Reset: Rapid virus testing, reactionary CEOs, less Zoom

By Kevin J. Delaney

Welcome to our new weekly briefing about what companies are doing to navigate the continued reality of remote work, to reopen safely, and to reset their practices for the long-run. You can sign up here to receive it by email each week as well.

THE VIRUS

The latest virus forecast: The US has had an 8% increase from two weeks earlier, averaging about 44,000 new cases per day. Dr. Anthony Fauci said we’ll know “whether we have a safe and effective vaccine somewhere around November and December” and predicted about 100 million doses will be available at the end of 2020. Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said he didn’t expect its vaccine to be approved for general use before March.

The business impact, by the numbers: Job growth slowed in September far more than predicted, leaving the US still with 11 million fewer jobs than before the pandemic. Just 10% of office workers in Manhattan are back in person, compared to about 25% nationally. Nearly 30% of small businesses said they might not be able to survive beyond a few months without government support.

FOCUS ON WORKPLACE TESTING

Rapid virus testing promises to make it possible to go back to work and school safely. But many of us still have questions—and the Trump infections increased focus on virus tests’ limitations. For answers, I spoke Friday with Dr. Caesar Djavaherian, co-founder and chief clinical innovation officer at Carbon Health. Dr. Djavaherian’s company is working with organizations including Brookfield Asset Management, the Oakland A's, and Alaska Airlines on their testing and prevention plans. Here are some excerpts of our conversation about the realities of testing in workplaces.​

  1. Trump has access to the best testing, but testing is just part of prevention. “People get tested multiple times, like daily, anyone who comes into his orbit, and that's not enough. The reason is that someone can be infectious for three to four days before they test positive, yet they're spewing virus to all those around them. So having multiple protocols in place is how we keep the workplace safe. Despite having tens of thousands of employees who we've touched in one way or another, we haven't had any outbreaks. People have brought the virus into the workplace, but haven't spread it to coworkers. It's because we don't just do testing, but we do workplace protocols, prevention measures, education.”

  2. PCR tests are the best type available, and you should choose the fastest. “The test performance for all of the PCR tests is roughly the same. So we choose the one that's the fastest, because we know that it takes three or four days for a test to turn positive, and then you're waiting an extra day or two for the results of that test to come back. You're really talking about one week or six days worth of time where someone can unknowingly infect others. So just by taking away the turnaround time with the rapid test, we can reduce the risk–not perfectly but dramatically. Since later on you're more infectious.”

  3. Carbon Health prefers to use the Abbott rapid test, which takes 15 minutes. “Now Abbott has another antigen test that's supposed to be a $5, 15-minute test. The federal government has procured the first 30 million kits….We're hoping to get access to that in the first quarter of 2021.”

  4. It costs roughly $120 to $180 per test currently, depending on testing volume. “When you take into account labor costs, plus the tests themselves, it costs about the same, whether you're talking about the antigen test or the Quest, LabCorp, or the Abbott rapid tests. I think what's exciting is that the new Abbott antigen test is promising to be a $5 test, which would bring down overall test costs from roughly $120, when you're taking into account labor and such, to probably $50 or $60.”

  5. For typical offices doing symptom tracking, testing doesn’t need to be daily. “We ask employees to enroll in our daily symptom tracker, which is just every day in the morning, you get a reminder to answer four or five questions….Then we recommend a baseline test for everyone. And that's really to identify those who the symptom tracker may not pick up on, since we know it's about 30% of [infected] people who will be asymptomatic. From there, we recommend a cadence of testing that ranges from once a week to once a month, looking for those asymptomatic individuals.”

  6. An infection doesn’t mean your office has to shut down. “We had a construction contractor who tested positive, and the question is, do we close down our offices? Because this individual was in our space for multiple days. And the answer is absolutely not—the reason we have all these protocols is because we're actually assuming that someone in your organization is positive and is with you, maybe sitting six feet away. We approach the problem with the assumption that the virus will be in your space.”

  7. Organizations shouldn’t wait for a vaccine. “I look to a country like Taiwan, where life is pretty normal for most people. There's universal masking and all that stuff, but nearly all businesses are open and people go to work. People can go to restaurants. The rate of mortality, there is six or 10 out of 20 million. We should be 150 people dead if we were as good as Taiwan in deploying contact tracing and mandatory isolation, which is what they've done. So I think that for a company to say, ‘I'm gonna wait for a vaccine,’ that's not a good idea because they will be waiting a long time. And there are ways of opening up businesses today that can get both sides of the aisle happy.”

For more detail, you can read a full transcript of our conversation. I’m interested in hearing from you whether you have any different experiences with workplace testing. And I’m speaking Monday with epidemiologist Michael Osterholm—you can reply to this email with any questions you have so I can be sure to ask them.

