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Salesforce COO Bret Taylor on the difficulty of building new COVID-19 tracking tools that balance data collection and privacy: 'This is just new territory for all of us' (CRM)

Bret Taylor Salesforce
  • Salesforce COO Bret Taylor said the company wants to help organizations as they figure out how to resume work that can't be done remotely while maintaining employee and community safety. 
  • It plans to release a set of resources to help both public agencies and businesses tackle this next step, including tools for comparing employee health data alongside public health data.
  • In creating its tools, Salesforce had to weigh privacy concerns with public health benefits. 
  • "This is just new territory for all of us," Taylor said in an interview with Business Insider on Friday.
  • Ultimately, Salesforce has leaned on its philosophy of "stakeholder capitalism" to guide it during its coronavirus crisis response, Taylor says. 
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The coronavirus pandemic has brought up a host of new questions that businesses and public organizations never thought they would have to ask, including how to resume work that can't be done remotely while maintaining employee and community safety.
To tackle this next step of the global pandemic — the extended reopening and recovery process — Salesforce plans to release a set of new tools for businesses and government agencies, says COO Bret Taylor. The collection of resources, available at Work.com, will give organizations tools to share health related announcements among their workforce, monitor employee health data alongside public health data, and manage employee shifts in a way that maintains social distancing.
While helping companies collect employee health data like this would be unusual before the pandemic, Taylor says, it's become one way to keep communities safe from the spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus disease. Still, it brought up thorny questions for Salesforce, as the company weighed privacy concerns and stayed true to its "stakeholder capitalism" values.
"As a software maker often our job is to make solutions to people's existing problems, and a lot of companies now are saying, 'I don't even know what the problems are that I need to solve,'" Taylor told Business Insider in an interview on Friday. "This is just new territory for all of us."

Balancing data collection for public safety and maintaining people's privacy

While some companies can function remotely, others cannot, and as shelter-in-place mandates loosen, the latter will look to resume operations in a safe way.
Contact tracing tools from Salesforce — as well as from Google and Apple — which notify people who have been near others who have tested positive for COVID-19, aim to both protect people's private data and maintain the overall health of a community.
"You know, the idea that you may take a survey about your health before entering the office is a foreign concept to me personally," he said. "And I think it will be for a lot of people."
Salesforce tapped its chief ethical and humane-use officer, Paula Goldman, to review its tools to make sure that the company was weighing all of the benefits and risks, Taylor said. Only top leadership will have access to the secure employee health information at companies that choose to use it, Salesforce said in a press release about the new tools.
He also admits that it might not be the best fit for all organizations. Ultimately, he said, many companies and individuals will weigh questions about personal health data differently. Salesforce tried to make its tools useful to a variety of different use cases.
"My expectation is the trade-offs that companies will face — that individuals will face — in all of this, will really vary across industries," he said. "We want to really facilitate a platform that can handle that entire spectrum. These are questions we haven't had to ask or answer before, and that every company and every individual will have a different sort of threshold for."
Salesforce consulted medical experts like Dr. David Agus, a doctor and professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California, who has written books on health and wellness. Agus said that he expected that society would have to embrace a new normal because of the crisis.
Ultimately, Salesforce made sure that its new tools fit into its philosophy of "stakeholder capitalism," where it tries to serve its employees, customers, shareholders, and community equally, Taylor said.
Salesforce reassigned hundreds of employees from their normal duties to work on this reopening initiative because it realized that figuring out how to handle pandemic response was really the most important thing for all of its stakeholders.
"In a crisis you have to focus to respond to it," Taylor said. "It's been 'Let's get the company through this crisis and get all of our customers and our stakeholders through this crisis.'"
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