From the Wall Street Journal, March 22, 2020

By Chip Cutter and Jennifer Maloney

The new coronavirus’s spread in America has prompted corporations to close offices, factories and stores, sending tens of millions of people home, where a swath of the workforce—from customer-service representatives to chief executive officers—have had to figure out new ways to work.

A San Francisco apparel maker’s CEO has spent hours taking business calls in a Toyota Tacoma outside his home. A Seattle technology company chief spends the first five minutes of her remote staff meetings asking employees to describe their states of mind. A New York coconut-water maker’s CEO led his first-ever virtual happy hour with staff on Thursday.

Another wave of workers will make the transition this week after California, New York and some other states have ordered statewide restrictions.

The result is perhaps the most radical and swift change in U.S. business in living memory. That’s posing a monumental management challenge of leading employees—those lucky enough to have kept their jobs—to sustain operations from home while also keeping them calm and safe.

 “This is not business as usual,” said NRG Energy Inc. CEO Mauricio Gutierrez, who is managing the power company from his New Jersey home.

Many CEOs, cut off from their staff for the first time, are ramping up their communication with employees to address the confusion, anxiety and isolation setting in among the rank-and-file. They are sending daily companywide updates, hosting virtual town halls and sharing personal photos and stories from home.

Bosses like Cisco Systems Inc.’s Chuck Robbins aim to offer reassurance and replicate some of the human connection of the office water cooler. The networking-gear giant’s CEO now leads a weekly all-company videoconference from his home office near San Francisco with Cisco’s chief people officer. Medical professionals are invited to answer coronavirus-related questions.

In Thursday’s session, employees asked how to handle racing “what if?” thoughts. Some wondered whether it was safe to go for a walk or swim.

Cisco employee Joie Healy, 46, said a challenge of working at home is that it can be tempting to work continuously. “I could sit in front of my computer the whole time,” she said. Ms. Healy works in front of a window and can see joggers and others passing outside—a reminder to take breaks, something she says the company has encouraged. “The world is not going to come to an end if we take a couple of hours for ourselves.”

CEOs including Arne Sorenson of Marriott International Inc. are turning to public messages or videos to discuss the damage to their companies. “I have never had a more difficult moment than this one,” Mr. Sorenson said in a video in which he choked up as he announced layoffs.

“Our team was a bit concerned about using a video message today because of my new bald look,” said Mr. Sorenson in the video; he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year. The drop in hotel bookings caused by the virus has been worse than 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis combined, he said. Mr. Sorenson said he would forfeit his salary and other executives would take a 50% pay cut as Marriott closes hotels and furloughs what it expects to be tens of thousands.

At Keurig Dr Pepper Inc., demand has surged as consumers stock up on its bottled water, soda, juice and single-serve coffee. That has increased the workload for its 25,000 employees, most of whom work in manufacturing and distribution, and has created a balancing act for their housebound leader.

CEO Bob Gamgort hasn’t visited the company’s Massachusetts or Texas headquarters in a week. He is leading the troops from home in suburban New Jersey, where he drove after his two adult sons decamped there from New York City. He is now trying to rally his workforce and minimize their risks.

“We need to keep up our supply” to meet the increased demand “by keeping our employees safe,” Mr. Gamgort said. “We also need to make sure that they’re feeling comfortable, that they’re taken care of, they feel like we have their back, so that they’re comfortable coming in to work.”

In an email last Monday, he and his senior leadership told staff that a distribution-center employee had tested positive for the coronavirus. Co-workers who had come in contact with the employee were in self-quarantine with full pay. The company is sanitizing its plants more frequently and has limited the number of workers who interact with one another by closing break rooms and mandating that shifts don’t overlap.

Severe effects

Some research suggests short-term effects of remote work can be severe. Brad Bell, a professor who runs the Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, recently conducted research to figure out the effects, tracking 50 remote workers for two years. Three months after moving into a remote work arrangement, employees reported higher levels of work-family conflict than before.

The implication, Prof. Bell said: “If companies adopt work from home as a short-term, emergency action, it is likely that employees will not have the necessary time to adjust and will experience a number of challenges.”

Bayard Winthrop, CEO of American Giant Inc., a San Francisco seller of made-in-America apparel, now leads a daily all-company call so people can hear one another’s voices and he can check in on how they are faring. He begins by updating people on the business, but many employees discuss personal situations and anxieties.

“It was more personal than it was work, frankly, people saying: ‘I’m nervous about this; I’m nervous about that,’ ” said Mr. Winthrop, 50. “That human part of it is super, super important.”

A father of three young children, he has begun sneaking out to his Tacoma pickup truck for some calls: “In my previous call, my 3-year-old was yelling at me that she didn’t have water for her watercolors.”

At Textio Inc., a Seattle technology company that sent staff home about three weeks ago, CEO Kieran Snyder now often spends the first five minutes of meetings asking employees to describe their states of mind in one or two words. In a meeting Wednesday, Ms. Snyder, who has three children home from school, tried to create a more open discussion by volunteering she was nervous.

