Silicon Valley’s learning it can’t work tech employees to the bone during coronavirus


By Ian Sherr

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed the world into a mass experiment in working from home. For some companies, self-quarantine for the public good has meant finding new ways to collaborate while navigating spotty internet connections, video conferencing etiquette, new apps and even newer security woes. That’s a no-brainer for Silicon Valley, where companies build apps and technologies to help power services used by hundreds of millions of people each day.

But with schools and day care centers closed around the country, tech companies, from Apple to Facebook to Google to LinkedIn to Uber, are facing a more challenging test: family. Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged in a March conference call with the press that caring for his two young daughters at home with his wife, Priscilla, a pediatrician, is “a big change.”

The nonstop 24-hour work culture that led many tech companies to hire high-end chefs for free food cafeterias, offer onsite car oil changes and, in some cases, do free dry cleaning is running up against the realities of child care and other family care in self-quarantine at home. The unspoken agreement that all those benefits came in exchange for long and grueling work hours is falling apart at home.

Day care centers and schools around the country have closed, while nursing homes are sending some residents to live with family. That’s all put extra demand on working parents, who now have to split their attention between work, homeschooling, child care and family needs throughout the day.

Zoom said it’s tallied a 700% increase in weekday evening meetings on its platform since February, and a 2,000% increase in meetings on the weekend. While users have flocked to the service and social Zoom calls are now du jour, the numbers could also hint at an overburdened work force pushing meetings to out-of-hours when kids have gone to bed.

“The notion of the overwork culture in Silicon Valley happens because innovation is really hard,” said Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo, an adjunct professor at Stanford University. “But now that the climate has changed, we have a whole new set of issues.”

For decades, Silicon Valley sold itself as a worker’s utopia. The promise that if you work hard, you’ll succeed — with big salaries, employee perks and a stock option payoff that could make you a millionaire — is the driving force behind the always-connected work culture. But for families stuck at home, with no caretaker backups to speak of, many employees are being left to choose between caring for loved ones and doing their daily work. In California, home to Apple, Airbnb, Facebook, Google, HP, LinkedIn, Twitter, Uber and an endless list of startups, most schools won’t reopen until the fall. Meanwhile, nursing homes have been among the places hardest hit by the novel coronavirus, forcing some residents to move in with family members instead.

You need that coffee now more than ever. Getty Images

Though tech companies are known for their generous leave policies, offering much more than the 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected family and medical leave mandated by US law, some Silicon Valley parents say the pressure has intensified since being stuck at home — and not just from their bosses. A parent working at LinkedIn, writing last month on the anonymous employee messaging app Blind, said that while their manager was compassionate about handling work and kids, “I fear losing my job if I reduce my work hours.”

Most responding co-workers were supportive and some shared similar feelings. But others told the author to “stop whining like an entitled baby” and that “having kids is not an excuse to work less.”

LinkedIn, known in Silicon Valley for its employee-focused work culture, said it doesn’t tolerate retaliation against anyone for taking advantage of benefits it offers, or for bringing forward concerns. It also offers employees a way to anonymously report any issues. 

The social networking company is also offering an additional 12 weeks of paid emergency leave to help its 16,000 employees manage during the crisis (Microsoft, which bought LinkedIn in 2016 for $26.2 billion, has made the same offer to its 151,000 workers).

“Many of our employees are having to take on additional responsibilities at home with children out of school or parents who need care, and we are supporting them,” said Kenly Walker, a LinkedIn spokeswoman. 

Employees at Apple and Uber who spoke to me also said they felt overworked without much leeway to take care of kids. And they aren’t alone. More than half of the 6,163 working parents surveyed by Blind earlier this month said they felt their work wasn’t being fairly compared to that of their colleagues during the crisis. As a result, 61% of them, including employees from Google and Facebook, said they’re putting in at least three extra hours each day to complete their work.

“For people who have a family, you feel that you have to operate as if you don’t,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies. She’s faced many of these struggles firsthand, sharing online about navigating life in the tech world while homeschooling her daughter. It’s likely this crisis will change how we all prioritize life and family, she said. It may also change the culture at companies that have historically bristled at remote work, such as Google, Apple and Facebook.

“I’m hoping this is going to help us afterward to be more flexible,” Milanesi said. “I’m hoping it will humanize workers more.”

This hospital is using Microsoft video chat to protect doctors fighting coronavirus


By Ian Sherr

You can’t walk into the intensive care units at St. Luke’s University Health Network because of concerns over spreading the novel coronavirus. But if you did, you’d see something new amid the beds, medical equipment and tubes. It’s a device with Microsoft’s Teams software running.

Over the past couple months, the hospital network — like so many of us — has turned to technology to bridge the in-person communication lost due to the threat from the coronavirus. The virus, which was labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization last month, has caused 2 million confirmed cases around the world. Governments have imposed lockdowns, hoping to slow the virus’ spread and give hospitals time to treat victims.

St. Luke’s, which also calls itself SLUHN, was doing little with telehealth before the crisis. Its most notable initiative was a video chat device kept in the ER to help digitally bring doctors in other parts of the hospital to the bedside of suspected stroke patients. With the coronavirus, doctors needed to find new ways to treat patients without constantly changing in and out of layers of protective gear. 

“We scoured our network for devices,” said Dr. James Balshi, the chief medical information officer for SLUHN and a vascular surgeon. Now it has about 100 devices it can bring to the ICU and some other beds, using Microsoft’s Teams video chat software to offer patients a way to communicate with doctors whether they’re in the room or not. “A telephone is better than nothing, but it doesn’t come close to looking at someone and seeing their facial expressions — it’s one of the most powerful parts of this.”

Microsoft made SLUHN available to talk with CNET as part of a series of blog posts and videos it’s produced about how companies are using its software during this crisis. Among them is the cosmetics brand L’Oréal, which leaned on video chat software to help the company adapt its factories around the world to produce hand sanitizer.

Our sudden reliance on video chat has made apps such as Zoom, Cisco’s WebEx, Apple’s FaceTime, Google’s Duo, Houseparty and Microsoft’s Skype daily parts of people’s lives. For Teams in particular, that’s translated into more than 40% growth in people using its product over the past couple months.

This shift to video chat has brought its own challenges. In some cases, outsiders log onto public video chats for schools or governments and start spreading pornography or racist imagery. In others cases, experts are raising concerns about potential security problems.

Still, it appears our broader use of video chat will likely continue after the crisis calms. For SLUHN, positive reception by even once reluctant doctors has helped to make that case, as well as Microsoft’s compliance with medical privacy laws.

SLUHN has encountered bumps along the way though. Doctors learned it’s harder for some people, particularly Parkinson’s patients and the elderly, to download the app and set it up for their virtual doctor visits, for example.

“Not everybody has the son or daughter who can come over, especially now, and set you up,” Balshi said. It’s also another app patients have to deal with, on top of managing their electronic medical records.

Still, Balshi sees promise. The hospital network’s begun using Teams video chat for doctor visits too. It’s now notching about 3,000 per day. That’s half of what the hospitals normally provide, Balshi said, but still up from almost none before the crisis began.

“The reluctance and the uncertainty about it is gone,” he said. “Almost every provider in our network has had some contact with this now and has said, ‘Hey, we could do this and this works.'”