Canadian tech companies forced to act quickly in wake of COVID-19

Around the world, a growing number of organizations are taking serious precautions to help curb the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus). As the World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic, business leaders have had to make unprecedented decisions for their companies to ensure the safety of individuals and the continued operation of their business. In the Canadian tech ecosystem, large organizations like Shopify and Lightspeed have opted to have all employees work remotely, while others are offering rotating work from home for teams.

While some companies are making the choice proactively, BetaKit has learned of at least two Toronto-based startups that experienced close calls with COVID-19, forcing them to take precautionary measures. BetaKit spoke with the CEOs of Top Hat and Ecobee about the steps they have been forced to take to ensure the safety of their employees, customers, and business.

Top Hat discovers event was held in COVID-19 effected hotel

After hosting a conference last week despite pressures to cancel, Top Hat has had to implement remote work after a presumptive case of COVID-19 was reported at the hotel where its conference took place.

On March 5 to 7, Top Hat hosted its annual higher education conference, Engage, in downtown New Orleans at the New Orleans Marriott, bringing together more than 300 participants from Canada and the United States (US).

“Last week it was a very different world … honestly, if Engage was this week we would have for sure cancelled it.”
– Mike Silagadze, Top Hat

At the same time, another conference, NICAR20, took place on a different floor of the hotel. More than 1,000 people attended that conference between March 5 to 8. Late Tuesday night, news broke that one attendee of NICAR20 had tested presumptively positive for COVID-19.

According to a statement from Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), which co-hosted NICAR20, the American attendee has mild symptoms and is expected to make a full recovery. They are self-quarantining at home for 14 days, as recommended by health professionals, and awaiting word from the Centers for Disease Control on whether the case will be verified as positive by federal authorities.

“Based on the onset of the limited symptoms, [the attendee] could have contracted the virus either before, during, or after the conference,” the IRE wrote. “The attendee has been reaching out … to people they had close contact with during the conference. In addition, IRE is notifying individuals who participated in a pre-registered hands-on class with the attendee.”

The statement noted that the attendee was present at the conference from March 5 until the afternoon of March 7. It is added that the spouse of the NICAR20 attendee has tested negative for the virus.

Around 50 of Top Hat’s 400 employees, including founder and CEO Mike Silagadze, and other executives like vice president of product marketing Nina Bilimoria Angelo, had been in attendance at the Top Hat event.

Top Hat founder and CEO Mike Silagadze on stage for the opening keynote of Engage 2020. March 6, 2020. Source Top Hat Twitter account.

Top Hat learned about the possible exposure late Tuesday night through local news stories noticed by a Top Hat employee. In a recent interview with BetaKit, Silagadze explained that no authorities from the hotel where the conferences were held, US public health officials, or NICAR20 itself, contacted Top Hat about the potential risk to its own conference attendees.

While Silagadze stated that the risk that an Engage attendee got infected is “quite low,” the company is taking the situation seriously and has taken precautions.

In an email on Tuesday night, Silagadze informed all employees that the 50 Top Hat employees, including Silagadze, who attended the event would be working from home for the recommended 14-day incubation period. He also extended the offer to work remotely to any employees who were not comfortable going into the company’s office.

At the time of publication, there have been no reports of confirmed or presumptive cases of COVID-19 among Top Hat employees or attendees of Engage.

Top Hat’s decision to host its conference came despite pressure to cancel. Over the last few weeks, many major tech companies including Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, made the decision to cancel their events as part of a broader global initiative to curb the spread of COVID-19. On February 28, Canadian tech leader Shopify cancelled its annual developer conference and recently asked all employees to work remotely.

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As Engage was being held last Friday, major North American tech conference Collision cancelled all in-person events, choosing to move the event online. Montreal-based Startupfest and Communitech’s True North also made the decision to either outright cancel or move online this week.

When asked about his decision to continue with Top Hat’s event, Silagadze noted the rapid changes over the last week. “Last week it was a very different world than it is this week,” the CEO said. “Honestly, if Engage was this week we would have for sure cancelled it.”

He told BetaKit that Top Hat had been monitoring the number of cases in both Canada and Louisiana, where the conference was held. The company decided to go ahead with Engage, the CEO said, because there were no COVID-19 cases in the state (Louisiana has 33 presumptive coronavirus cases as of Friday morning), and that Engage did not include international travel from outside Canada and the US.

“We kind of looked at it and said the risk was really, really low. But lucky us, there is the other conference, which had over 1,000 people attend and had international travel,” lamented Silagadze. “They may have made a different choice, but we were impacted by that.”

Ecobee visitor tests positive for COVID-19

While Top Hat wrestled with difficult decisions in New Orleans, IoT startup Ecobee was pressed to act closer to home.

Last week, Ecobee learned that a person who had visited the company’s Toronto office on February 27 had later tested positive for COVID-19. The identity of this person is unknown to BetaKit, but the company has confirmed it was not an Ecobee employee.

In an email sent out to all Ecobee staff on the evening of March 7, Ecobee CEO Stuart Lombard stated that the individual had interacted with “a limited number of ecopeeps” and had not been showing symptoms at the time.

