King County officials on Wednesday recommended employers allow as many people as possible to work from home in a bid to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Some Seattle-area technology companies, including Microsoft, Redfin and Textio, had already taken such steps as they sought to protect their employees and the community from the contagious disease. Amazon, which confirmed Tuesday a Seattle employee had been diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, had appeared to be letting employees arrange with their manager to work from home “where practical.”
Late Wednesday the company sent an email, a portion of which was viewed by The Seattle Times and which a company spokesperson confirmed, to its Seattle and Bellevue area corporate employees saying it is changing its guidance and recommending that “all employees based in Seattle/Bellevue who work in a role that can be done from home, do so starting now through the end of March.”
Microsoft, with nearly 54,000 employees in Washington state, recommended employees in King County “who are in a job that can be done from home should do so through March 25th.”
In a blog post Wednesday afternoon, Microsoft executive vice president of corporate strategy and operations Kurt DelBene said the company had adjusted its guidance in light of the King County recommendation. Previously, employees in the Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay Area were told they were “free to work from home” through March 9.
DelBene said employees in roles for which it’s essential to come in, such as in data centers and retail stores, should continue to do so. The company will continue cleaning and sanitizing such locations.
The company is making exceptions for people King County has recommended avoid interactions with the public including those: over 60; with an underlying health condition or a compromised immune system; or who are pregnant. Those employees should work with their managers to determine options to take leave or find other accommodations, DelBene said.
In addition, Microsoft recommends postponing travel to its Puget Sound or San Francisco Bay Area campuses “unless essential for the continuity” of the company. All other nonessential business travel to regions with active COVID-19 should also be canceled. The company defined essential as work related to operations, sales and customer service.
On Tuesday, DelBene said in a company email that half of Microsoft’s sites in mainland China are open, with limited services. Employees in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao also have the option to work from home, “and many of our employees are utilizing this option,” according to the email, viewed by The Seattle Times. Microsoft employees in Japan are “being recommended to work from home,” and in South Korea, they were “directed” to do so.
The company’s senior leadership team is meeting regularly to reassess the situation, the email said.
The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center activated a “mandatory remote work policy” Wednesday, which applies to all but its essential, on-campus staff such as security and facilities-management personnel, through at least the end of the month.
A Fred Hutch researcher was among the first to spot evidence that the novel coronavirus has been circulating in the community since the first U.S. case was identified in Snohomish County in January.
Glenn Kelman, CEO of online real estate brokerage Redfin, strongly encouraged Seattle employees to work from home beginning Wednesday and employees in other offices to do so beginning Thursday. The company employs 3,767 people, including 798 in Seattle. None have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
He said it was a difficult decision, given the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.
“I’m not sure when we’re going to ask everyone to come back to the office,” he said. But as the virus spread through the community the need for such measures seemed increasingly necessary, he added in an interview Wednesday morning, before King County issued its recommendation.
“I just felt that if it was inevitable that we were going to shift [to remote work], we should do it early because the virus has a long incubation period, and the history of how institutions have responded to it has usually been too late,” Kelman said.
He said his company was well equipped for the change, though still anticipated some drawbacks.
“I think that businesses have had a decade to prepare for a moment like this, and we may look back on the virus as a tipping point in how people work together,” he said. “I think what’s hard is just the emotional part of being at work. It’s nice to see your colleagues. It’s easier to sort out disputes when you’re face to face. So that part I think we’ll miss.”
Jensen Harris, co-founder of Textio, a 150-person Seattle-based company that uses machine learning to analyze and improve writing, called on the tech community to encourage working from home in a social media post late Monday. His company, with no known cases of the virus among its staff, encouraged employees to begin working from home Tuesday. “We are not firefighters, first responders, or people making sure the community can get groceries and supplies. We sit at computers and type and talk. We can do this from anywhere,” he said in a Twitter post.
Indeed, many workers, including those on the front lines of the crisis, in service industries, low-wage and gig-economy jobs, and others deemed essential, have no such option. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2018, only 29% of the U.S. workforce could work from home.
Amazon’s late Wednesday email cited the updated guidance from King County for its change in policy. The company has more than 53,500 employees of its global workforce of 798,000 living in the region.
“Every team is different and not all work may be conducive to working from home, so please talk with your manager and your team to establish expectations on working remotely,” the email said.
An Amazon spokesperson confirmed the email was authentic.
Employees with elevated risks due to underlying medical conditions or other special circumstances were instructed to talk with their manager and human resources.
The company has also stepped up cleaning of its facilities and is reminding employees to follow hygiene procedures.
Last week, Amazon confirmed two employees in Italy had confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Harris, at Textio, cited uncertainty about the extent of the disease spread and its mortality rate, and pointed to research suggesting that the novel coronavirus has been present in the community for more than six weeks.
“Even if many younger people are asymptomatic, simply carrying the virus puts others at risk,” Harris wrote.