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‘When Microsoft goes down, others follow:’ How Microsoft won the ‘respect’ of its employees as the coronavirus crisis forced most of the company to work from home, according to insiders (MSFT)

As the coronavirus crisis started to worsen in the area of Washington state where Microsoft is headquartered in early March, the company on the outside appeared less concerned than its peers.

Some employees even called the company’s initial response “disappointing,” compared to steps taken by competitors including Salesforce, which quickly instituted a ban on non-essential business travel to help protect its employees amid the initial outbreak in the US.

But inside the senior leadership team, Microsoft executives worried about making rash decisions that could be replicated elsewhere in the industry. As one of the very few trillion-dollar companies in the world, what Microsoft did would be studied and repeated — even, or especially, if it reacted quickly and rashly.

Letty Cherry, Microsoft’s head of global employee, leader and culture communications, said the company monitored the situation in the regions where it operates, and didn’t want to take drastic action that could disrupt local or global markets before it had a full grasp of the situation.

“When Microsoft goes down, others follow,” Cherry said.

The sentiment about Microsoft’s response, too, according to four employees who spoke with Business Insider, appears to have changed after Microsoft enacted a broad work-from-home policy, and offered other benefits such as continuing to pay hourly workers during the crisis, and extending paid leave for parents who can’t work from home while their children aren’t in school. The company has allowed at least some people to bring home office PCs, monitors and even ergonomic chairs.

Even one of the employees who initially said they were disappointed with Microsoft’s response said now “respect for leadership is at the highest.” Business Insider is not naming the employees because they are not authorized to speak publicly about company policies.

The company has also relaxed deadlines for at least one team in the company’s massive cloud organization, an employee said. On that point, Cherry told Business Insider that working remotely hasn’t had a major impact on productivity or the company’s roadmap, and there’s been no need to “slip dates of anything so far.” Microsoft declined to elaborate.

‘It evolved really quickly’

It didn’t take long for the situation to change, and with it, Microsoft’s response.

“It evolved really quickly,” Cherry said.

In early March, Microsoft’s internal response to managing the coronavirus outbreak – the one in which some employees said they were “disappointed” – included asking employees to discuss with their managers any travel concerns. Some Microsoft employees at the time expressed concerns that the company’s response was insufficient, and worried the policy left discretion up to managers instead of employees themselves.

Microsoft, Cherry said, made decisions based on the science at the time. In a March 2 memo reviewed by Business Insider, Microsoft told employees “global health authorities have communicated to us that the risk to the general public outside of Mainland China and those specific affected regions is presently low.”

Cases in the Seattle-area region climbed, and Microsoft soon after shifted to a work-from-home policy for most employees. By March 4, Microsoft has asked most employees in the Puget Sound region and San Francisco Bay Area to work remotely until March 25, which has since been extended.

Transitioning to working from home

Microsoft has more than 150,000 employees globally, including nearly 90,000 in the U.S. and nearly 54,000 in the Seattle area. Microsoft already allowed a majority of employees some flexibility to work remotely — indeed, the company makes plenty of software fit for this exact purpose, including the Teams chat app, collaboration tool Sharepoint, and enterprise social network Yammer.

Microsoft’s senior leadership team – including Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Chief People Officer Kathleen Hogan and Executive Vice President of Corporate Strategy Kurt DelBene – now meets daily, including on weekends, to discuss the company’s coronavirus response. Microsoft operates in 190 countries, and has enacted policies for each of them based on the local situation.

From those meetings, Microsoft has organized food delivery and medical help for employees. Groups of employees have, for example, dropped off food at an isolated employee’s doorstep or picked up their prescriptions. This is coordinated through a Microsoft crisis management team, which includes security experts, human resources and communications employees, who were in place before the coronavirus crisis.

DelBene has emerged as a leader in the company’s coronavirus response. DelBene sends out emails to the entire company about the crisis between one and five times per week, mostly about global standards for the company, and then will offer individual guidance about each location, such as San Francisco and Seattle.

What Microsoft has learned – and what’s ahead

Microsoft last week held an all-remote employee town hall for the first time, in which executives such as Nadella, DelBene, Hogan and Chief Financial Officer Amy Hood streamed from their homes. More than 35,000 employees watched the live version, and around 38,000 additional employees watched a recording, in a record for Microsoft.

Business Insider obtained audio of the meeting, in which Nadella asked employees to do their part to address the coronavirus crisis — whether or not it’s in their job descriptions.

“I wish I could give you certainty,” Nadella said, according to the audio. “There is so much that is unknown, but now is the time for each of us to lean in Microsoft, and each of you are part of the critical infrastructure of every country where we operate.”

In the beginning, Microsoft relied a lot on managers to field employees questions, such as its initial policy asking employees to discuss travel concerns with managers. Cherry, who runs employee communications, said the company realized it was placing a sizable burden on managers to keep their employees informed, so it decided to increase communications from Hogan.

The company may need to “re-prioritize resources,” she said, such as making sure Teams chat app runs smoothly, and making sure it has the critical infrastructure and data center support to handle the increase in users.

Microsoft in a note to customers recently said it could be faced with capacity constraints as demand for its cloud services continue to grow — especially as more people work from home amid the coronavirus crisis.

“Microsoft is actively monitoring performance and usage trends to ensure we’re optimizing service for our customers worldwide, and accommodating new growth and demand,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in a response to a request about the note. “At the same time, these are unprecedented times and we’re also taking proactive steps to plan for these high-usage periods.”

The company earlier this month disclosed two Seattle-area employees contracted COVID-19 but recently declined to provide an update about whether there are additional cases among its workforce.

While Microsoft is hopeful things will go back to normal, Cherry said, the company is preparing for the long haul.

“We’re all open to the fact that we may be at work in a month, or we may be working from home for many, many months,” she said. “[It’s given us a] slight hope to see what’s happening in China, to see people are starting to heal and rebound from COVID-19.”

Are you a Microsoft employee? Contact this reporter via email at [email protected], message her on Twitter @ashannstew, or send her a secure message through Signal at 425-344-8242.

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