Lloyd’s of London closed its underwriting room for the first time in its 330-year history in a one-day test
Lloyd’s of London closed its underwriting room for the first time in its 330-year history in a one-day test © Reuters

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Tens of thousands of office workers around the world have been told to work from home as some of the biggest global companies took unprecedented action to limit the spread of coronavirus. 

Ford and General Motors told non-factory staff to work remotely from Monday, while Unilever said all office-based employees globally should do so outside China.

“Stay safe, stay well, and take care,” signed off Alan Jope, chief executive of Unilever, in an email to staff. 

Royal Bank of Scotland on Friday morning advised office staff to stay away from the office from next week, including at its headquarters in Edinburgh, “where it is practical to do so”.

“By doing this, we’re looking to greatly reduce the number of people in our office locations, which will in turn limit the potential spread of infection and reduce the risk for those who need to work in our offices,” said the bank.

In the UK, many companies have been moving ahead of government guidance, which falls short of closing organisations and limiting public gatherings, unlike in some European countries. 

Many businesses, including the Financial Times, have implemented either flexible or full “working from home” policies and have banned external meetings and events, while others are still testing out their ability to do so. Some companies are running parallel teams to work alternate days,

On Friday, KPMG closed its London headquarters of about 8,000 people and its Bristol office as a test to see how it would cope with the change. The accountancy group has banned all meetings with more than 25 people, with these now being done over video conference instead.

Lloyd’s of London, the insurance market, closed its underwriting room — the centre of the global insurance trade — on Friday for the first time in its 330-year history in a one-day test.

Meanwhile carmaker GM told staff it was changing production schedules to allow for “additional cleaning” at factories, while non-frontline staff should work remotely from Monday. “These are important steps to lower the probability of spreading the coronavirus to coworkers, families and communities and to relieve the burden on public resources,” said its chief executive Mary Barra in a post to staff. 

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“It also helps conserve critical resources like cleaning crews, medical staff, and supplies so they can be deployed where they are most needed.”

Ford chief executive Jim Hackett told staff in an email that “we are instructing much of our global workforce, except those in business-critical roles that cannot be done away from Ford facilities, to work remotely until further notice”.

In the note, seen by the FT, he added: “Our top priority is keeping our employees, customers and other stakeholders safe while doing whatever is reasonable to keep Ford running”.

Companies with staff that cannot work from home, such as in retail and manufacturing, are still deciding what action to take. David Wild, chief executive of pizza group Domino’s, said the company would be implementing a “contactless” delivery policy from Monday. 

Pizza delivery drivers would agree a location with the customer and leave the pizza there so that neither had to come into contact with the other. Takeaway.com said it was planning a similar move. UK online supermarket Ocado also told its customers that it would no longer bring shopping into their homes.

Additional reporting by Tabby Kinder, Judith Evans and Oliver Ralph

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