Michael Saylor does not often send all-staff emails to the more than 2,000 employees at Microstrategy, a business intelligence firm headquartered in Tysons Corner, Virginia. So the chief executive’s 3,000-word missive on Monday afternoon with the subject line My Thoughts on Covid-19 got his employees’ attention.
“It is soul-stealing and debilliating [sic] to embrace the notion of social distancing & economic hibernation,” Saylor wrote in an impassioned argument against adopting the aggressive responses to the coronavirus pandemic that public health authorities are advising. “If we wish to maintain our productivity, we need to continue working in [our] offices.”
As companies around the world adjust to the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, including by allowing their employees to work from home in compliance with the national guidelines of many governments, some executives are attempting to continue doing business as usual. The trend is notable in the tech industry, where computer-based work can generally be performed from anywhere, but where the culture has often rewarded innovative and “disruptive” leaders who buck conventional wisdom.
Saylor argued that the “economic damage” of social distancing and quarantines was greater than “the theoretical benefit of slowing down a virus” and suggested that it would make more sense to “quarantine the 40 million elderly retired, immune compromised people who no longer need to work or get educated”.
“In the absolutely worse case, the overall life expectancy worldwide would click down by a few weeks,” he added. “Instead of 79.60 years to live we would have 79.45 years to live. 1 out of 500 people will pass on a bit sooner, or not, or die from a celebrated disease instead of just old age,” he added. “We should continue to do our work, serve our customers, educate our children, cultivate our health, pursue our hobbies, worship our gods, enjoy our sports, cherish our friends, listen to our music, eat, drink, & be merry.”
Microstrategy did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Saylor is not alone among technology executives chafing against the pressure to abide by recommendations from public health officials.
Elon Musk, billionaire chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, prompted considerable consternation when he tweeted, “The coronavirus panic is dumb” to his 32.3 million followers on 6 March. Despite widespread criticism of his message, which flew in the face of public health efforts to convince the general population to take the spread of the virus seriously, Musk has continued to downplay the threat.
“As a basis for comparison, the risk of death from C19 is *vastly* less than the risk of death from driving your car home,” Musk wrote in an email to SpaceX employees, according to BuzzFeed News. “There are about 36 thousand automotive deaths per deaths [sic], as compared to 36 so far this year for C19.”
On Tuesday, thousands of factory workers at Tesla’s plant in the San Francisco Bay area reported to work, despite a “shelter-in-place” order that was supposed to shutter all “non-essential” businesses. Musk told factory employees to stay home “if you feel the slightest bit ill or even uncomfortable”, the Los Angeles Times reported. By Tuesday afternoon, the local sheriff’s office announced that Tesla was not an essential business and could only maintain “minimum basic operations”.
Tesla did not immediately respond to a request from the Guardian for a comment.
Another billionaire, venture capitalist Tim Draper, tweeted on 14 March, “The fear is far worse than the virus. The governments have it wrong. Stay open for business. If not, so many more people will die from a crashing economy than from this virus.”
Draper is known for eccentric and contrarian views; he supported a ballot initiative in California that aimed to divide the state into six smaller states and continued to voice support for the disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes long after she was charged with fraud.
On Monday, Draper drew considerable criticism for tweeting that he was going ahead with a South by Southwest (SXSW) event for his “Draper Startup House” in Austin, Texas, despite the fact that the festival was cancelled by city officials. He subsequently apologized for his “timing” and said he supports a “2-week lockdown”.
Draper did not immediately respond to the Guardian’s request for a comment.
One Silicon Valley leader who is attempting to push companies in the other direction is David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of Ruby on Rails and co-founder of Basecamp. Hansson has been using his Twitter account to “name ’n’ shame” tech employers who are not allowing employees to work remotely, going so far as to set up a dedicated email for employees to submit anonymous reports.
Hansson has tweeted out the names of dozens of companies chastising them for not allowing employees to work remotely, and told the Guardian that he has “hundreds” more reports that he is still reviewing. He has said he will delete tweets if a company changes its stance.
“If you’re gathering people in the office who could work from home, you simply have no excuse and you will eventually have blood on your hands,” Hansson said. “There’s a lot of people in Silicon Valley who fancy themselves as contrarians as a default stance. They think it means you’re not with the herd, you’re special. In my opinion, every tech company that has people working in the office, they’re not contrarian, they’re stupid and they’re dangerous.”https://www.theguardian.com/email/form/plaintone/coronavirus-the-week-explainedCoronavirus: the week explained – our expert correspondents put a week’s worth developments in context in one email newsletter
By Tuesday afternoon, Hansson had tweeted a screenshot of the Microstrategy CEO’s email, though the excerpt he highlighted did not include Saylor’s peculiar views on public health.
“The current policies represent a threat to our civil liberties, economic liberties, & physical/mental health that far exceeds the theoretical benefit of slowing down a virus,” Saylor wrote. “They will bankrupt small and large businesses, eliminate jobs, destroy assets, impoverish multitudes. If our interest is the public health, then depriving the entire population of education, jobs, sports, recreation, entertainment, assets, exercise, bars, restaurants, museums, religious ceremony, group celebrations is certainly unhealthy to them.”
An employee of Microstrategy, who spoke to the Guardian under condition of anonymity, said that many employees were working from home on Tuesday despite Saylor’s email. The email from Saylor had been “unexpected”, the employee said. “Everyone is roughly on the same page that we didn’t expect the feelings of the CEO to be if people die then it will only bring down the overall life expectancy by a small number.”