Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella admits to feeling the personal anxieties many of his employees have shared about the coronavirus pandemic.
His son, Zain, 23, is a legally blind quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, which weakens his immune system and requires constant care in what Nadella likens to “a nursing home” at the family’s Medina residence. While navigating the crisis, attempting to marshal forces within his company to become “first responders to the first responders” in the medical and scientific communities, Nadella and his wife, Anu, are also ensuring their immediate family and son’s caregivers aren’t exposed to COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
“At some point, either someone close to us or within the family is going to be affected by it if we don’t find the treatment or the vaccine,” Nadella, 52, told The Seattle Times in a Saturday interview, speaking of the population as a whole. “And so, one of the keys for us has been the protocols inside the house. We’re making sure we have some care help and about how we take care of them so they have some flexibility and some quarantine time. So, we are trying to do everything to help them. And then, the protocols around Zain — with us and the providers helping him and who work with us — is what we are looking at.”
Nadella gave the interview shortly before releasing a lengthy email to his more than 140,000 employees worldwide, applauding them for their response to the pandemic and urging them to do the best they can to help others on a personal and professional level.
“We are in uncharted territory,” he wrote. “Much is unknown, and I know how unsettling and uncertain this feels. Like many of you, there have been times over the past weeks where it has felt overwhelming and all-encompassing for me. I worry about the health and safety of my family, my co-workers and friends. My wife and I worry for her aging parents, who are far away from us in India.
“I see the struggle in our local community, and around the world, the empty streets and restaurants, and I wonder when our social fabric will be restored.”
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Seattle-based Amazon, Microsoft’s larger rival in the cloud-computing industry, also wrote a letter to employees Saturday, predicting that “things are going to get worse before they get better.” In the letter to Amazon’s global workforce of 798,000, shared on Bezos’ Instagram account, he wrote, “This isn’t business as usual, and it’s a time of great stress and uncertainty.”
Nadella said in his email that Microsoft is in a position to help slow the pandemic by demonstrating leadership in the face of adversity and maximizing the company’s biggest strength — bringing people, ideas and solutions together quickly through tech. He mentioned the company’s work to bring “trusted news and facts” about COVID-19 to LinkedIn members and on Bing, while working with Facebook, Google and Twitter to bring “authoritative content” to those platforms and “combat fraud and misinformation about the virus.”
Also, he added, the Redmond company has provided tech infrastructure to telemedicine and for video chats with patients most vulnerable to the virus. A Power Platform template released by the company last week, he added, enables customers to share information and collaborate during a crisis.
Locally, he wrote, Swedish hospital and other treatment centers in Seattle are using Microsoft applications to manage bed counts and inventories of critical supplies. On a broader scale, the company is collaborating with governments to “help them engage citizens, share guidance and enable employees to work remotely” while schools and universities are using Microsoft tools for remote learning.
“One truth that brings me comfort, is just as this virus has no borders, its cure will have no borders,” he wrote. “We are all in this together as a global community. For me, the best way I’ve found to get past this anxiety is to focus on what I can do each day to make a small difference.
“Each of us, wherever we are, has the opportunity to do the same — take an action driven by hope, a small step that makes things a bit better. And if everyone does something that makes the world a bit better, our collective work will in fact make the world a lot better, for the people we love, for our communities, for society.”
The email assures workers the company will continue paying impacted retail-store employees and hourly service providers their regular wages regardless of time worked.
“There’s no doubt that the workflow of all our jobs is changing fast, with many of you doing so much of your work remotely for the first time, some while also caring for young children at home,” he wrote. “There is no playbook for this, and we need to have deep empathy and understanding for each other’s situations.”
In his interview with The Times, Nadella said he feels Microsoft’s technological and human ability to adapt to a largely remote workplace and meet outside demands “has grown by orders of magnitude in the last month” and enabled a quick enough pivot to avoid undue exposure to the economic downturn.
But he couldn’t offer long-term guarantees about how long the company’s status quo will continue if the pandemic and economic downturn aren’t checked.
Microsoft’s stock price has fallen 27% since reaching its high for the year Feb. 10; the S&P 500 has dropped 31% in that period.
“Given the level of uncertainty, I wish I could sort of say in certain terms and give things time frames,” he said. “None of us are really in that level of control of what is going to happen and how it’s going to unfold and what the impacts are.”
What he’s focused on now, he added, is what can immediately be done to help those within Microsoft and the community at large.
On the company: “We will be fair,” he said. “We will be grounded in our mission and in our culture. And that’s how we will approach it.”
And on the global community: “It’s not about just doing corporate responsibility stuff. It’s also having a core business model and a core identity as your business self that helps the world do better at a time of need. That’s what makes me sleep well at night. If one can sleep well nowadays.”
That’s not always easy, given the anxieties surrounding his son, who suffered from in-utero asphyxiation and weighed 3 pounds at birth. Or, the phone calls to his in-laws in his native India to check on their status.
Nadella works from home, sharing an office there with his two teenage daughters where he juggles their e-learning with his company’s ever-shifting challenges. Ultimately, he said, the health of the company and the greater world around it are inexorably linked.
“It’s not that we are immune to broad economic growth being hampered,” he said. “We do need the world to do well for us to do well.”