As news of the COVID-19 outbreak made its way around the world earlier this year, so did the news of people stockpiling items such as protective face masks.
Initially, the folks at Point Inside in Bellevue joked about these buying sprees. But as more stories about the coronavirus appeared in the news, company co-founder and chair Josh Marti said there was a “flood of awareness” and concerns as people began thinking about what these rushes to the stores and outbreaks in other parts of the world actually meant.
With this in mind, Marti said they started transitioning employees to work from home toward the end of February — this was before the first coronavirus-related death was reported on Feb. 29 out of Life Care Center of Kirkland. Point Inside, which focuses on indoor mapping to help retailers and advertisers gain insight into foot traffic in malls and airports, made the transition in phases with small groups of employees at a time. Marti said these phases allowed them to work out any kinks, bumps or bugs as well as figure out which work flow tools worked best for their line of work, before transitioning all of their employees to work from home. The company made it mandatory for all employees to work from home on March 2 — just days after the first death was reported.
Since Point Inside made that transition to have all of its employees working from home, others on the Eastside have made the same shift — many of which came before Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 23 “stay home, stay healthy” order. Whether it has been holding virtual meetings and conference calls or shifting to provide services over the phone or online, businesses, agencies and nonprofit organizations are utilizing technology to continue their work and serve their respective customers and communities.
Hitting all the channels
Kathy McCorry, CEO of the Greater Issaquah Chamber of Commerce, said they have been using technology — through the means of social media, email lists and the chamber’s website — to let their members know about the various resources available to businesses. She said they are also letting people know about some of creative ways businesses are continuing to serve customers — including restaurants utilizing food-delivery services such as DoorDash or Uber Eats and yoga studios offering online classes.
McCorry said their goal is to gather any and all information relevant to businesses in one email to be sent out to their members once or twice a week.
Like many businesses, McCorry said chamber staff has also been working from home, acknowledging the challenges it may pose for those with children.
“It’s a lot to be asking of [the employees],” she said.
And while technology has allowed the chamber to stay connected and continue informing its members, it can be a double-edged sword. McCorry said with so many outlets out there for people to receive information — from Facebook and Twitter, to Nextdoor and local blogs — the chamber has to make sure to reach all of those channels to ensure as many people are getting the message as possible.
For city governments, technology has allowed them to continue to provide essential services for their communities while keeping city employees and residents safe and healthy.
In the city of Issaquah, many facilities are closed and city employees who can work remotely are.
“We’re using laptops, headsets and Skype Business tools to hold internal meetings, as well as serve our external customers via phone and email,” Autumn Monahan, assistant to the city administrator, said.
Monahan added that councilmembers and staff are now able to remote in for meetings. In addition, community members are encouraged to send written comments ahead of time via email and watch the meeting live at issaquahwa.gov/ictv.
“I am extremely grateful for the work of our talented information technology team, who set up many of these tools before this emergency, enabling our city to respond very quickly,” Monahan said.
Adapting with the times
Jonny Chambers, director of information technology for the city of Redmond, said only certain city staff in certain departments are still reporting to work in person including first responders, public works employees (such as those who make road repairs) and inspectors who have to approve permit applications. Anyone who works in an office or administrative role has been working from home. Chambers said when City Hall initially closed for what they thought would be a week, the city had about 120-130 employees working remotely. But when the closure extended through the end of April, that number jumped to about 500 employees.
“It’s been going exceptionally well,” Chambers said.
He said technology has helped departments throughout the city be as productive as possible. Redmond has been using Microsoft Teams, which the city invested in about eight or nine months ago. The software supports features including conference calls, instant messaging and document sharing. Chambers said staffers also have direct, remote access to specific technology such as billing and human resources software that allows them to continue with the city’s business operations.
In order to prepare for employees to successfully work remotely, Chambers said training included showing people how the programs and software they used to work would show up on their computers at home. He added that he has been impressed with city staff’s willingness to adapt.
Businesses and residents can also still interact with the city, he said. Tasks such as bill paying, business license renewals and planning applications can be done online.
Redmond City Council meetings are also available to stream online, including on Facebook Live. This way, Chambers said, people can attend meetings while following social distancing protocols. He added that council has been using Microsoft Teams in meetings for members who may need to join in remotely. This was an investment the city made eight or nine months ago.
“We knew the demand was there,” Chambers said.
Maintaining critical functions
In North Bend, meetings still being held are being conducted virtually on Skype, Zoom or teleconferencing.
Jill Green, communications manager for the city, said they have reduced staffing at City Hall.
“Emergency essential employees are to continue to come to City Hall each day for work, unless they are sick, or are otherwise assigned a specific schedule,” she said.
Green said residents are encouraged to use the dropbox for utility payments or to pay online. They may also go to North Bend’s website for other services and contact city staff via phone or email.
