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At Facebook, Box and beyond, tech leaders tell us their coronavirus fears

The challenges have been technical, financial, sometimes personal. "Right now, I'm firmly in the category of, 'I have no idea,'" said Box CEO Aaron Levie.

The empty offices of Fuze in Boston

Employees at the Fuze office in Boston were asked to work from home amid coronavirus concerns. The outbreak has prompted deep anxiety in the tech sector.

Photo: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

For Aaron Levie, the realization came this past weekend: It was time for more-drastic measures.

The CEO of cloud storage company Box had been working from home, on and off, as the coronavirus outbreak spread. His wife had, too — fodder for a Levie tweet about how quickly competition for video-conferencing space between couples can turn into "The Hunger Games."

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Hundreds replied with stories of working in cars, bathrooms and garages. But the week ahead seemed more daunting.

It was Box's head of sales who suggested giving away their product for free. Companies all over the world were scrambling after telling employees to work from home, so why not let customers add new users at no charge for 30 days? Good for them, good for Box.

Behind the scenes, about half of Levie's 2,000 global employees began working remotely while trying to keep up with the highest levels of usage the company had ever seen. His chief technology officer started taking one-on-one calls with major clients, coaching them through the whirlwind shift to remote work.

"On a more bespoke basis," in Levie's words.

As Levie managed cloud command centers scattered around the globe this week, pressure mounted on other tech leaders to confront an array of unprecedented challenges related to the coronavirus crisis — which only expanded Wednesday with an official pandemic declaration, the end of the stock market's historic bull run and a ban on travel from some countries in Europe.

The challenges were sometimes technical, sometimes financial, sometimes personal. And always indefinite.

At Google, CEO Sundar Pichai was petitioned by labor groups to immediately extend health benefits to all workers. In New York, a newly minted CEO, Noelle Tassey, tried to chart the future of her co-working startup as its offices stockpiled bleach. Thrust away from her desk at Facebook headquarters, headhunter Kat Garson wondered how long it would be before the people she's trying to hire can actually work in an office.

Executives and workers faced fresh anxieties, scratching canceled work trips and conferences off their calendars and watching stock prices plunge and IPO hopes dim. Even as the White House planned to convene Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Twitter to coordinate responses to the outbreak, Silicon Valley campuses became ghost towns, and many in the industry wondered whether sparse rush-hour freeways reminiscent of the dot-com bust might be a precursor to a recession.

Levie considers himself an optimist, but even he's at a loss when it comes to what might be next.

"Right now, I'm firmly in the category of, 'I have no idea,'" he said.

Bleach, Purell and uncertainty

Monday was supposed to be the big day for Tassey.

She became the CEO of New York co-working company and tech accelerator Alley. To celebrate, Tassey talked quarantine plans in the office kitchen, was briefed by her new coronavirus czar, and double-checked stockpiles of bleach and Purell. By Wednesday, she had closed the company's three locations until March 23 due to "increasing and pervasive" impacts of the pandemic.

There's no good time for a crisis, but Alley's sector, straddling tech consulting and commercial real estate, is still reeling from last year's implosion of WeWork. How the virus might combine with increasing skepticism about multibillion-dollar startup valuations was the subject of a Sequoia Capital memo on the potential for a "black swan" event.

Concern about another bubble had already been guiding Tassey's plans.

"What we want to do is create a counterpoint to that narrative that's just like hustle, scale, raise money at an inflated valuation," she said. "You can grow sustainably."

But this week was a plan-scrambler. A San Jose outpost that Alley plans to open near an autonomous vehicle lab was supposed to open in the coming weeks. Now the timeline is uncertain. Word came Tuesday that three TSA screeners at the San Jose airport had tested positive. Their co-workers were quarantined. How many passengers might have been exposed wasn't clear.

"We have a ton of really exciting stuff planned," Tassey said. "Now, we're also trying to take into consideration guidance from WHO and the CDC."

While Tassey assessed how to run a business built on in-person collaboration during a retreat to isolation, Sri Srinivasan watched with mixed emotions the explosion of video chat traffic.

The head of Cisco's collaboration business and its WebEx video conferencing system first saw traffic spike in early February in China, just as people went back to work after Chinese New Year and the virus started to spiral. Next came Japan, South Korea and Singapore. This week, the U.S. and Europe.

To Srinivasan, who normally works remotely from Seattle, the increased demand has been a long time coming, bringing the corporate world closer to the future he imagines. Conference rooms, not to mention time zones, will be largely irrelevant when home-office-in-a-box technology stacks are adopted at scale.

