Shopify going fully remote as Ottawa tech firms brace for COVID-19 impacts

tobi lutke
Editor's Note

This story has been updated to note Ottawa's first case of the new coronavirus.

As the number of Canadians infected with COVID-19 continues to rise, e-commerce powerhouse Shopify is among a number of local companies asking their workers to stay home, while another major Ottawa firm is scrapping plans to attend a massive trade show south of the border.

In a tweet Wednesday morning, Shopify said its 5,000-plus employees will be “going remote first” beginning next Monday.

“Working from home will help play a part in reducing the spread of the virus, and hopefully lessen its potentially huge burden on the healthcare system,” the company said, while CEO Tobi Lutke tweeted: “This was a hard decision but the right one.”

Half the company’s staffers already work from home, Lutke noted, adding Shopify already has experience going fully remote: the company once closed its offices for one month to “build empathy” with its teleworking colleagues. Shopify had already cancelled its upcoming Unite conference in Toronto and shut down public-facing events at its Los Angeles workspace earlier this month.

Ottawa confirmed its first case of COVID-19 Wednesday morning, a man in his forties who had recently travelled to Austria. Canada has now reported more than 90 cases of the virus.

With the coronavirus threat rising, other local companies are also telling employees to work remotely.

Kanata-based Epiphan Video held a conference call with its 40 locally based employees on Monday urging them to avoid coming to its March Road office unless absolutely necessary. The company says the new teleworking policy will remain in place until further notice.

Epiphan vice-president of marketing David Kirk said the company believes keeping its workers at home is the most prudent course of action right now.

“We’re just trying to be proactive and implement things before any real situation arises in Ottawa,” Kirk said Tuesday, before the city's first case was reported.

“For now, it’s kind of work from home as you can. We’re kind of waiting to see how all this plays out. I think everybody’s anticipating things, at least in Canada, will likely get worse before they get better.”

Kirk noted that working remotely is nothing out of the ordinary for many many staffers at Epiphan, which makes video switching, streaming and recording systems for customers in more than 100 countries.

“We’re not unused to working at home,” he said. “I do it on a regular basis. We’re pretty well set up for that kind of thing.”

Convention and trade show plans disrupted

With more than 110,000 cases of the new coronavirus now reported worldwide, many companies are attempting to limit employees’ exposure by restricting travel to trade shows and sales conventions.

But Kirk said Epiphan currently has no plans to skip its biggest industry event of the year, the upcoming National Association of Broadcasters Show slated for April 18-22 in Las Vegas ​– a gathering that typically draws more than 100,000 people from around the world.

“We’re going to wait and see what develops with that,” he said. “I kind of expect that that show might get cancelled on its own.”

While Epiphan still plans to attend the massive five-day trade show, another major local manufacturer of video equipment says it’s pulling out of the event.

On Monday, Ross Video announced it will be missing the NAB Show for the first time since 1974. The Ottawa-based firm, which was planning to send more than 200 employees to the convention, says COVID-19’s escalation south of the border – where the number of cases had surpassed 1,000 as of Wednesday morning, including at least two in the Las Vegas area – prompted its decision to give the event a pass.

“We started having employees who were saying, ‘I can’t go to the show. I have an immuno-compromised daughter’ or ‘I live with my parents and they’re in their eighties and I could never live with myself if I brought something back to them,’” said Ross Video CEO David Ross, adding many of his firm’s biggest customers – including CBS and CNN – also won’t be attending.

Ross said the Ottawa company typically spends about $3 million on the NAB Show and had already invested about $1 million in exhibit materials and hotel expenses in preparation for this year’s event.

“It’s our biggest show of the year,” he said. “We thought if we’re gonna pull (out), we should pull now so we have some of that money to do other things that are perhaps more appropriate in this current time.”

Meanwhile, other local companies are also bracing for the virus’s arrival.

Downtown software firm Klipfolio says it’s planning to ask all of its roughly 65 employees to do their jobs from home for a few days at some point in the next week or two to find out if there are any “red flags” with its teleworking capabilities.

“Luckily, we believe that we’re fairly (well) set up to do that,” said Klipfolio co-founder and chief innovation officer Allan Wille.

"(Coronavirus) is coming, no matter what. We should probably do the planning now and the testing now."

“(Coronavirus) is coming, no matter what. We should probably do the planning now and the testing now while we may still have a week or two before we see the first cases (in Ottawa).”

Late Wednesday afternoon, the Ottawa Board of Trade said it would continue to host its regular slate of events, including Thursday morning's Mayor's Breakfast at City Hall.

President and CEO Sueling Ching told OBJ the organization will continue to “closely monitor” the situation. She urged members to “take precautions as necessary” such as washing their hands often and staying away from public gatherings if they're sick.

Panic over the virus has rocked global stock markets, sparking a plunge in key indexes such as the Dow Jones and fuelling fears of a recession. 

But Kirk said so far his company hasn’t noticed any “significant change” in sales patterns, adding Epiphan’s technology itself could become increasingly useful in the weeks ahead as more and more people hunker down at home. 

The firm’s customers include Harvard University, which announced Tuesday it will start holding all classes remotely and asked students to vacate their dorms within five days.

“It’s more the bigger economic forces that might impact us in the longer term, and that’s really hard to predict,” Kirk said.

“In some ways, our products are going to be even more in demand as schools get shut down, as conferences switch from being live conferences to on-demand conferences. A lot of our equipment is used to do exactly that.”