The public health emergency that is COVID-19 is testing the mettle not only of political leaders but also the heads of organizations big and small. The financial decisions are urgent and pressing. Managing people, though, has emerged as a paramount concern as the stresses from working from home and the fear of illness threaten to overwhelm everyone.
Battling and recovering from the pandemic will leave an indelible mark on how we live and work. Here are some of the biggest lessons learned so far from leaders of local companies and institutions:
“We’re scared. Business is business. Our health is more important." Eliot Tatelman, Jordan’s Furniture
It was early in the crisis. Governor Charlie Baker had just ordered restaurants and bars to close, and do takeout only. Malls, though, were still open, and customers were packing Jordan’s stores. On March 16, Tatelman met with his senior team, and made a tough call: shut all six Jordan’s; there was just too much risk to employees who interact with customers in the showrooms.
“Why would I stay open? To do more business?" Tatelman posited. "In the meantime people get sick and die. Is that worth it to stay open? That’s not what life is about.”
Other companies laid off workers during the temporary shutdown, but Tatelman is keeping his 1,200 employees on the payroll with a plan to reopen April 7. “I’m going to try to keep them on board as long as I can afford it.”
Even so, closing was not as simple as turning off the lights and locking up. Tatelman swiftly learned the warehouse side had to stay open longer to deal with shipments and deliveries. But that created lingering safety issues and inequities, which Tatelman resolved by increasing the pay of those doing distribution.
“No one knew what the right answer was.” Julie Johnson Roberts, Armored Things
As the young cofounder of a young company, Johnson Roberts early on wrestled with ordering employees to work from home. She wanted to empower her 23 staffers to make their own decisions. Some worked remotely, while others kept coming into the office. That didn’t sit right with Johnson Roberts, so she consulted her peers at other startups.
“It was all over the place,” she recalled.
By March 15, with the pandemic worsening, Johnson Roberts decided to make everyone at her three-year-old startup work from home. It was a decision, in hindsight, she wished she had made sooner; in moments of crisis, she realized that employees want a decisive leader.
“When you have a sense of what the right decision is," she said, “you have to go for it.”
“I don’t think there is a company or business on the planet that is insulated." Sam King, Veracode
The Burlington cybersecurity firm made an early call to have all 750 employees work from home. King knew the virus would upend life — employees in Veracode’s Singapore unit have been working remotely since mid-February as the government there acted quickly to rein in the spread of COVID-19. Still, having everyone work from home marked a big shift in culture, and King found virtual town halls an important outlet.
The biggest challenge she’s heard from employees is juggling work while managing child care responsibilities. Acknowledging how workers might feel unmoored, she learned, goes a long way, something she addressed in a recent staff memo.
“I wish there was an easy solution to these issues but there isn’t. My ask is to do the best you can," King told employees. “I also recommend that you not fall into the temptation of having every waking hour be a work from home hour just because it can be.”
“Everybody is a little freaked out. Our job is to make people as calm as they can be.” Roger Crandall, MassMutual
On the business front, Crandall said, MassMutual continues to receive insurance revenue, but he’s worried that low interest rates will affect some product lines. Yet, with the financial markets so twitchy and everyone nervous about going broke or losing their jobs, Crandall said it is paramount for MassMutual to reassure its customers, business clients, and employees that the company is financially strong and remains a source of stability in a troubled time.
“People are wondering what it means for them in the long run, particularly if you’re working from home now and you’ve got school-age kids. It’s a challenge," Crandall said. “We’ve been communicating with employees: MassMutual is going to be here three months from now, three years from now, 30 years from now."
“I am here in solidarity with my employees who are on campus.” Lee Pelton, Emerson College
The downtown campus may be mostly empty, but Pelton comes into the office every day, observing the proper physical distance from campus police officers, maintenance staffers, and IT workers who have to be on hand.
“I grew up in a Midwestern working-class family that moved from ... working-class poor to working class, and I am grateful and sympathetic to the people at Emerson who must remain on campus to work," Pelton said. "I feel an ethical obligation to be on campus with them.”
COVID-19 threatens to upend the finances of many colleges. At Emerson, seniors are getting room and board expenses refunded, while other students who had to vacate will get a credit. The pandemic will also reshape the future of this generation of college students.
“It will have an impact that will last a lifetime, just as people who went through a Great Depression,” said Pelton.
“Companies that don’t have disaster planning in place will sharpen their game going forward.” Jim Judge, Eversource Energy
Eversource is an old hand at dealing with catastrophes, though they are usually weather related and don’t last long. As a result, the company regularly puts its emergency planning to the test.
So when the coronavirus hit, Eversource had a reference book for keeping the lights on while protecting its employees. As a utility, there’s only so much of its work that can be done from home. Little details matter: one worker to a truck; the day’s assignments doled out from the safe distance of a loading dock instead of the crowded confines of the locker room; requests for equipment are now called in, and the gear left outside the warehouse for pickup.
“Whenever we have a major storm, we learn lessons, we’re better at it the next time,” Judge said. “As a society, we’ll be better prepared to deal with a global crisis like this if one ever comes again.”
