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Category: Press

MPR News: Former Medtronic CEO: ‘The Office Is Going To Change Dramatically’

The economic pain from COVID-19 spans businesses big and small, across industries — and it isn’t clear when it will let up. That makes for tough planning on the part of business owners and executives.

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer talked with Bill George about how the corporate sector is weathering the pandemic — and what changes could come to businesses in a post-pandemic world. George is a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, and the former chair and CEO of Medtronic.

Listen to the full interview here: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2020/05/05/former-medtronic-ceo-on-pandemics-business-impacts-the-office-is-going-to-change-dramatically

NY Times: Bezos Takes Back the Wheel at Amazon

SEATTLE — At the end of February, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, and his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, were in France discussing climate change with President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace and celebrating atop the Eiffel Tower with the designer Diane von Furstenberg. Days later, paparazzi spotted the couple grabbing dinner at Carbone in New York.

By late March, he had decamped to his ranch in West Texas, focusing on Amazon as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the United States.

After years of working almost exclusively on long-term projects and pushing day-to-day management to his deputies, Mr. Bezos, 56, has turned back to the here-and-now problems facing Amazon, the company said, as the giant retailer grapples with a surge of demand, labor unrest and supply chain challenges brought on by the coronavirus.

He is holding daily calls to help make decisions about inventory and testing, as well as how and when — down to the minute — Amazon responds to public criticism. He has talked to government officials. And in April, for the first time in years, he made a publicized visit to one of Amazon’s warehouses.

“For now, my own time and thinking continues to be focused on Covid-19 and how Amazon can help while we’re in the middle of it,” Mr. Bezos wrote to shareholders last week.

Mr. Bezos’ daily oversight hasn’t led to perfectly smooth sailing. Amazon has struggled to respond quickly to the growing number of coronavirus cases in its work force, and it has been slammed with orders from consumers.

But Amazon is one of the few companies that have benefited financially from the crisis. Because of all the customer demand, shares of the company have hit record highs. That has made Mr. Bezos, the wealthiest man in the world, $25 billion richer since early March.

Mr. Bezos’ change reflects how completely different managing is during a crisis, said Bill George, a former chief executive of the medical device company Medtronic who teaches leadership at Harvard Business School.

“That you analyze, plan, delegate, hold people accountable — all those good techniques kind of go out the window,” Mr. George said. “The leader, no matter how large the company, does need to take charge.”

Before the pandemic, Mr. Bezos increasingly spent his time away from Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle. He traveled the world and devoted a day each week to Blue Origin, his space exploration company.

At Amazon, Mr. Bezos typically gave his priority to projects that addressed a major risk to the business or where he felt he was uniquely qualified to get involved, according to two people familiar with his process, who like others interviewed for this article requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss Amazon’s operations publicly. That meant he was spending more time on fun, futuristic bets. Before the voice assistant Alexa was released, he held several meetings a week to track the product’s development. He closely followed the cashierless Amazon Go stores.

Focusing on the long term is “pretty much all” he did, Mr. Bezos told Forbes in 2018, in one of the few in-depth interviews he has done about Amazon in recent years. “I very rarely get pulled into the today,” he said.

The coronavirus crisis changed that luxury. At first, he publicly went dark. No trips were documented on his Instagram account, and on March 4, when Amazon told its headquarters employees to work from home, the email came from a generic office safety email account, signed by “Amazon Human Resources.”

The company’s board meeting, scheduled in Seattle the next week, was held online, and Mr. Bezos began talking regularly with his executives, focused on responding to Covid-19. Eventually, he held the calls daily, including on weekends.

Mr. Bezos has been “incredibly focused on this and is participating in, and driving, our leadership meetings” for the response, Jay Carney, the company’s senior vice president for corporate affairs, said in a March 31 interview.

As the coronavirus gripped the country, cases appeared among workers in Amazon’s warehouses. By mid-March, Amazon’s vaunted logistics operations were breaking; customers wanted more products just as fewer warehouse workers showed up for their shifts, afraid to risk getting the virus or left to care for children whose schools had closed.

Mr. Bezos and the other executives soon approved plans to stop accepting low-priority items into warehouses and to delay customer shipments of other items that Amazon considered low demand, according to three people briefed on the changes.

Mr. Bezos helped decide which features to remove from the Amazon website to reduce customer demand, such as burying its popular page promoting daily deals, one of the people said. He also approved delaying Prime Day, the company’s summer shopping extravaganza.

