On May 7, sf.citi hosted The Race to Respond: Tech’s Leadership on COVID-19 in partnership with our Seattle counterpart sea.citi and tech-focused media company Protocol. During our two-hour virtual event, we explored the tech industry’s rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic with Aaron Levie, CEO of Box, Sarah Rose, President and Chief Product Officer of TaskRabbit, Janet Van Huysse, Head of People at Cloudflare, and Tom Alberg, Managing Partner of Madrona Venture Group. Protocol’s editor at large, David Pierce, also moderated a panel discussion with executives from Slack, Twitter, and Postmates.
We covered a lot—from remote hiring and virtual yoga to tech regulation and the industry’s future in a post-pandemic world. Watch the full event and take a look at our discussion highlights below.
TECH POSITIVES PULLED FROM THE PANDEMIC
The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered our daily lives, bringing with it economic hardship and social sacrifices for just about everyone. That being said, it has also sparked new waves of innovation as companies and people alike are forced to adapt to the new, physically distanced normal dictated by COVID-19. Our speakers pointed out some of the positives, particularly within the tech industry, that have come from the pandemic so far.
I’m optimistic that many parts of the economy will continue to be very robust. At the same time, we’ll probably be able to reinvent some industries that, frankly, have been needing to be reinvented for quite some time.
—Aaron Levie, CEO, Box
- More resilient businesses. Box CEO, Aaron Levie, noted that while many of the changes during the COVID-19 pandemic are the result of health and physical distancing policies, they “will very quickly be discovered as better ways to run your business.” He cited collaboration across life sciences companies around the world and government agencies moving their data to more resilient platforms like the cloud.
- Greater access to medicine and education. COVID-19 has accelerated the rise of telemedicine and distance learning, both of which have become necessities in the wake of school closures and hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. They have also presented exciting models to expand access to healthcare, including mental health services, and education, said Aaron Levie of Box.
- Collaboration between local government and business. One of the silver linings Tom Alberg, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Madrona Venture Group, has observed in Seattle is greater collaboration between government and business. In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, Alberg described how political leaders “are recognizing that businesses have something to contribute to solving these problems, and likewise, businesses who are sometimes reluctant to step forward, recognize that they do need to step up and work on these problems.” Case in point, said Alberg, is All In Seattle, a COVID-19 response initiative started by Accolade CEO, Rajeev Singh, and other local tech leaders. In less than a week, they raised over $27 million.
RESHAPING COMPANY CULTURE IN RESPONSE TO COVID-19
Many of our speakers described how COVID-19 has shaped their company culture and business practices, especially with their workforces going fully remote in a matter of days.
Overcoming Challenges Presented by COVID-19
With 13 offices spread across the globe, cybersecurity company Cloudflare and its employees were familiar with using Zoom and Google Meet to collaborate with their colleagues even before COVID-19 hit. The bigger challenge, said Cloudflare Head of People, Janet Van Huysse, was onboarding new hires virtually (yes, Cloudflare is hiring!) and configuring workspaces from home.
COVID has changed nothing about our culture. COVID has amplified our culture. Cloudflare has always been high empathy, high collaboration, and very mission driven, and I feel that now that we’ve all gone to working from home, it’s just amplified that.
—Janet Van Huysse, Head of People, Cloudflare
At business communication company Slack, Ali Rayl, Vice President of Slack’s Customer Experience, described a more drastic business change in response to COVID-19. “We saw the wave of growth in business geographically matching the wave of lockdowns in countries due to the coronavirus,” she elaborated. In just a few days, Slack had to scale its platform to do more than it had ever done all while Slack employees were adjusting to working from home.
Postmates has similarly seen a spike in users during the pandemic. Just two weeks after many cities went into lockdown, said Vikrum Aiyer, Vice President of Public Policy at Postmates, Postmates was deemed an essential worker platform in almost every state in the United States. The company saw eight times the number of businesses signing up to use Postmates and an 84 percent increase in the number of Postmates couriers.
Connecting During COVID-19
Employees across all of the tech companies represented at The Race to Respond have pioneered creative ways to bring people together during the pandemic. Tom Tarantino, Head of City and State Public Policy at Twitter, said Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, occasionally does storytime for kids. Cloudflare now hosts its company yoga classes online and has seen a surge in attendance with employees tuning in from all over the world for exercise and relaxation. And at Slack, employees block out time on their calendars for childcare and homeschooling.
What we’ve seen during this pandemic is just how important the sharing economy is on so many levels.
—Sarah Rose, President and Chief Product Officer, TaskRabbit
Companies are also using their platforms to connect communities during this time. TaskRabbit launched Tasks for Good, a volunteer program allowing Taskers to donate their time and skills for free to support vulnerable individuals and organizations impacted by COVID-19. “It has been so beautiful and heartwarming to see the ways in which our clients are working with our Taskers and our Taskers have been able to help them,” said TaskRabbit President and Chief Product Officer, Sarah Rose.
TECH POLICY CONSIDERATIONS DURING THE PANDEMIC
COVID-19 has inspired a tidal wave of new regulations and regulatory conversations from government at all levels. Unsurprisingly, many of these new policies extend to tech companies and their response to the COVID-19 crisis. Here are a few key tech policy takeaways we learned during The Race to Respond.
- Ask workers what they need. Vikrum Aiyer of Postmates explained how this mentality has helped inform many of Postmates’ COVID-19 policies, including a Family and Childcare Assistance Program for Postmates couriers. Understanding workers’ needs also provides a good proxy for where policymakers are likely to regulate.
- Advance the conversation around portable benefits. COVID-19 has helped people recognize those providing essential services—whether that be in health care or delivery—for what they are, said Sarah Rose of TaskRabbit: “household heroes.” And an increasing number of essential services are carried out by independent workers through platforms like TaskRabbit and Postmates. That’s why Rose would like to see greater conversation around portable benefits, which preserve the flexibility and autonomy of people participating in the sharing economy while protecting workers.
- Deepen relationships with public health officials. One of the companies at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 misinformation, Twitter has partnered with top health organizations to ensure its platform delivers reliable information about COVID-19 to users. Now more than ever, said Tom Tarantino of Twitter, people need real-time, important health information from trusted sources.
- Internet access as a right. The importance of connectivity has never been more apparent than now during the COVID-19 pandemic. And with the world moving to even more digital platforms, remarked Aaron Levie of Box, policies will have to catch up to ensure people have access to the necessary technologies and infrastructure.
As we said from the start, these are just the highlights. So many other examples of tech’s leadership on the COVID-19 response were discussed throughout our evening with sea.citi and Protocol. If you want to learn more, watch the full video recording at the top of this post and subscribe to sf.citi’s weekly COVID-19 updates from the tech community!