“You can’t advertise out of a crisis. You can focus on what you’re doing for your customers." Kelly Fredrickson, MullenLowe
Some of the ad agency’s clients were among the first companies to be upended by the global shutdown — JetBlue and Royal Caribbean, for example. Fredrickson said MullenLowe is focused on changing the mindset from advertising to strategy. This is not a time for straight-up promotion, she said, but companies can’t disappear altogether, either.
Her advice to clients was to be “mindful of their place and role in their customers’ lives,” and adjust their messaging accordingly — helping JetBlue, for example, use its social media channels to quickly respond to customers madly scrambling to make or adjust flights as the pandemic spread rapidly.
“Most consumers don’t mind hearing from brands as long as it is a solution,” Fredrickson said, “where we are not trying to sell something, but we are trying to solve something.”
“We should think about this as a war.” Jeff Leiden, Vertex Pharmaceuticals
Early on, before the pandemic had exploded here, Vertex canceled large in-person meetings, including one of senior executives that involved some flying into Boston, and backed out of public events, as well. Leiden said Vertex also confirmed that its supply of medicines to cystic fibrosis patients would not be interrupted.
“If anything, patients are being very careful to take all of their medicine. They’re particularly vulnerable,” he said. “We‘re absolutely confident we can supply well into 2021.”
Internally, work-life balance issues have become huge, with so many employees working from home; the average age of employees is in the 30s, and many have young kids. Leiden finds that little things can make a meaningful difference; for example, it’s OK to hop on a videoconference with a child on your lap.
“It sounds so obvious, but I think sometimes, employees get uncomfortable with that stuff,” Leiden said.
“This has been a reality check for all of us about the vulnerability of our planet, our systems, and ourselves.” Vikki Spruill, New England Aquarium
Boston’s nonprofit and cultural institutions are major players in the region’s civic and economic lives. And if the aquarium is any example, the hit from the shutdown will be immense: $10 million in lost revenues if the aquarium remains shuttered for three months.
If there is a silver lining to COVID-19, Spruill thinks it’s that it will spur everyone to prepare for other existential threats rather than hope they never happen — such as protecting Boston from rising sea levels.
“This pandemic has emphasized for me longer term and more holistic planning against big scale challenges,” she said.
“In a way, we’re going to be a much more competitive employer.” Robert Rivers, Eastern Bank
The pandemic has brought up a shortcoming in an essential way that Eastern Bank likes to do business: “We’re very much an ‘in person’ kind of place,” Rivers said.
Now, most Eastern employees are working from home. And Rivers is already looking to see what Eastern can learn from the experience once life returns to normal — like being more flexible in how and where employees can work. Other companies may see this, too, Rivers said, helping to alleviate some of the traffic congestion that in normal times is such a concern.
“In a way, we’re going to be a much more competitive employer," Rivers said, "We’ve learned how to do this because we were forced to.”
“We can generally assume, a lot of the COVID-19 patients are Blue Cross members.” Andrew Dreyfus, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts
Blue Cross Blue Shield is in a unique position to see the effects of the pandemic up close, and at the macro level. As the state’s largest private health insurer, the company must run at full speed to ensure patients get treatment and are covered, and that the doctors and nurses working furiously to heal them get paid. It’s also bracing for a torrent of claims as the number of confirmed cases and related hospitalizations climb in the Commonwealth.
The insurer can also be a barometer of how the pandemic is affecting society in so many ways. Can individuals and small businesses, for example, continue to pay for health coverage when they’ve lost so much income because of the shutdown?
“We may need a mechanism to pay for premiums for small businesses as part of these successive big financial stimulus packages,” said Dreyfus.
“The biggest concern is really around connectivity with their colleagues, and feeling like they’re out on their own.” Michael Hansen, Cengage
Textbook publisher Cengage had an immediate twin challenge: helping students around the world keep up their learning, while maintaining community among employees now working from home. Cengage is providing its subscription service for online textbooks for free to college students for the rest of this semester and already has been flooded with signups.
Meanwhile, Hansen said his 4,500 employees miss seeing each other at the office, the casual water cooler chat. So, he tries to “over communicate,” perhaps to a fault. And like many executives, Hansen is looking for the lesson in all the disruption, not just for Cengage, but the country as a whole.
“The one thing I’ve personally learned is you’ve got to get ahead of the curve, don’t try to deny it or put your head in the sand, and wish for the best," he said. "These are the times when a culture and an organization gets tested.”
“We have been creating online communities that have nothing to do with how much you’re going to sell this week.” Mohamad Ali, International Data Group
With more than 3,000 employees around the globe, IDG has found one way to address the inevitable challenge of balancing home and work life: The company hosts “Together Thursdays” calls where employees share work-from-home strategies.
“You’ve got 3,000 to 4,000 people at home and they need a community,” Ali said. “We have been creating online communities that have nothing to do with how much you’re going to sell this week.”
Ali expects the catastrophe has taught many businesses to be more prepared, and in particular, be more adept at going virtual. The rest of society?
“Civic leadership is important. We say it’s important, but we don’t act like it’s important,” Ali said. “I don’t know if that will change, but I hope. I wish it would.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.