1,000 workers, go home: Companies act to ward off coronavirus

Travellers from Italy arrive at Valencia's Manises Airport while wearing facial masks, on Feb 25, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - An oil company and a media group have told hundreds of employees in London to work from home. A television giant is stopping people who have visited certain countries from entering its offices in Europe. A German airline has asked workers to take unpaid leave.

For weeks, the coronavirus outbreak in China rattled global supply chains, exacting a toll on major businesses around the world, though often in indirect ways.

Now, as it spreads across Europe and Asia, the virus is becoming a more immediate threat to all types of businesses.

From Milan to Berlin to London, companies in practically every industry are refining their emergency protocols or sending employees home to try to prevent an outbreak.

This week, Chevron instructed 300 workers at one of its London offices to work from home after an employee returning from Italy developed flu-like symptoms.

The media group OMG has taken the same step in the Fitzrovia district of London, sending home around 1,000 employees after a staff member who recently passed through Singapore began showing symptoms.

The British pay-television company Sky has begun screening visitors at several of its European offices, telling employees that guests who have recently travelled in "higher risk" countries like China and Japan would be barred.

Germany's flagship airline, Lufthansa, has frozen hiring and offered employees unpaid leave as it braces for the economic effect of the virus to grow. And on Tuesday, the advertising agency Dentsu instructed all the employees at its headquarters in Tokyo to work from home.

For the most part, these disruptions to daily work life have been confined to Europe and Asia. In China, most businesses ground to a halt in January as the government worked to contain the outbreak, which has sickened tens of thousands of people and killed over 3,000.

In Italy, the centre of the outbreak in Europe, a number of companies, including the insurance giant Generali and the fashion brand Armani, have adopted work-from-home policies to varying degrees.

Mr Stefano Conforti, a digital marketing strategist who usually reports to a crowded coworking space in Milan, has worked from home all week, dressed in jeans and a sweater. He has even considered spending part of the workday at the local library.

"Working from home is surely comfortable, but personally speaking, I like to go to the office and share time with colleagues and live that type of atmosphere," Mr Conforti said.

"My position doesn't require a physical presence. My thoughts go to people who work as a waiter, for instance, and this type of emergency of course puts them in trouble."

Soon companies in the United States may have to begin sending workers home or taking other precautions.

On Tuesday, a top federal health official, Dr Nancy Messonnier, called on cities and towns to plan "social distancing measures", like dividing classes into smaller groups of students or even closing schools.

She also said businesses should arrange for employees to work from home.

At some companies, like marketing firms or technology startups that already have generous work-from-home policies, such adjustments should be relatively straightforward. But a company Slack channel is not much help in the hospitality industry, where a long-running labour shortage has left many business owners scrambling to find workers.

"Anything that would reduce the workforce would pose further challenges for local restaurants, some of which are already operating understaffed," said Mr Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance.

"We hope it doesn't get to that situation."

This is not the first time that companies in the United States have been forced to contemplate emergency options or devise work-from-home policies.

The closest historical reference point for the spread of the coronavirus is the Sars outbreak in 2002 and 2003 - a crisis that prompted many companies to devise emergency-response plans.

"Companies probably have these plans in the vault someplace, and they're probably not all that different than they were 20 years ago," said Professor Peter Cappelli, a management professor and expert on human resources at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Just trying to understand which jobs people actually have to be in the office for to keep things going is pretty useful."

For some employees, working from home will be a relief - an escape from long commutes and noisy office mates. For others, it may pose problems, whether the distraction of young children or the difficulty of collaborating on certain projects from afar.

"There are people who want to get out of the home, particularly people who have organised their lives with child care," Prof Cappelli said. "There'll be some people who find this unpleasant."

Mr Paul Vallee is not one of those people. He runs Tehama, a cloud-computing startup that aims to make it easier for employees to work remotely.

"I am not in any way excited about the virus," he said. "But I've spent my whole life excited about the culture change that could happen when people start permitting Internet-based work and Internet-based labour."

Mr Vallee said demand had surged for his remote-workplace service since January, with triple the number of companies adopting it compared with a year ago.

As more customers have expressed interest in the service, Mr Vallee has been preparing to send his own employees home in case the coronavirus spreads to the company's headquarters in Ottawa, Ontario.

About 35 of the company's 50 employees work in the office building. But the staff of this remote-workplace startup are no strangers to working from home.

"Last year, we pretended that our headquarters had flooded and we had to work from home," Vallee said. "So I'm not too concerned that we're ready."

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