People

How tech workers are preparing to bug in for coronavirus

As the industry orders workers to stay home, some employees are already prepared, and others are scrambling.

How tech workers are preparing to bug in for coronavirus

From San Francisco to New York City, tech workers are adjusting to a new reality of remote work and scarce supplies.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Robert Nelsen raided Costco at the end of January, long before the shelves began to empty. The panic over coronavirus had barely begun to alight in San Francisco, where the managing director and co-founder of venture firm Arch Venture Partners lives, but he wanted to be ready. Nelsen bought a Yamaha inverter generator to power areas of his home, six boxes of Cheerios, three boxes of Frosted Flakes, dozens of bottles of water, and six 1.75-liter bottles of Grey Goose Vodka — not to drink, but to disinfect.

Two months ago, Nelsen's comments might have seemed outlandish outside of "prepper" communities. Not anymore. Now, with tech companies across the industry asking employees to work from home, schools closing, and store shelves empty of essentials like toilet paper and high-alcohol disinfectant wipes, Nelsen's preparations look prescient.

Get what matters in tech, in your inbox every morning. Sign up for Source Code.

"It's just prudent to have enough supplies," Nelsen said. Since January, he's been ready to self-quarantine himself, his wife and children at home for several weeks should the need arise. "All the [epidemiologists and virologists] I know are really concerned, and if they had an elderly member in their household, or somebody at risk, they wouldn't be going out with their elderly mother to lunch in Mountain View. I mean, you'd have to be high."

By Monday, the situation everywhere in the U.S. was getting more serious, and the tech industry was bracing itself for huge interruptions — from supply chain shortages, to virtual conferences, to entire businesses threatened. Those in tech who hadn't yet stocked up on supplies were now scrambling to do so.

For 24-year-old Haley Walker, a senior product analyst at commercial real estate startup SquareFoot in New York, the sudden requirement to work from home came on Sunday, and she wasn't quite ready. "I have all of my work stuff that I need — my computer, a monitor, a whole setup here, because we've been told that this was a possibility for the past week — but one of the things that I neglected in my personal life was stocking up on essential items," she said. Like toilet paper. When she and her fiancé realized on Sunday they'd both be working from their Manhattan apartment the rest of the week, they went out looking for toilet paper and found that the big stores like Gristedes in their neighborhood were sold out.

"We ultimately found some toilet paper at a bodega nearby, but we're probably going to end up needing to order some more from Target or Amazon," she said. Where they'll put that in their small New York apartment is another cause for concern.

"My fiancé was saying we should order groceries for the next two weeks or three weeks, and I told him, 'Where are we going to put it?' We have nowhere to put all of this stuff. With something like toilet paper, you can throw it in the corner, but with food that is perishable, and even fruits and veggies, we can't just throw it on the floor," Walker said.

Some of her colleagues had already stocked up — buying extra tuna fish or cold medicine. Now that Walker is prepping, she doesn't know how much to buy for her home-bound time, because her company has asked people to stay home until further notice. It's up to her CEO to decide how long everyone will be home.

Sam Liang, CEO of AI transcription service Otter.ai, is one of the people in tech having to make decisions like that. For now, he's giving his employees the option of working from home. Liang's son, a senior at the prestigious Menlo School in Atherton, was home for part of last week after the private school closed its doors on March 4 to "deep clean" the campus because a staff member had interacted with a relative who contracted the virus. Menlo School resumed classes on Monday.

"The panic is a bit overblown, but it's always safe to be careful and have a plan, but no need to panic. As a business, though, we have to prepare for it," Liang said.

Last week, dating app Coffee Meets Bagel CEO Dawoon Kang held a company-wide meeting, reviewed the latest developments around COVID-19 and introduced new policies to the San Francisco-based company, strongly encouraging her 50 or so employees to work from home. She also suspended all nonessential business travel.

"We are very supportive of working remotely," Kang said. "Now is a great time to take advantage of this perk."

Others in tech like Ed Baker are taking preparations a step further. Baker, a former Uber vice president who moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2017 and became an angel investor in several startups (Lime, smart wristband maker Whoop, and health and wellness startup Playbook), has four children, ages 9, 7, 5, and 1. He's not taking any chances.

He recently canceled a trip to San Francisco, and another to New York last week. At his Cambridge home, Baker and his wife placed Post-It notes by the entrances alongside bottles of hand sanitizer, asking that every visitor use the latter before they enter. The Bakers also spoke to the schools their children attend about the possibility of home schooling should they decide to temporarily withdraw their three oldest kids. The couple plans on migrating their kids to GoPeer, an online tutoring service, if the home schooling scenario becomes a reality.

"We're mentally preparing to home quarantine," Baker said.

Like Nelsen, Baker has already stocked up on supplies for at least a month. He's also been trying to spread awareness. Over the last four weeks, the former Uber executive authored two Medium posts expressing concern around the government's efforts to screen for and contain COVID-19, citing Neil Ferguson, director of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at the Imperial College London, who contended in early February that outside of China, "we may be detecting only a quarter of all [COVID-19] infections." The steps he and his family are taking are in line with social isolation efforts that other countries, like Italy, Hong Kong and Singapore, have instituted on a large scale.

