Employers navigate virus pandemic without firm guidelines

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In this March 11, 2020, photo, Lindsay Garfield, Finance Director at SquareFoot, which helps companies find office space, works from home in New York. Authorities from New York to California have called on employers to allow those who can to work from home in a bid to slow the spread of the virus. Garfield said she gets more done without the constant office interruptions. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

NEW YORK, N.Y. – It started with extra hand sanitizer and wipes for keyboards and headphones. Then came the directive for employees to lug their laptops home every night just in case. Finally, the memo arrived urging all employees to work from home — just not in their pajamas.

The scene at New York real estate firm SquareFoot is playing repeatedly across the U.S. as workplaces make a mass shift toward allowing employees who can to work remotely in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

With no firm federal or local guidance on when or how to act, employers are weighing how far to take their own disruptive emergency measures as communities from New York to California shut down around them. And the millions who can't work from home face uncertainty as their workplaces see a business drop or shut down completely, from museums and concert halls to Disneyland.

Even for companies that employ mostly office workers, the sudden change is complicated. Not all client meetings can shift to phone or video. Employees lack laptops, security passwords or even the right ergonomic chair. Companies — and employees — are worried about a drop-off in productivity.

“Please do not treat this as a vacation,” SquareFoot's managers said in a memo, encouraging employees to change their clothes, sit at a table and get into “a routine that gets you into the mindset of work.”

Many companies have a mix of employees who can easily do their jobs remotely and others who can't.

Amazon — among other big tech companies — told much of its office staff to work from home, but workers who pick, pack and ship orders are still reporting to warehouses with extra hand sanitizers on the walls.

J.P. Morgan Chase has sent traders to back-up sites in New Jersey and Brooklyn because they require specialized work stations. The investment bank has split its New York-area employees into groups that will take turns working from home starting Friday, but employees at bank branches are expected on-site.