Still, workers and lawmakers increasingly called for more precautions at the warehouses. On March 21, Mr. Bezos sent a rare letter to all of Amazon’s employees, which the company immediately posted on its blog. He said the company had ordered millions of face masks for workers, though few of those orders had been filled.

“My list of worries right now — like yours I’m sure — is long,” he wrote.

Waiting weeks to address his employees was a mistake, particularly when Seattle had an early outbreak of the virus, Mr. George said.

“You need to be out there early, every day, and talking to your people,” he said. “If the people are risking themselves, you need to be there with them.”

Amazon said the senior executive who oversees operations had communicated with employees earlier.

In late March, Mr. Bezos posted on Instagram a picture of him holding a video chat with Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, one of several officials he has talked with. The photo gave a glimpse of Mr. Bezos’ puppy, which sometimes yaps during calls, and the Saltillo tile at his West Texas ranch. (Amazon said he had worked from other places as well.)

Mr. Inslee said in an interview in late March that Mr. Bezos had focused on the issue of vastly increasing testing for the coronavirus in the state and country.

“We were talking about whether we could somehow activate the Amazon supply chain to see if we could mobilize the production and distribution of those assets, including the delivery logistics,” Mr. Inslee said.

Testing has animated Mr. Bezos, Mr. Carney said.

“How do we get to a point where tests are available on demand,” Mr. Carney said about Mr. Bezos’ thinking, “where results are as close to instant as possible?” That would let Amazon and other employers identify and quickly “isolate places where there are potential outbreaks and then defeat this,” Mr. Carney said.

Meeting notes from Mr. Bezos’ call with executives on April 1, which were obtained by The New York Times, showed that they had discussed working with medical organizations to focus on expanding testing capacity for its workers and others “to help immunize from criticism that we’re selfish in using the tests for employees.”

The company would later announce plans to start building its own small lab. “We are not sure how far we will get in the relevant time frame, but we think it’s worth trying,” Mr. Bezos told shareholders.

He has joined the daily calls from the new testing team, which has procured tests and is close to rolling out a pilot program to test employees, according to a person familiar with the effort.

Notes from the daily meeting, which were first obtained and published by Vice, also showed that the warehouse crisis, and organizing by workers to raise safety concerns, continued to be a risk to the company. While the notes do not mention Mr. Bezos by name, they reported “general agreement” among the executives about how Amazon should handle an employee who the company said had been fired for breaking quarantine rules when he protested its safety measures. The notes said the company should make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement,” adding that he was “not smart, or articulate.” Amazon’s general counsel, who wrote the meeting notes, later apologized.

The publication of the notes prompted criticism from New York officials and several U.S. senators.

On April 8, when the virus had spread to more than 50 Amazon facilities, Mr. Bezos made a surprise visit to a Whole Foods store and an Amazon warehouse, both near Dallas, which the company filmed. Afterward, he asked other executives why masks, which the company had finally obtained, weren’t being required, according to a person involved in the response.

A few days later, Amazon told its warehouse workers that they had to wear masks.

This content was originally posted on NYTimes.com on 4/22/20.

Daily Beast: How People in Large Cities Will Actually Go Back to Work

How will we reopen our economy? Here’s a good article on that:

“As Americans begin to climb out of COVID-19 lockdown, physical workspaces may not appear all that different, at least on the outside. But from factories to office buildings to retail stores to bars and restaurants, experts say employers need to impose aggressive guidelines—and install new hardware—that could radically reshape life for everyone involved.

For starters, workplaces may need hand-hygiene stations at every entrance, elevator, conference room, and lounge. Employees will likely be encouraged to work from home if they can for the indefinite future. All dining areas in restaurants and cafeterias will face pressure—or be required—to increase the distance between tables and decrease the number of people per top. Companies will move aggressively to test as many employees as possible, employers will implement staggered shift schedules where possible, and workers without access to sick leave and health care will have new ammunition to demand them.

It almost goes without saying that everyone should be using face coverings, that virtual conference meetings should take the place of in-person meetings where they can, and that business travel should be severely limited.

But as conservative governors in states like Georgia move to reopen public spaces—despite health experts’ fears that coronavirus curves have not come close enough to flattening—it’s clear that some workplaces will be far better prepared than others.

“It’s going to be many months of trial-and-error,” said Yoel Har-Even, director of resource development and chief of staff at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer. “Workplaces need to understand that there will be peaks and valleys to this.”

