Seattle has been roundly applauded for its collaborative, science-driven, and generally quite effective response to COVID-19. (By Fortune as well—a feature published in April highlights the coming together of the region’s public and private sectors, largely through the organization Challenge Seattle.)
Now, the community is working to bring the same cooperative approach to Seattle’s reopening. While timing decisions are, of course, driven by state, county, and city leadership, the city’s business and nonprofit sectors have been hustling to assist in ways that they hope will help guarantee the process’s success: gathering and sharing reopening best practices and strategies from the likes of Starbucks, Costco, Microsoft, and a couple dozen others.
In late April, a webinar for Seattle’s business community on that topic drew 700 virtual attendees. Two days later, the associated website with accompanying resources—a Back to Work Toolkit, which includes reopening checklists, COVID-relevant work signage (social distancing reminders, how not to wear a face mask, etc.), and a link to a Washington-based supplier of personal protective equipment (PPE)—had been visited more than 8,000 times.
“We wanted to provide turn-by-turn directions, the hard stuff,” says Katie Drucker, head of business development and partnerships for Madrona Venture Group, a Seattle-based venture capital firm that has taken the lead on the effort.
“People want to know questions like, Should we take temperatures when people get to the office, or should they do it at home? Do you close your conference rooms, or do you let people in? All those details take a lot of time for a company to figure out if you don’t have the resources of a large enterprise,” she says. “We said, let’s just solve it and lay out the best practices that we can find. Let’s give out all the regulations. Let’s give out templates and posters and make it so detailed that it saves everybody time.”
Working in partnership with area companies as well as the Chambers of Commerce of Seattle and neighboring Bellevue, Drucker estimates the team at Madrona spent more than 300 hours—including three successive weekends—on the project. Much of that time was spent in conversation with local government leaders and business executives, many of whom had valuable reopening insight from their operations in China or as “essential” businesses that have been running throughout the pandemic. Drucker was amazed by the generosity and willingness of high-powered business leaders to get on the phone and talk, at length, about the minutiae of pandemic-related decision-making. “The ROI on this,” says Drucker, “will be every hour we saved forward.”
A VC firm may not seem like the obvious lead for such an effort, but Drucker says it was a natural fit for Madrona, an early-stage tech investor whose bets have seeded Amazon, Redfin, Rover, and dozens of other startups over its 25 years. The firm’s current portfolio includes 80 companies, all of which are working through the business challenges presented by the pandemic. Before Drucker and her team started the reopening project in early April, they had been in overdrive trying to assist portfolio companies in understanding and accessing relief through the federal CARES Act. Madrona is also a member of Challenge Seattle, an organization that engages the area’s largest companies in addressing the region’s challenges. The group, helmed by former Washington State governor Chris Gregoire, has been instrumental in aligning the public and private sectors on the city’s pandemic response and reopening strategy.
While developed with the Seattle-area business community in mind, Madrona’s back-to-work toolkit offers detailed, practical guidance for companies elsewhere, too, says Drucker. She notes that while local, state, and federal regulations all provide a standard that businesses have to meet in reopening, many companies will want to reach a higher bar to ensure the safety of employees and operations. They recommended companies create their own reopening task forces to stay on top of the many issues presented by the situation.
The group’s top finding was clear: Two-way communication is key for companies now. Employers need to be listening to employees, not just talking to them in this moment; they also have to get to know and understand their employees like never before, noted Madrona’s director of talent, Shannon Anderson, on the webinar. Employee fears and ambitions, not to mention factors like childcare, transportation, and health issues, will all figure into an employee’s ability to return to work. (Based on their interviews, they recommended bringing back employees in waves.) The team highlighted as a best practice something that Amazon does—taking a “daily pulse” of its workforce by asking them to respond to one question.
Drucker’s team heard many concerns about the availability of PPE for workers and that being a challenge for businesses looking to reopen, so the team identified a Washington-based supplier, Bess International, that could provide surgical masks and gloves at scale. The company agreed to prioritize orders from Washington State customers. (Though it varied by industry, many they interviewed recommended giving employees a fresh surgical mask each day.)
The group also offered advice—much of it provided from real estate firm CBRE—on how to adjust office space to accommodate the new social distancing norms as well as how frequently to clean spaces. Training employees on pandemic office etiquette (wiping down desks and phones, for example) and leveraging technology to help ensure safety in the new environment were also recommended.
Though they tried, Drucker and her team didn’t have all the answers. “The area of greatest ambiguity right now in some ways mirrors our society as a whole,” she says, noting the challenge businesses are most grappling with is, “I can protect my space and maybe the people in my space, but what happens in the out-there?”
She hopes the Seattle business community will unite around the use of a common method or an app—maybe a homegrown one—that will help in the testing, tracking, and tracing effort that many say is necessary to prevent spread of the disease. “A public-private partnership is where that really needs to be defined,” Drucker adds.
There are signs she won’t have to wait long for that. After Fortune spoke with Drucker, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced on May 12 the state was working with the University of Washington on an app to assist with contact tracing efforts.
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