Related:

In Seattle, dubiously nicknamed "America's coronavirus capital," Lucas Nivon, CEO and co-founder of Cyrus Biotechnology, has hunkered down at home with his wife, 2-year-old daughter, and several weeks' worth of provisions. They have instituted a strict "no visitors" policy. Nineteen people have died from the virus in Washington state so far. Nivon recently halted all company work travel and mandated that the 20 or so of the company's full-time employees work from home.

"I'm very concerned," Nivon said. "Right now, it's a question of can we in the U.S. take action? At least there's a recipe from countries like Singapore [such as increased screening and temperature tests, contact tracing, working from home]. So I am a little bit less concerned now after seeing the virus slowed in some countries, but I do have political or social concern that we actually do those things." Tech companies can send their employees home, and that is important, but can the U.S. scale up the larger response required to slow the virus on the whole? He worries.

"As long as everything doesn't devolve into 'herding us into a Superdome, Katrina-style' sort of dystopian horror where toilet paper and hand sanitizer are the new currency, I feel OK," said AI research scientist Julie Carpenter, who lives in San Francisco, when asked if she had enough provisions to get through staying at home

Walker echoed the same thing in New York: "People at my company seem to be adjusting to it really well," she said. "It's a little jolt to the system at first, but we've had all of our regularly scheduled meetings so nothing seems to be out of sorts. It's just my personal life that is out of sorts."

Until the virus is contained, tech folks, like those in many industries, will need to wait out the virus from the relative safety of their homes, Grey Goose Vodka and — hopefully — toilet paper and all.

"I would definitely minimize exposure," Nelsen said. "Just please, please, don't take your grandmother out to lunch."

Emily Dreyfuss contributed reporting.

Workplace

The tools that make you pay for not getting stuff done

Some tools let you put your money on the line for productivity. Should you bite?

Commitment contracts are popular in a niche corner of the internet, and the tools have built up loyal followings of people who find the extra motivation effective.

Photoillustration: Anna Shvets/Pexels; Protocol

Danny Reeves, CEO and co-founder of Beeminder, is used to defending his product.

“When people first hear about it, they’re kind of appalled,” Reeves said. “Making money off of people’s failure is how they view it.”

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Sponsored Content

Foursquare data story: leveraging location data for site selection

We take a closer look at points of interest and foot traffic patterns to demonstrate how location data can be leveraged to inform better site selecti­on strategies.

Imagine: You’re the leader of a real estate team at a restaurant brand looking to open a new location in Manhattan. You have two options you’re evaluating: one site in SoHo, and another site in the Flatiron neighborhood. Which do you choose?

Keep Reading Show less

Elon Musk has bots on his mind.

Photo: Christian Marquardt/Getty Images

Elon Musk says he needs proof that less than 5% of Twitter's users are bots — or the deal isn't going ahead.

Keep Reading Show less
Jamie Condliffe

Jamie Condliffe ( @jme_c) is the executive editor at Protocol, based in London. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, he worked on the business desk at The New York Times, where he edited the DealBook newsletter and wrote Bits, the weekly tech newsletter. He has previously worked at MIT Technology Review, Gizmodo, and New Scientist, and has held lectureships at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London. He also holds a doctorate in engineering from the University of Oxford.

Policy

Nobody will help Big Tech prevent online terrorism but itself

There’s no will in Congress or the C-suites of social media giants for a new approach, but smaller platforms would have room to step up — if they decided to.

Timothy Kujawski of Buffalo lights candles at a makeshift memorial as people gather at the scene of a mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market at Jefferson Avenue and Riley Street on Sunday, May 15, 2022 in Buffalo, NY. The fatal shooting of 10 people at a grocery store in a historically Black neighborhood of Buffalo by a young white gunman is being investigated as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism, according to federal officials.

Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The shooting in Buffalo, New York, that killed 10 people over the weekend has put the spotlight back on social media companies. Some of the attack was livestreamed, beginning on Amazon-owned Twitch, and the alleged shooter appears to have written about how his racist motivations arose from misinformation on smaller or fringe sites including 4chan.

In response, policymakers are directing their anger at tech platforms, with New York Governor Kathy Hochul calling for the companies to be “more vigilant in monitoring” and for “a legal responsibility to ensure that such hate cannot populate these sites.”

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

We're answering all your questions about the crypto crash.

Photo: Chris Liverani/Unsplash

People started talking about another crypto winter in January, when falling prices had wiped out $1 trillion in value from November’s peak. Prices rallied back in March, restoring some of the losses. Then crypto fell hard again, with bitcoin down more than 60% from its all-time high and other cryptocurrencies harder hit. The market’s message was clear: Crypto winter was no longer coming. It’s here.

If you’ve got questions about the crypto crash, the Protocol Fintech team has answers.

Keep Reading Show less
Latest Stories
Bulletins