“I’m running a company, but I’m also running an elementary school,” she joked in an interview. “It’s very likely this call will get interrupted to teach long division.”

Earlier this week, Ms. Snyder called a senior engineering-team member at 11 p.m. to see how she was doing. She knew the employee had three children under age 7 and a working spouse. They talked about managing a family with a demanding job. “I’m trying to check in on people,” she said.

Working from home in the Hamptons, CEO Michael Kirban of coconut-water maker Vita Coco on Thursday hosted the company’s first virtual happy hour—something of an instant coronavirus-age fixture, in which colleagues pour their own drinks and log on to chat. “It’s my job to keep it as light as possible,” he said. “These are really tough times. People are scared.”

Julie Morgenstern, a workplace consultant in New York who advises multiple CEOs, said she is hearing from clients who find themselves and their employees overwhelmed. “There’s no structure,” she said. “They don’t change their clothes, they barely brush their teeth, people are skipping meals.”

Workers accustomed to commuting may have anticipated gaining several hours daily but find themselves fighting the distractions of developing news and heightened emotions, as well as triaging untested home-technology setups and what she calls “Covid tasks.”

“No matter what your job is, every conversation or meeting you have with people, the first 10 minutes are lost to how you’re feeling. ‘Are you safe, is it OK?’ ” Ms. Morgenstern said. “There’s a lot of actual time lost to that.” She has recommended clients color-code blocks in their calendar they are devoting to coronavirus to get a clearer picture of how it is affecting productivity.

Fran Caradonna, CEO of the Saint Louis Brewery LLC, which makes Schlafly beer, said she has been sending companywide emails with the subject line “Be Well.” The first announced the cancellation of the brewery’s annual Stout & Oyster festival, which draws 10,000 to 15,000 people.

“There was a lot of grief around that one,” said Ms. Caradonna, who was spending some days at the office and some at home. She has had one-on-one conversations with employees who have approached her offering to take a pay cut or reduction in hours if a co-worker is in greater need. Ms. Caradonna, who has 250 employees, is planning fix-up projects so she can redeploy bartenders and food servers as painters and cleaners at the company’s brewpubs, which are now limited to takeout.

Communicating empathy

Jeff Dachis, CEO of One Drop, which makes a blood-sugar monitoring system for diabetics, said he is trying to communicate more empathy to his staff in companywide Slack messages. The startup has 42 employees and offices in New York and Austin, Texas. All are now working from home.

“People with kids have an extraordinary challenge,” he said by phone from his Brooklyn living room, where he has set up a folding table as his desk, “because they have to both school their kids and…then get work done, which there’s no letup in expectation for what we have to do.”

Knowing many people are cooking more, Mr. Dachis, 53, created a #whatsfordinner channel on his company’s Slack workspace and posted a photo of a partially eaten plate of steamed halibut, sauteed kale and baked sweet potato.

Andy Pray, founder of public-relations firm Praytell, learned a new coping strategy from employees who found videoconferencing and messaging apps weren’t a replacement for spontaneous conversations at the office.

The 150-person firm is providing weekly all-agency business updates and has also set up companywide video chats where employees can talk about anything. Praytell account strategist Emily Gaus, 24, who began working from her Chicago home more than a week ago, said several employees live-streamed themselves cleaning out the Los Angeles office refrigerator to the rest of the company. Some colleagues, she said, have used it to demonstrate how to make creative cocktails

“I never knew we needed a cable-access equivalent until we had it,” said Mr. Pray, “but man has it helped lift spirits and give a needed diversion.”

CEO Sarah Kauss of S’well, a maker of stainless-steel water bottles, said her team is realizing how much they need office camaraderie. “We laugh a lot,” she said, “and that doesn’t all come through on video.”

The company, with fewer than 100 employees, has offices in New York and London. Working from her home in Jupiter, Fla., Ms. Kauss recently shared with staff a photo of her son Hudson, nearly 2 years old, wearing a S’well hat. She is considering social events like a virtual talent show in which colleagues could introduce children or pets or play the guitar.

Administrative assistant Sherry Schwenderlauf, 46, credited her company’s leadership for making it easy to work at home and said she is grateful to have a job that she can do remotely. After nearly 16 years in a Portland, Ore., accounting-firm office, she began working from home Thursday. “I never thought as an administrative assistant, I would ever have this happen,” she said. So far, the transition has been largely smooth. She communicates via Microsoft Teams and says the work during the busy tax season is getting done.

She plans to go back into her office Sunday to borrow her rolling desk chair to use at her kitchen table. She also wants to grab her mouse and wrist pad along with two succulents and office flowers she has kept alive for six years: “It’s the stuff I didn’t think about when I left.”

Ms. Schwenderlauf said she does miss some office camaraderie. During a lunch break this week, she stepped outside and called over to a neighbor. “I chatted with her,” she said, “at a safe distance, of course.”

—Kathryn Dill and Patrick Thomas contributed to this article.