The servers and the networks will work, he said. But in this time of heightened stress, he wonders about managers and employees who aren't used to setting social boundaries at home.

"Work never stops, work never starts," he said. "It's an endless cycle."

By Wednesday, Kat Garson was settling into a very new work routine, one set 2,500 miles from her desk with three screens at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park.

Garson, a leadership recruiter who has worked for Facebook and Instagram for four years, flew east with her 8-month-old this week after her nanny called in sick indefinitely. With the company's remote work orders, and her own fear of having to be quarantined away from her baby if she got sick, family seemed like the safest bet.

Professionally, the leap has been just as dramatic.

"My job is to get people all over the world to fly in and meet in person," Garson said. She added, though, that connecting job candidates and interviewers by video chat has been easier because of a more profound sense of empathy.

"None of us know what's happening," she said. "We all want to know we're OK, and we all want to believe that our lives can go on and we can still, like, take a new job."

Ghosts of Silicon Valley

Back at Facebook headquarters, along the shore of San Francisco Bay, there wasn't much work being done at all this week.

The campus normally operates like a small city, with its own sushi restaurant and bike shop. But after the company "strongly recommended" that thousands of employees work remotely, most of those who were visible this week were receptionists, security guards and maintenance staffers. Shuttle buses pulled into mostly empty parking lots, stopping at curbs bereft of the usual lines of commuters.

Security guards said it felt like the weekend or a holiday — though even at reduced capacity, Facebook was still operating its bike-sharing program at Bay Area offices, plus 11 of 45 cafés and one food truck, a spokesperson said.

Amid the upheaval, Bruce Hahne was thinking about the gulf between tech's worker classes and how that would play out during the outbreak

Hahne, a former technical project manager at Google, never liked the colored badges that the company gave out to distinguish full-time employees like him (white) from contractors (red) or workers hired for short-term projects (purple, in one case). He quit in February after more than 14 years, citing ethical issues, many related to how the company treats its varied workforce.

Hahne, who now runs Alphabet Workers Rising, sees the coronavirus exposing an unfair hierarchy. He's been asking people to sign a petition calling on Google CEO Pichai to immediately require that an estimated 120,000 temporary, vendor and contract workers get paid sick leave and health benefits — a step the company previously said it would take by 2022.

"It's not like, 'Germs, step over there, you can only infect red-badge people,'" Hahne said. "Your sort of basic acknowledgement that people are human beings is people get sick, and people need time off to get well. "

Hahne is among a number of labor advocates seizing on the coronavirus. And under pressure last week, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft were among companies that committed to paying hourly workers — from technical hands to cafeteria cooks — for any days missed due to illness or the reduced need for their services.

Meanwhile, as hundreds of thousands of gig workers continue picking up rides and delivering packages and meals across the country, Uber, Lyft, Postmates, DoorDash and Instacart said they are considering a fund to compensate workers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 — though details remain scarce.

"It is one of those we're-all-in-this-together situations," Hahne said. "We're all only as safe and healthy as the least-entitled person among us."

A tech tipping point?

The wave of anxiety across the U.S. technology industry felt like déjà vu to Jon Tanner. The CEO and managing partner of global executive recruiting firm MitchelLake went through a similar panic in Singapore — five weeks ago.

"We also saw this run on toilet paper and canned goods," Tanner said. "It lasted about two days, and then everybody was really embarrassed."

But the wisdom of stocking up is one thing, and the impact on tech's high-flying era is another. For now, Tanner said, clients are still hiring, getting by with remote interviews instead of face-to-face meetings. It may take weeks, or months, too see if the crisis prompts large-scale staffing changes.

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While it helps that there are still trillions of dollars in private equity sloshing around in global markets, he worries that disruptions lasting longer than another month could fuel a lasting downturn. The tension is familiar to Tanner, who founded MitchelLake in 2001 during the dot-com bust.

"It's a short-term impact," he said, "but it might be a bit of a tipping point."

For entrepreneurs in Levie's generation, the history that everyone hopes to avoid reliving is 2008. Back then, he had to learn on the fly about bridge loans — and making money fast.

"We were at the very heart of the financial crisis," he said. "We had maybe 30 or 40 employees. It was a very, very tough environment."

This time around, Levie expects to see fundamental changes across his industry, with boards of directors focusing on continuity plans to usher them through similarly unpredictable shocks. Many companies have thought through earthquakes and power outages, he said, but the virus symbolizes a more universal kind of threat.

"To me, the lasting impact is going to be that this is no longer an outlier scenario," he said. "It's going to affect every industry, every company."

Levi Sumagaysay contributed reporting from Menlo Park.

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