WHAT ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW

A Silicon Valley CEO made the case that a company shouldn’t be concerned with politics or most broader societal issues. Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong offered severance to staff who didn’t agree with his stance, explaining his position in a blog post. Employees had in June walked out when the crypto company CEO wouldn’t immediately commit to a public statement supporting Black Lives Matter. (He later tweeted his support.) Armstrong argued that social activism has “the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division.”

  1. Palantir cofounder and CEO Alexander C. Karp struck a similar chord in the tech company’s recent IPO filing, saying Silicon Valley engineers “do not know more about how society should be organized or what justice requires." Palantir gets more than half of its revenue from government customers, including spy, immigration, and defense agencies.

  2. Their positions are reactionary, a contrast to the increasing efforts of business leaders to engage in political and social issues. Employees are asking for it and customers are responding positively. (Think Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad.)

  3. They also fly against public opinion. Seventy percent of Americans want CEOs to take stances on social issues, according to a new Just Capital survey. That was an almost 10% increase from last year.

  4. Armstrong’s stance “isn’t great leadership. It’s the abdication of leadership,” former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo tweeted.

Working mothers are losing ground because of the pandemic. Remote work and irregular schooling are combining to penalize working mothers, who are shouldering more household work and facing bias in the workplace, according to a new McKinsey and Lean In report. One-third of mothers might downshift their working hours or ambitions, or leave their job as a result. Black women are disproportionately impacted, and are more likely as a group to say their managers aren’t supporting them.

  1. The report’s recommendations are straightforward: adjust the pace and expectations for work, including via performance reviews; help colleagues draw clear lines between work and home; track bias in promotions and pay; improve communication with staff; bolster employee benefits.

  2. Page 15 of the report has data on policies companies are using to support workers, useful for benchmarking your organization.

Never mind the pandemic: companies are beginning to make bolder moves, and individuals are opening new businesses. They’re concluding the virus is here for awhile, so are emerging from being hunkered down and are reviving stalled plans, The Wall Street Journal reports. Clorox has a new CEO, Neiman Marcus is emerging from bankruptcy, Verizon is buying TracFone.

  1. There have been 12% more filings to create new businesses, of the type that typically employ other workers, compared to last year, the Journal calculated. It was the highest level since 2007. One possibility is the crisis is opening up opportunities for new companies. Layoffs are also leading more workers to strike out on their own.

  2. Businesses are moving forward even in hard-hit sectors, like restaurants and in-person clothing retail. The partners behind Francie in Brooklyn decided to go ahead with opening the high-end brasserie, shifting focus to the roof, cutting the occupancy of the bar from 12 to four patrons, and deploying air purifiers. Los Angeles menswear retailer Buck Mason recently opened a new store in Austin, as overall sales are up from last year.

Google told staff who went abroad during the crisis to return home. The Alphabet unit said they have until the end of the year to return to the country where they were based, according to Bloomberg, though most aren’t expected to report to an actual office until July. An analyst said it was for tax and legal reasons.

Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:

  1. Zoom less. Clorox successfully experimented with a videoconferencing-free day this summer and will mandate that staff stay off Zoom on Thanksgiving week. Experts say that perpetually videconferencing is mentally and emotionally taxing. They recommend companywide-Zoom-free blocks of time and, at the least, letting colleagues know it’s ok to keep your camera turned off.

  2. Keep roles open-ended, and refine them using microtests. It’s how many restaurant kitchens work, as University College London assistant professor Vaughn Tan explains. Making a proper Hollandaise sauce is a sort of microtest that allows a young chef to demonstrate competence, for example. In the remote work setting, opportunities to give and receive feedback on in-progress work—such as a slide deck, idea, or piece of writing—represent microtests that can helpfully shape a team.

  3. Enforce term limits on leadership roles. Governance experts recommend six-year tenures for board members, but the average male director serves over nine years. Men stepping aside opens seats for women and underrepresented racial groups.

  4. Commute virtually. Microsoft plans to prompt users of its Teams service to set goals in the morning and reflect on their days in the evening—serving the function of a commute to create a clear beginning and end of a work day, and reduce burnout. The truth is you don’t need to wait for Microsoft to release this feature—you can just do it on your own.

CODA

Young Americans are pandemic roadtripping. Some have given up their apartment leases and are city hopping while their companies don’t require them to be in the office. One currently nomadic tech worker told Bloomberg he is hoping to time his return right to San Francisco in advance of Silicon Valley offices’ anticipated reopening next summer: “We want to beat the gold rush back to the city to try to find good rent.”

Organizations can ban employees from smoking at work, but what about when their workplace is currently their home? There was a hubbub in the UK over this question, and the upshot was that a local London government authority told its staff they were allowed to smoke while working from home.

Elite runners bubbling together ahead of today’s London Marathon wore sensing devices around their necks. The Bump wireless device, which looks like a bulky stethoscope, tells you when you’re too close to another person. And if someone tests positive, it knows who else has been near them. Runners have to wear their Bump to the starting line, and then put it back on as soon as they’ve finished.

​​The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing weekly by email. Have a great week!