Last week, back when companies still held conferences and events, Biogen Inc. hosted about 175 people for a strategic management meeting at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf, just next to tourist attraction Faneuil Hall. Soon afterward, people started feeling sick, and some tested positive for the flu. By Thursday, the news was worse: Three attendees had Covid-19.
What followed was a version of the same story that’s been playing out in corporate America all week, from Seattle to New York. Everyone who attended the conference was asked to work from home for two weeks, whether or not they had symptoms. The biotech company restricted business travel through the end of March and told all employees to stay home and contact a doctor if they felt unwell.
As the coronavirus case count climbed in the U.S. and it became clear that extraordinary action would be required to contain its spread, water coolers and Slack rooms around the country have been filled with speculation about when workers would receive a directive from human resources in their inbox.
Twitter Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Amazon.com Inc. were among companies that instructed thousands of employees to work from home if they could. The HR missives were dissected as if they were sacred texts: What exactly is “essential” travel? Do I have to use sick days if I’m at risk and can’t work from home? How exactly am I supposed to avoid touching my face?