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Virus prep in the corporate world: closed offices, canceled meetings, and telecommuting

Hand sanitizer is placed by the doors of the international arrivals terminal at the Boston Logan Airport.
Hand sanitizer is placed by the doors of the international arrivals terminal at the Boston Logan Airport.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

With a mixture of caution and confidence, Boston-area businesses are grappling with the global coronavirus epidemic, seeking out strategies for protecting their people as well as their profits.

Several companies told the Globe they are limiting employee travel to regions hit hard by the disease, encouraging workers to rely on teleconferences instead of plane tickets. They’re canceling participation in overseas trips and urging employees to work from home if they suspect they’re coming down with something.

As a test of how it would fare during an outbreak, the software company Salsify closed its Boston headquarters, along with its offices in Chicago and Lisbon, on Wednesday and had all 425 employees work remotely for the day.

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The decision was made midday Monday, and employees were informed a few hours later. “The idea is not to have a lot of notice,” said Colleen Fuller, the company’s chief people officer. “We didn’t want to think through every possible scenario of what could go wrong because we wanted things to go wrong.”

Two events scheduled to take place Wednesday at Salsify’s Boston office on Federal Street were hastily relocated. A customer meeting was moved to an offsite conference room, and a training day for new hires in the sales department — five of whom had flown in specifically for it — was done virtually, with employees conferencing in from their hotel rooms and homes.

“We said, if we’re going to do this, we’re not making exceptions, we’re going to go all in,” Fuller said.

Encouraging employees to stay home when they’re sick is a major mandate. Gerry Racine, vice president of human resources at Steel Art Co., an architectural sign maker in Norwood, came down with bronchitis three weeks ago and has been working from home as much as possible since then — in part because she doesn’t feel great, but also as a courtesy to her coworkers. “For employees to hear someone coughing and hacking away, it makes them a little nervous,” she said.

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The Internet content-delivery company Akamai Technologies, of Cambridge, which has operations in 31 countries, is allowing employees in Japan and Singapore to work flexible hours so they aren’t commuting with large crowds. Neon Therapeutics, a biotech company in Cambridge, is encouraging people to stop shaking hands and to take their laptops home every day and make sure they have access to critical documents in case they suddenly can’t go to the office.

For some companies, the epidemic is both crisis and opportunity. Burlington-based Everbridge, which helps monitor dangerous situations worldwide on behalf of its corporate clients, now generates daily reports on the epidemic and how it’s affecting global travel, manufacturing, and supply chains.

Everbridge uses this information to protect its own workers, as well. The company has about 1,000 employees, including 290 based outside of the United States. Workers who travel internationally are warned away from known coronavirus hotspots. Everbridge’s workers in China are nowhere near the hot zones. Still, chief technology officer Imad Mouline said they’ve been told to telecommute instead of visiting clients. In addition, Everbridge now monitors information about possible trade show cancellations.

Mouline himself is keeping tabs on a conference on emergency communications in Riga, Latvia, that he’s scheduled to attend in April. “It’s touch-and-go," Mouline said. “I don’t know whether I’m going or not, because it might be canceled at any minute."

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Owl Labs, a Somerville videoconference company that sells 360-degree cameras, has had a 41 percent spike in sales and a 71 percent spike in average order value, much of it from Italy, which was hit hard by coronavirus. And, LogMeIn, the Boston maker of software for remote computer access, is seeing strong demand for its products, as more companies order employees to hold teleconferences instead of face-to-face meetings.

“In affected regions in China and Singapore, we are seeing spikes in usage of 100 percent," said chief executive Bill Wagner. “They need more of what we do.”

Wagner himself gets a briefing on the latest coronavirus news every morning and afternoon. LogMeIn workers are barred from traveling to virus hotspots, and even travel to less hazardous destinations is voluntary; workers who feel unsafe about flying to meet a client can choose not to go. In addition, LogMeIn has canceled participation in an upcoming trade show and may make further cancellations.

Roger Berkowitz, chief executive of the seafood restaurant chain Legal Sea Foods, said some officials at the company recently canceled a trip to Spain, and Berkowitz said he’s not sure he’ll attend next month’s major seafood trade show in Brussels. “Till they absolutely have a firm handle on where and how it’s transmitted, caution is the word of the day," he said.

On the other hand, Berkowitz said he wouldn’t hesitate to visit any trade show held in the United States

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At the public relations firm InkHouse, chief executive Beth Monaghan has canceled all nonessential travel for staff and is letting her employees decide if they want to attend national conferences. “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing, but see if we can do it virtually,” Monaghan said.

An InkHouse employee who just returned from Italy was asked to work from home for two weeks, she said, and she has reminded employees they should follow their usual sick-leave policy and work from home if they’re not feeling well or take the day off if they show signs of a fever. “Don’t be a hero,” she said.

For those who go into work, they’re taking extra steps to keep things clean by wiping down the lunchroom and other shared surfaces three times a day. “In Waltham, our GM put up a little whiteboard in the kitchen that says ‘Last cleaned at . . . ’ like one of those signs in the airport,” Monaghan said.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab. Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston. Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.