Opinion: Corporate America can learn something from Seattle

This story originally appeared in Puget Sound Business Journal by Henry Albrecht

Whoever said one person can’t change the world, never met Jennifer Haller or Avi Schiffman.

Jennifer Haller, a Seattle mom of two, was the first person to test an experimental coronavirus vaccine. When she heard researchers were looking for volunteers, she quickly raised her hand because she knew it was something she could do for her community.

Avi Schiffman, a 17-year-old Seattle-area high school student, created a website that provides real-time stats and information about Covid-19. When asked why he created the website, Schiffman said, “So that I could make sure there was no misinformation and that the numbers were as accurate as possible.”

Thanks Avi and Jennifer, for making Seattle a place of volunteers and tinkerers, where science and care matter.

There was a time when the Seattle area was the U.S. epicenter of Covid-19. As Washington’s stay-at-home executive order ends, I reflect with pride back on moments like these, when people have taken care of others without being asked.

Like many others born and raised in the Jet City, I hear “What’s in it for me?” less than “What can I do to help?” The same city that spawned amazing health care innovations like Sonicare, well-being software and the defibrillator is ready to help again. (Forgive us for the Cinnabon and the Frappuccino for now.)

Seattle set the precedent with elected leaders who communicated frequently and forcefully, a rapid response from local charities and a focused and immediate response from many local tech companies. The new rules aren’t always popular — and we still have plenty of problems with rules here, as elsewhere — but they were rooted in the best available science and a genuine desire to protect the vulnerable.

The city’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the way its residents have cared for their community — from hospitals to corporate giants to individual citizens — can teach businesses of all sizes lessons in employee care and workplace innovation.

As Covid-19 spread throughout the greater Seattle area, many businesses and individuals had to make swift decisions for their health and safety.

Microsoft, like many other corporations based in the area, showed the importance of putting people first. In an effort to keep employees safe, Microsoft and many others (including Limeade) sent their Seattle workers home in early March, well ahead of Washington’s stay-at-home order issued on March 23. It was this employee-first rapid response that allowed many Seattle residents to stay safe and for the curve to flatten at a rate far faster than expected.

Then we have the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE) providing daily updates to the whole country on projected infections, tests and deaths. UW-educated data scientists, epidemiologists and economists will ready us for future challenges, sharing what we did right and wrong with a commitment to objectivity. Science will win.

In philanthropy, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation further demonstrated this principle by committing $250 million to coronavirus response efforts. Their funds will help in the development of testing, treatment and vaccines for Covid-19, and their efforts are a worldwide example of putting people before profit.

The main takeaway: If all corporate leaders put their employees first, lean on science and ask themselves “How can we help?” we will get through this. We know that when employees feel cared for, they are more likely to stay with their company, less likely to suffer from burnout and nine times more likely to recommend their company as a great place to work.

We also are home to well-known retailers, airlines and restaurants — so we’ve been hit hard economically. Now, the question becomes: How can organizations learn from Seattle’s geeks and do-gooders and apply care to their own cultures?

Companies must put their own “oxygen masks” on first. That means ensuring employees remain safe and that they have adequate clarity, resources and tools available. Companies need to find a path to economic sustainability that saves jobs and safeguards our businesses for the long-term. But how?

Take a hard look at your employee work policies and reevaluate what changes can be made to better support your workforce. To balance empathy and excellence, show trust in your employees by implementing flexible work policies that provide the right structure for staff to do their best work, and also give employees a say in what works for them and your business.

Additionally, assess your communications strategy, and err on the side of overcommunication. Your employees should hear from you — yes you, the CEO — early and often, and the overarching message must be crystal clear:

We value you as a person and an employee. I am not a robot and neither are you. And together, we got this.