Employers are implementing contingency plans, from dividing teams across locations to limiting visitors, as the spread of the novel coronavirus is starting to upend basic expectations about the safety and sustainability of office work.
The moves, designed to minimize disruption to businesses while protecting workers, range from advising colleagues to stand at least 6 feet apart, to requiring that people register their personal travel plans with their employers. While some companies have done emergency planning, the virus’s breadth and speed are posing challenges still hard to anticipate, executives said.
On Monday, Bank of America Corp. will begin splitting up some employees on its equities and fixed-income teams between New York and Connecticut, creating redundancy so that if an employee gets sick and a whole team has to self quarantine, a backup team could keep functioning in its place. More than 100 employees will work from Connecticut, while the majority will remain in New York.
Microsoft Corp. this past week told thousands of its workers in the Seattle area to work from home if they are able, and recommended that employees still needed in open office spaces stay “6 feet/1.8 meters away from others.” The company also asked its staff to try to limit prolonged interaction with other people.
Several colleges, including Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., have started asking employees and students to register their personal travel plans, so administrators can keep track as coronavirus spreads.
Stripe Inc., a San Francisco-area financial-technology company, has switched to videoconferencing for job interviews in place of on-site meetings. Becton Dickinson & Co., a medical-supplies company based in New Jersey, told employees to limit client meetings off-site.
Millions of workers have been asked to test their ability to work from home, making sure they have the Wi-Fi connections, laptops or other technology needed to do their jobs remotely. Facebook Inc., which on Thursday recommended that thousands of its employees in the San Francisco-area start working from home, is further encouraging people to stay away from the campus by canceling shuttle-bus operations for the coming week.
Working from home doesn’t work for swaths of the employee universe, from food-service and hotel staffers to nurses. Nearly four in 10 workers in the U.S., or 37%, say it isn’t possible at all for them to do their job by working from home for a period of several weeks, according to a new Wall Street Journal/SurveyMonkey poll.
But companies that employ people who perform their jobs on computers and phones are trying to adjust. Many across Asia have been operating this way for weeks.
San Francisco-based cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase Inc. last Monday asked several types of workers, including people with compromised immune systems, those who are “at risk because of age,” or people for whom getting sick would be especially problematic, to start working from home, according to Philip Martin, the company’s chief information security officer. He estimates 200 out of 1,000 employees globally fell into groups that Coinbase asked to work remotely, including single parents and pregnant employees. The company on Friday suggested all employees begin working from home if they can starting on Monday.
The company also issued a lengthy social-distancing guide and recommended stockpiling a 30-day supply of food and medicine for family and pets, forgoing public transit and reconsidering religious services.
“For us, the antidote to panic is information,” Mr. Martin said.
Companies say they are looking to federal and local authorities for guidance, but they are also closely watching how their peers respond, often not wanting to be first to implement a drastic protocol, said Lars Schmidt, the founder of Amplify, an HR consulting and executive-search firm.
“There’s a bit of a cascading impact,” he said. “Companies are holding out to see what others are doing.”
San Diego-based custom-sticker website StickerJunkie doled out cash bonuses between $250 and $500 to its employees, and asked workers to use the money to stock up on two to three weeks of food and water. Employees who earn less got bigger bonuses, said Andrea Lake, the founder.
“It kind of went by who would need more reserves,” Ms. Lake said, adding that the company spent roughly $65 per person to buy workers cold medicine Mucinex and vitamin supplements Emergen-C and Airborne. “I just wanted them to feel like we had their backs.”
Ms. Lake has a backup plan for who would fill in if critical employees, such as her head of customer service, get sick. She designated one-third of the company’s staff to work from home starting Monday. If the people remaining in the company’s San Diego production facility, including machine operators and workers in charge of shipping orders, fall ill, those working from home can swap in for them there after the location has been disinfected, she said.
For now, Ms. Lake is encouraging workers to avoid public transportation, arranging carpools for those who typically take the trolley to the office.
“They’re like, ‘You’re being crazy,’” she said of her workers’ reaction to her planning. “I’m like, do not get on a trolley. Do not do it.”
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Haynes and Boone LLP, a corporate law firm with 14 U.S. offices and branches in London, Shanghai and Mexico City, in 2015 developed contingency plans for everything from natural disasters to civil unrest. Timothy Powers, managing partner, said those plans were put to the test by Hurricane Harvey, which temporarily closed the Houston office in August 2017, and the earthquake in Mexico City the following month.
Those events helped prompt the firm to roll out even more new technology aimed at making it easier for attorneys to work across offices at any time. Now, 80% of Haynes and Boone’s roughly 600 lawyers have a tech setup at home that is identical to the one they have at work, down to a four-digit phone extension, videoconferencing capabilities and protected access to legal documents.
Brian Kropp, vice president of research in consulting firm Gartner’s HR practice, said his clients are calling about the uncertainty around child care. He is counseling them to not only consider how many people have the capability to work from home but also what operations might look like if 25% of staff couldn’t work at all, either because they were sick or had to take care of a family member affected by the virus.
“One of the biggest things employees are struggling with is, if my kid’s school closes, what am I going to do? Will my employer be accommodating in that scenario?” he said. “The mistake companies are making is, if I let people work from home, there’s not going to be absenteeism and people will be fine.”
—Kathryn Dill contributed to this article.