Factories

Har-Even emphasized the need for free protective gear for everyone—employees and customers—at all businesses, as well as temperature checks and a wealth of access to hand sanitizer.

According to the Wall Street Journal, several companies—including Amazon and General Motors—are exploring the feasibility of testing all employees for COVID-19 before allowing them to return to work in-person. But American diagnostic tests—of which there still aren’t enough for all the health-care workers and sick patients—aren’t all that reliable, and the use of them for work raises significant questions about privacy.

Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, pointed out that current lack of widespread testing also sharpens systematic disparities in access to health care. For instance, those who are undocumented or economically disadvantaged—many of whom work at factories across the nation—may find themselves even more marginalized amid evolving best practices.

“Having measures in place so that people can stay home—and aren’t penalized—is going to be very important,” said Rupp.

Though many American employers already provide flu shots, diagnostic testing for the coronavirus is more invasive and costly, and antibody—or serology—tests come with their own problems, including questionable effectiveness in detecting immunity.

But as Dr. Brittany Kmush, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who specializes in epidemiology, global health, and infectious diseases, noted to The Daily Beast, the cost for tests isn’t a one-off expense.

“You can’t just test people with this virus once,” said Kmush. “You’d have to be able to keep testing people—and to make sure you protect the people who do test positive and get them the care they need.”

Har-Even suggested that big companies may need health-care workers onsite to provide infection control—the same way that big construction companies employ specialists in hazardous materials.

Meanwhile, the cost of failure here for any business is high, according to Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former chair and CEO of Medtronic. He cited the outbreaks at Smithfield Foods’ meat processing plants in Cudahy, Wisconsin and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the latter of which is now one of the largest COVID-19 hotspots in the country with at least 644 confirmed cases.

“Factories must look at new ways of laying out their production lines, adding plexiglass barriers, of testing people when they come into the factory,” said George.

Fiat Chrysler’s plants in the U.S. plan to require workers to fill out a detailed health questionnaire two hours before work each day, reported The Kokomo Tribune. The company has said it plans to use the break in production to redesign work stations for social distancing and to expand cleaning protocols at all manufacturing locations.

“I think that companies have realized the disruption that comes from an uncontrolled outbreak,” said Rupp. “Having folks play by these rules is in their own self-interest.”

Offices

According to a report out of MIT, because of the pandemic shutdown, approximately 34 percent of American workers who previously commuted to offices were logging on from their homes by the first week of April. Experts surveyed by The Daily Beast suggested that those who can keep working from home should plan to do so for the foreseeable future, especially if it means avoiding potentially treacherous commutes on public transportation like in New York City.

But for those who do return, said George: “You’re going to have to move desks six feet away.”

At least one commercial real estate services firm recently tested a design concept called “Six Feet Office,” which shows foot traffic routing to keep workers far enough apart as they move around the office. And according to Bloomberg News and Vox, businesses may feel little choice but to experiment with more automatic doors, voice-recognition software in high-traffic surfaces like elevators, plexiglass barriers, more space between desks, more frequent cleaning policies, newer ventilation systems—which are already in development by the International Facility Management Association—and even UV lights to disinfect the spaces overnight. Open-plan offices could veer back to cubicles.

As Bloomberg reported, in Shanghai, at Unilever, employees reserve spaced out free seats on a shuttle bus using a chat group, and sit on alternating sides. The same kind of QR codes controversially being used to track citizens’ COVID-19 status in Chinese cities like Beijing have been used by Unilever to provide a health status report the company can read before granting access to the campus for the day. Temperatures are monitored, hand sanitizer is used liberally, employees wear masks, take the stairs, and only sit one person per four-seat table in the cafeteria.

But it’s not all about technological developments, according to Rupp, who noted that many of the best practices for the modern American workplace after lockdown are “things we should have done in the past anyway.” Things like having ready access to hand hygiene and to low-level disinfectants for people sharing a desk or telephones.

“Those make common sense even without a pandemic,” said Rupp, adding that the same goes for the previously pervasive principle that those with only mild allergies or colds should try to “push through it” and “tough it out,” coming into the office anyway.

“Those days are gone,” said Rupp. “If you have an illness, we’d rather you be at home getting better than at work spreading germs.”

Restaurants

In Georgia on Monday, Gov. Brian Kemp said some restaurants and bars would be allowed to open as soon as next week. But the timeline for reopening most restaurants and bars remains far more uncertain in much of the country. Dr. Rupp, of the University of Nebraska, suggested maximum capacities already used for fire safety in buildings might be a useful blueprint for creating a kind of “COVID code” for workspaces, restaurants, retail establishments, and more.