“My first goal remains to keep our staff and our citizens healthy and safe. While doing this, we must also ensure we provide critical functions at our water and sewer and wastewater treatment plant facilities,” North Bend Mayor Rob McFarland said in a statement to Sound Publishing. “We have plans in place to ensure that if the pandemic worsens, we will have available staff to operate and maintain those critical functions. In addition, we have the goal for the city work at large to continue to the greatest extent practical.”
Learning from snow days
In Kirkland, the city is using Zoom to conduct council meetings, allowing councilmembers to participate without being in the same room.
Kellie Stickney, communications program manager for the city, said staff has also been set up to work from home. The city has been building up its technology in the last year or so and Stickney credits this to the heavy snowfalls the region saw in February 2019. She said that was when they realized it was important to have a virtual City Hall and make services accessible online and by phone for the public.
The city’s emergency operations center is still up and running in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, but Stickney said they are having people remote in so there are fewer people in the actual building.
Other ways Kirkland has changed the way it operates is limiting in-person contact for police. Stickney said if it is not a crime in progress or life-threatening situation, officers are taking reports and witness statements over the phone.
“We’re serving the community but we’re limiting the amount of physical contact [when possible],” she said.
Stickney added that firefighters are still responding to calls in person and police officers and firefighters are voluntarily screening themselves for symptoms when the come into work. There are areas set up for them to do this before they enter fire stations with supplies such as thermometers and sanitizers.
Stickney said some essential fire staff are being asked to come into work, though they can propose how they could complete their duties from home and then that would be considered by their manager.
Supporting the community
A large part of the services PFLAG Bellevue Eastside provides to support the local LGBTQ+ community and their families is its monthly meetings. The chapter holds two each month — one in Bellevue and one in Bothell. But as the outbreak spread and people were encouraged to stay home and practice social distancing, organizers decided to move their March meetings, which were March 16 and 19, online.
Chapter president Ginger Chien, who has had personal experience using various instant messaging and video chat programs, said they decided use Zoom to hold their meetings because they wanted to get things off the ground quickly. The chapter serves a wide range of people with a wide range of technology experience — from teens to seniors in their 70s. Chien said they wanted something that was pretty easy to use as the couldn’t coach people on how to use the technology in real time.
Chien said there is still so much fear and stigma around the LGBTQ+ community and one advantage of holding their meetings online is “you can be more private” than in person, which could attract more people to attend. But on the other hand, she said they can’t really control who joins and that people can also use false names. Chien said they let people in the meetings know this so people could manage what they share accordingly.
While support groups are a large portion of PFLAG meetings, Chien said they also have speakers, a resource table and lending library. She said they may share online resources using Zoom’s chat function during virtual meetings or provide this information on customized backgrounds with the video function. Chien acknowledged that in holding meetings online, some things may fall short, but it is better than nothing.
She said their PFLAG chapter is committed to continuing their meetings as they need to do it for the LGBTQ+ community. Chien said families in their community can already feel isolated and in this time when people are staying home, they don’t want that to get worse.
Being together virtually
Businesses, governments and nonprofits are not the only ones utilizing technology during this time of isolation. Technology has also allowed people to stay connected and social with each other.
Bothell resident Kendra Brown typically meets up with her friends a couple times a month but with everyone staying home, they have taken their get togethers online. She said one of her friends initiated a Zoom “tea time.”
Brown said because they were hanging out online, they were also able to include another friend from their group who now lives in Australia.
After time with her friends, Brown said it was “pretty fun.”
“We’ve had a lot of fun catching up and sharing stories while drinking wine and staying relaxed in our sweats,” she said.
In addition to allowing her to connect with her friends, Brown said she also planned to set up Zoom play dates for her first grader.
“Kids don’t do well on a phone call,” she said about how a video call could work better for youngsters.
During his March 26 press conference, Gov. Jay Inslee also demonstrated how he and his family have been staying connected electronically, showing a screenshot of a Zoom video call featuring four generations of his and his wife’s families.
“I hope this can be replicated,” Inslee said. “This is a time we can be together and I know we are.”
Much of life is continuing nowadays virtually — in some form or another — thanks to technology as well as people’s online habits, according to Marti of Point Inside. He said while the technology may have been around 5-10 years ago, the rise of social media and smartphones has made it easier to for people and business to make the transition.
If the COVID-19 outbreak had happened during a time when certain technologies were not available, Green said North Bend would continue to provide essential services.
Chambers with the city of Redmond said if the outbreak were happening any time around 2010-15, “the city would have some very difficult choices,” saying it would have been “almost impossible” to run things the way they are now. He said cloud technology plays a large role in allowing them to function at the level they are.
A decade ago, Chambers said there would have been a small city presence working and a lot more people not working. And there would be a lot more smaller businesses and cities that would have had to close down completely.
Stickney said it would have been “exceptionally more challenging” to keep Kirkland running in this situation in the early to mid 2010s. She said in addition to remote working options that were not as available back then, the Internet speeds of present day also factor into the equation in making it easier for people to work from home.