People

‘It’s going crazy’: Silicon Valley’s​ rush to cope with coronavirus

As Facebook and others cancel events, companies across tech ponder remote-work solutions, bigger cleaning budgets and more.

A commuter wearing a mask on a BART train in Oakland

A commuter in a mask and gloves got some work done Thursday on a BART train in Oakland.

Photo: Sam Hall/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Phase one: If 100 cases of the coronavirus are confirmed near a Coinbase office, all employees for the cryptocurrency exchange will be allowed to work from home.

Phase two: After 1,000 confirmed cases, essential personnel may be relocated, and office services like snacks and cleaning will likely become unviable for anyone still risking the commute.

Phase three: Panic. As the contingency plan released this week by Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong says, "It's going to be a wild ride."

Thursday was the day COVID-19 fully seized the Silicon Valley consciousness. Over the last two months, the virus has killed nearly 3,000 people and upended global supply chains. But this week, its spread sent U.S. financial markets into free-fall, and the first Northern California case of unknown origin was confirmed late Wednesday in Solano County, north of San Francisco.

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In the Coinbase plan, the company was telling employees that the risk of infection was relatively low, and that the firm's plan reflected an effort to prepare for worst-case scenarios. The plan was created by the company's internal security team, led by Chief Information Security Officer Philip Martin, who previously worked as a U.S. Army counterintelligence agent and led information security for Palantir, according to his LinkedIn profile.

"We hope to help other companies that are trying to navigate this situation and to encourage a calm, rational approach," Martin said in a statement to Protocol. "Part of the goal is to also help our employees feel confident and knowledgeable, so they can make educated decisions on how to prepare."

On Thursday morning, Facebook announced it was canceling its F8 developer conference scheduled for May in San Jose, and as companies including Microsoft, Sony and EA said they are pulling out of next month's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco to protect employees from the potential spread of COVID-19.

Beyond the economic ripple effects of tech mega-events, big companies like Amazon and Apple — along with legions of much smaller tech manufacturers — are working behind the scenes to try to keep their overseas factories running.

"We're still in kind of that reactionary phase," said Peter Leroe-Muñoz, senior vice president of technology and innovation policy for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

Aside from rethinking supply chains so that companies are "not left with a single point of failure" — a process that could take years — he said many of the group's member tech companies are seriously reevaluating global policies for remote work and trying to assess the impact of stalled R&D in China and beyond.

"There's also going to be a lag on innovation that we'll see," Leroe-Muñoz said.

Most large multinational companies have existing pandemic plans, said Peylina Chu, the Boston-based vice president and technology industry leader for environmental, health and safety consulting firm Antea Group. But deciding how fast to implement those plans is a different matter, as is helping smaller companies assess what to do now. Some are hiring consultants like Antea or scientists known for containing past outbreaks. Some like Coinbase are leaning on internal expertise. And others are scrambling to keep up.

"Oh yeah," Chu said. "It's going crazy."

Many companies with operations in China, Japan and Korea have switched to remote work where possible, she said. Around the world, safety and HR personnel are paying to have offices cleaned more often and debating whether to invest in surgical-style masks (which many experts argue won't do much, she noted).

"What's the right level of control that they want to put in place for their own organization?" Chu said. "The situation is just so fluid right now. Nobody's saying, 'This is the plan. It's done.'"

Getting access to updated local information in affected areas is most crucial, Chu said. At Uber, a spokesperson told Protocol that the company has formed a "dedicated global team" of executives in operations, security and safety, all guided by a public health consultant, "to respond as needed in each market where we operate."

Still, even luminaries of the quantitative world, like DJ Patil, the country's first chief data scientist appointed by President Barack Obama, are turning to the masses to ask for advice on where to get updates. Patil is now the head of technology for health care startup Devoted Health.

"Given the current gov response," Patil tweeted on Thursday, "I think we're going to have to figure this out on our own."

If COVID-19 presents significant costs to some companies, it may also yield opportunity — and maybe even cement long-brewing cultural shifts — in fields related to remote work. Amid a larger plunge in the markets on Thursday, share prices climbed 6% for video conferencing company Zoom. CEO Eric Yuan, who grew up in the coastal Chinese province of Shandong, wrote in a blog post Wednesday that Zoom is offering its services for free to help with efforts including remote doctor visits, mental health calls and education.

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At Cisco, teams are "working around the clock" to ensure that its Webex conferencing platform remains available in affected areas like China, where traffic on some networks has spiked to as much as 22 times normal levels, said Sri Srinivasan, senior vice president and general manager for team collaboration.

"We're humbled that our technology is playing a part to help people stay connected during this trying time," Srinivasan said in a statement to Protocol. Cisco is offering free access to Webex for companies in affected countries "to further support more working from home," he said.

On the ground in Silicon Valley, where startups and tech incumbents like Google have long experimented with unconventional offices and remote work, panic about the virus is colliding with intense anxiety over untenable office rents and nightmare commutes. Carlos Escutia, CEO of San Francisco home-office furniture rental company GroWrk, said he is fielding a surge in inquiries from big and small employers alike.

"Companies are preparing for a scenario where they have to ask their office workers to work from home indefinitely," Escutia said. "We are developing packages already that are customizable to their needs."

Escutia started GroWrk after feeling the sticker shock of shopping for office space in San Francisco for his previous startup, and learning about a trend in which large tech companies give monthly stipends to employees to set up productivity-enhancing home offices. For stand-up desks and other ergonomic furniture that could cost thousands of dollars up front, GroWrk offers subscriptions to lease furniture for $55 to $188 per month.

"We're in the early stage of the remote work revolution, if you wanna talk in those terms," Escutia said. "Remote work is going to stay here whether there is the coronavirus or not, but that could accelerate it."

The spread of the virus comes at a moment of existential crisis for Silicon Valley, Leroe-Muñoz said. One recent poll by his organization found that more residents are considering leaving than staying. For years, homegrown companies like Apple, Google and Facebook have been expanding to emerging tech hubs like Austin, Denver, Portland and Seattle.

"Our region is going to feel a disproportionate impact as a result of this epidemic," Leroe-Muñoz said. Though everyone hopes the virus is contained quickly, he said, "One of the opportunities, if you will, that comes out of the coronavirus is having to have a conversation" about the sustainability of the Bay Area's work patterns.

One bright spot, said Rufus Jeffries, spokesman for the business-sponsored Bay Area Council, is the improved capacity for remote work: "These technologies have come a long way, so they definitely provide employers more flexibility to respond."

While it may be too early to assess lasting impacts, Jeffries said lost tourism dollars and productivity are immediate concerns. Mindful of the loss of F8, which was slated to be held at the San Jose Convention Center, Facebook said it will donate $500,000 to community causes, double its normal contribution around the event.

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"As we've already seen, there's going to be an economic impact from this," Jeffries said.

For companies still figuring out how to respond, Antea's Chu suggests getting a move on, even if COVID-19 doesn't reach an office near you.

"It'll happen again, obviously," Chu said. "What can you do to be prepared for the next crisis?"

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