from Inslee and the legislature to support small businesses and employees struggling with the coronavirus-driven economic slowdown; and support for the community at large through the COVID-19 response fund set up at the Seattle Foundation and help for food banks, as appropriate, she said.
Gregoire said it’s difficult to predict what’s coming next: “None of us could imagine one week ago we’d be where we are one week later and we don’t know where we’ll be one week or one month from now.”