As famous Momofuku restaurateur, author, and television personality David Chang tweeted: “Restaurants need to plan for what 50 percent capacity dining-in looks like.”

“We are way past due for an updated national protocol for food safety in a COVID-19 world. Restaurant workers need to know what PPE to use,” he added. “These are things we can plan for now.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco restaurateur himself, told residents to expect a gradual—or rolling, soft—reopening of establishments. He said temperature checks could be implemented on both employees and diners, that waiters may be wearing gloves, menus may be disposable, tables further apart, and there may be fewer patrons at each table, period.

As Eater reported, in March, restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten reopened his businesses in Shanghai and Guangzhou. He noted the government imposed a slew of restrictions: temperature checks for chefs and customers, no tables larger than four patrons, at least six feet between each table, and all payments touch-free through an app on their phones. But he also described a strange quiet in restaurants and said he hoped the U.S. would be less draconian in its application of public health measures for dining establishments.

Retail

A Nebraska mall that controversially announced plans for a soft reopening this coming Thursday said it planned to implement temperature checks and social distancing regulations for shoppers.

In a letter to store owners and shoppers, Nebraska Crossing Outlet Mall said it bought 100 non-contact, instant read thermometers—one for each store—so they could take the temperature of every employee before work and possibly every shopper.

Plastic shields have been installed at every point of sale, every shopper is being “encouraged” to wear a mask and gloves, hand sanitizer dispensers and wipes have been installed throughout the mall, and busy areas will be misted with “electrostatic disinfectant” throughout the day.

Mall owner Rod Yates suggested the opening could be a chance for national retailers to “test out best practices for eventually reopening across the country,” as he told Nebraska’s NET News.

Employees were not enthused. “None of us signed up to be guinea pigs,” one store manager told The Omaha World-Herald.

Over the weekend, two farmers’ markets in Seattle reopened, requesting that every shopper take an oath of 14 steps, including not touching products, staying home if they feel sick, designating one shopper per household, wearing a mask, and offering a wave and a smile at farmers rather than stopping for a long chat. The layout of the market was also changed to increase space between booths, and shoppers were encouraged to preorder and use drive-through.

Some powerful elected officials seem intent on moving more quickly than others: Georgia’s Gov. Kemp announced that fitness centers—among other businesses—in the state may be reopened even sooner than restaurants, by later this week. But Kevin Keith, chief brand officer for fitness studio chain OrangeTheory, told The Daily Beast that the company’s gyms in 26 countries will “change permanently.”

Studios will have “dramatically reduced” capacity, classes will be shortened from an hour to 45 minutes to allow staff to clean everything in between, staff will most likely wear masks, and members won’t be allowed to congregate in lobbies for a catch-up before and after classes.

Regardless of the industry—and even when governors and other state officials are extremely careful—the potential for setbacks is inescapable. As Har-Even put it, “It’s going to be a rollercoaster.”

This content was originally published on DailyBeast.com on 4/21/2020.

An Easter Message of Hope in the midst of Pandemic

The joys of Easter with the empty tomb remind us that no matter how dark the days were – and they were truly dark on Good Friday – that there is always hope for a new beginning.

These are indeed sad and very difficult times for so many people who are suffering from COVID-19, locked within their home, separated from loved ones, and the millions who are out of work and not sure how to get enough food or make their payments. 

In the midst of this pain and suffering, we are learning new ways to be together in community, we are celebrating the health care heroes on the front lines who are risking their lives to save others, and we are sharing our hope across the Internet.

With no travel, no sporting events, no concerts or theaters, no restaurants or bars open, we are rediscovering how much we appreciate this “found time” to share with loved ones, to read and watch moving films, and to reflect on our lives and the deeper meaning of this shared experience.

Out of that reflection and the hope for a new beginning, may we discover the opportunities to appreciate what truly matters in life and to find new ways that each of us can use our gifts to make a difference in the world.

The Mindfulness Movement

Feeling stress this holiday weekend? Seeking calm? Here is a great opportunity:

“The Mindfulness Movement” is a fantastic documentary about mindfulness meditation, featuring Deepak Chopra, Dan Goldman, Jon-Kabat Zinn, Richard Davidson & many more leaders.

Watch here: https://themindfulnessmovement.com/