“We diligently executed against a series of steps including conducting a series of consistent deep cleans.”
– Stuart Lombard, Ecobee

“[The person] may not have had COVID-19 at the time,” Lombard wrote. “We have let specific individuals in the meeting know and, thankfully, none have developed symptoms.”

In a statement to BetaKit, Lombard said that upon learning of the case, Ecobee immediately consulted three separate healthcare professionals as well as Toronto Public Health to help the company develop an appropriate response plan.

The CEO noted in his email to employees that Toronto Public Health advised Ecobee that the risk of transmission was very low as the virus spreads through airborne transmission and the person was not showing symptoms at the time of the office visit.

Upon learning about the case, Ecobee had everyone who had been in contact with the person work from home in an incubation period that was set to end March 12.

“I personally notified anyone who had been in contact with the person in question,” Lombard said in the statement to BetaKit. “We diligently executed against a series of steps including conducting a series of consistent deep cleans, sealing off the exposed area, and alerting all employees.”

Founded in 2007, offering the world’s first smart wi-fi thermostat, Ecobee currently employs close to 500 people, with the majority of those housed out of its Toronto office.

At the time of publication, there have been no reports of confirmed or presumptive cases of COVID-19 among Ecobee employees.

Rapidly embracing remote work

On Thursday, Ecobee followed in the footsteps of other major tech companies and implemented a remote work policy for a portion of its workforce.

“Since the outset of the outbreak of COVID-19 we have been working quickly to set up our offices for a remote-first work environment,” Lombard told BetaKit, noting that beginning Monday, March 16 Ecobee’s “internal team” will make the switch.

“For a company like Top Hat where, at any given time, we’ll have maybe 300 people in our office, that feels like it will be too drastic a step for now.”

Silagadze pointed to the importance of putting together an action plan to make it possible for companies to be successful remotely. The Top Hat CEO noted that his company immediately took action on Wednesday, setting up plans and processes to make sure employees had the right tools (such as laptops) and resources (such as Slack and Zoom) to successfully work from home.

“In many ways, we’re looking at this as an opportunity,” explained Silagadze. “We’re actually very well set up as a company to run remotely … we’re trying to treat this as an opportunity to beef up our management processes such that people can be successful whether we’re in the office or not.”

It’s not always an option for every company or employee to work remotely, however. Those who work in service industries or have specialized equipment often don’t have the capacity to stay home. This is where it can become difficult and why some companies have been unable to implement company-wide office closures.

Lombard noted that, originally, not all off Ecobee’s staff were set up to work remotely, but for those who could they were encouraged to do so. The CEO added that Ecobee spent the past week taking the necessary steps to enable all Ecobee employees to work from home and stated that as of Monday all employees will be equipped to work remotely.

As of the time of publication, Top Hat has decided not to implement a company-wide work from home policy. “There’s a balance here where you want to have a kind of a rational and measured response,” said Silagadze.

“If you’re a 5,000 person company, and there’s a huge amount of travel and commingling, I can feel more merit for that,” he said. “For a company like Top Hat where, at any given time, we’ll have maybe 300 people in our office, that feels like it will be too drastic a step for now.” The CEO noted, however, that Top Hat is currently evaluating a full work from home policy and will make a decision by Monday. He also acknowledged that if someone in the Top Hat office was infected the company would likely implement such a policy.

UPDATE 16/03/2020: As of Friday evening, Top Hat began recommending that employees work from home starting Monday. According to a company spokesperson, Top Hat’s office will remain open “should anyone prefer to physically come into the office.”

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“It’s not unreasonable to expect that this thing is actually going to become a normal part of life moving forward,” the CEO added. “We just need to figure out how to deal with it.”

On Thursday, Top Hat did announce it is making its active learning platform for higher education free for the rest of the semester. In a blog post, the company noted that the hope is to support educators who currently have active classes but need to transition online. The move comes as some North American institutions have decided to suspend classes or move online – something that has become common amongst schools in China.

Top Hat made no reference in the blog post to its recent connection to COVID-19, but Silagadze told BetaKit that on Wednesday Top Hat made it a priority to message all customers and partners who attended Engage to apprise them of the situation.

“Be empathetic and be a part of the solution,” was Lombard’s advice. “In the short term you may have to put your business on pause, in the long run doing right by your employees is good for your business. Do what you can to help reduce the spread of the virus, lessen any potential burden on our healthcare system and make sure your people and their families feel safe.”

“Setting up our teams to work remotely was something Ecobee was able to action in under a week,” the CEO added. “If you haven’t already prepared for your staff to work from home, start now and try to do the same.”

Here is a resource from World Health Organization on guidelines for businesses and employers amid COVID-19.

Feature image source Unsplash. Photo by CDC.

Meagan Simpson

Meagan Simpson

Meagan is the Associate Editor for BetaKit. A tech writer that is super proud to showcase the Canadian tech scene. Background in almost every type of journalism from sports to politics. Podcast and Harry Potter nerd, photographer and crazy cat lady.