This article was originally published in San Antonio Express News and can be viewed here.
San Antonio companies are sending employees home, conducting virtual meetings, restricting travel, deep-cleaning offices and, in some cases, temporarily closing their doors.
As coronavirus ricochets around the globe, employers are quickly embracing measures to keep the virus out of the workplace — and to reassure their workers and customers.
It’s a “moment of inflection,” said Kai Andrews, principal consultant at Point B, a Seattle management consulting and real estate development firm with an office in San Antonio.
Companies have talked for years about having employees work from home to cut costs and increase productivity. Many firms have resisted telecommuting, but the virus is forcing more of them to offer the option.
That means providing workers with the training and hardware to work remotely, Andrews said, and “getting people mentally prepared.”
“Work will have to shift very quickly, but at the same time, (it has) to continue,” Andrews said.
USAA, which employs about 19,000 people in San Antonio, directed some of its staff to work from home Monday — to gauge the effect telecommuting would have on its operations. Several days later, the company announced at least 25 percent of its employees, the ones who aren’t in contact with customers, must work from home beginning next week.
“Employee health and safety, and our ability to continue serving members remain top priorities,” said spokesman Matt Hartwig.
USAA is taking additional steps, including banning international business travel, asking employees returning from international trips or cruises to work from home for 14 days and limiting participation in most outside conferences and training events.
Another local employer, technology company Rackspace, is also experimenting with work-from-home days, spokeswoman Michelle Doss said.
“This strategy will allow us to test and validate our tools to their full capacity,” she said.
Small retailers generally don’t have that luxury. They’re also worried about customers staying away as the virus spreads. That’s what’s happening at La Villita Historic Arts Village downtown, said Deborah Sibley, who owns Capistrano Soap Co., which has a shop there.
Most of the village’s visitors are in town for conventions and events, some of which have been canceled because of the coronavirus. More than 90 percent of customers at Sibley’s shop are from another city, state or country.
“There’s already an impact to traffic and revenue,” she said.
Employees’ exposure to the virus is another worry. Signs asking customers not to open bottles for sniffing or to use pumps and applicator sticks for sampling have been posted around the shop, and workers are wiping down surfaces.
“But that does not socially distance us,” Sibley said. Starting Monday, she is temporarily closing the shop.
H-E-B is suspending all in-store sampling and putting hand sanitizer at checkout stations for cashiers and customers, said spokeswoman Dya Campos.
Customers picking up orders or having items delivered won’t be asked to sign a device to acknowledge the orders, unless they’re buying alcohol, and can select a “leave at the door” option for delivery. About 204 of the company’s pharmacies deliver, and the service is being offered for free under normal drop-off terms, Campos said.
As for non-store workers — such as headquarters employees — Campos said, “We are always prepared for remote working.”
Employees at Valero Energy Corp. aren’t being sent home, but the company has remote work systems in place that can be scaled up if necessary, said spokeswoman Lillian Riojas. Also, Valero’s on-site health clinic is providing services for workers and their families.
“We are reviewing available information and facts with our medical director and evaluating precautionary actions, including potential work contingency plans similar to what we might implement during hurricanes,” she said.
Limiting interactions by canceling events or putting more space between workers is another tack employers are taking.
Independent Rough Terrain Center, a Cibolo business that produces industrial vehicles, hosted a barbecue lunch for employees Thursday. Managers provided hand sanitizer, and asked those waiting in line to keep their distance from each other and eat at their workplace instead of in a hall together.
That “disperses them across our campus,” president and CEO Stephen Speakes said. IRTC is also banning travel and encouraging employees who feel they’re at risk to work from home.
“Our first priority is to take care of our employees and their families,” he said. “We want to ensure that we are mitigating risk wherever possible.”
Having employees work remotely poses few challenges for Jungle Disk, a local cybersecurity business with a staff of about 25.
The company ran tests to make sure everyone can work from home, and its video conferencing and phone systems enable handling calls and meetings virtually, said CEO Bret Piatt. Some employees have elderly parents with health conditions, and Jungle Disk is giving them the option to work from home.
“This is one of the benefits we have in the tech industry,” Piatt said. “As the situation continues to evolve, I suspect we’ll see more than half of our employees work from home.”
It’s too early to tell what the long-term effects will be, but “it’s inevitable that some companies are going to have to change business models,” consultant Kai Andrews said.