By Sarah E. Needleman 

Companies are urging or requiring employees to work from home, a reaction to the global spread of the new coronavirus that is testing their ability to maintain normal business operations.

Nearly half of 158 U.S. businesses surveyed by Willis Towers Watson in mid-February said they were implementing or expanding remote-work programs due to the epidemic. The respondents, more than half of which were multinationals, collectively employ nearly 1.5 million people and are mostly in manufacturing, information technology, financial services and retail, the employer-advisory firm said. Inc. has urged its Seattle-area employees to work from home until the end of March, a company spokeswoman said. The recommendation came after a Seattle headquarters employee tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

In Washington state's King County, which includes Seattle, firms including Microsoft Corp. are following the advice of public health officials by having their staff complete work remotely. The state has emerged as a hotbed for the virus, with at least 70 confirmed infections as of Thursday and where all but one of the country's 11 deaths have occurred.

Employees of drugmaker Merck & Co. who have visited areas affected by the coronavirus outbreak have been "guided" to work from their homes "for a period of time" before returning to work, a spokesman said.

Other companies including Twitter Inc. and Inc. are asking office workers to work from home without having identified any infected employees.

A group of U.S. senators sent a letter to industry trade groups calling on their member companies to offer flexible scheduling options and ensure workers wouldn't lose their jobs if they need to stay home for their own or family health reasons.

The shake-up means that companies need to quickly provide employees with training and resources for doing their jobs away from the office. But it's a potentially tricky task for ones whose workforces normally operate on site or that aren't used to overseeing large numbers of remote workers at once.

"This is complex," said John Bremen, managing director, human capital and benefits, at Willis Towers Watson. "People really have to act differently and in ways they may never have done before."

For example, employees may need to provide more frequent progress reports since it may not be clear to managers what they are doing from afar, Mr. Bremen said. Similarly, managers may need to put in more effort to communicate their needs if they can't as easily demonstrate how to do something, he said.

Ellie Jarvis, a 19-year-old information-technology employee in the U.K., has worked several days from home this week due to the spread of the virus. She said her employer, a small real-estate firm, offered the option to anyone who commutes by public transportation. She normally rides a bus for about 90 minutes each way to get to and from her job.

"I have a program that allows me to connect to anybody in my company who needs support," said Ms. Jarvis, adding that she doesn't mind the change of scenery so far. "I am very glad because it feels the safest way to do things for now," she said. "It's going really well actually."

Some companies whose jobs can't be done at home, such as grocery-store cashiers and factory workers face a more challenging situation. Walmart Inc. said it is telling workers not to clock in if they feel ill and encouraged employees to take preventive measures to preserve their health.

Some 44% of respondents to Willis Towers's survey increased access to hand sanitizers for their North American employees, while 59% have deployed communication campaigns geared toward preventing the spread of the virus.

Companies in recent months have been curbing employee travel and prohibiting staff from attending in-person conferences. Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart, the world's largest retailer, on Thursday said it would restrict domestic and international employee travel to business-critical trips and cancel an important annual gathering of U.S. store managers to be held in Dallas next week. Merck said employees need approval to travel internationally to, from and through areas where there has been recent or sustained community transmission of the coronavirus.

Even when not faced with a health or other crisis, overseeing a remote workforce can be challenging. International Business Machines Corp. scaled back its decades-old remote-work program in 2017, saying at the time it wanted to improve collaboration and accelerate the pace of work. The policy shift occurred after the company suffered 20 consecutive quarters of falling revenue.

An IBM spokesman said Thursday that though the program hasn't since been reinstated, the company has asked employees in Seattle to work remotely for now due to the virus outbreak. "Now, there are extenuating circumstances," he said.

In addition, IBM will now hold a client and developer conference scheduled for May online instead of in-person and it has implemented employee travel restrictions through the end of March, he said.

--Jared Hopkins contributed to this article.


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 05, 2020 17:32 ET (22:32 GMT)

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