Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff on helping businesses return to work amid coronavirus

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff joins Yahoo Finance’s Seana Smith & Julia La Roche to discuss how the company is helping businesses reopen workplaces amid the coronavirus.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: Well, one thing that investors are closely watching that we haven't mentioned yet is the latest developments pertaining to the coronavirus. So the number of confirmed cases worldwide has now crossed 3 and 1/2 million, with nearly a quarter million deaths. Now, this comes as businesses around the world are preparing to welcome their employees back to work. Now, several countries, as well as some stage right here in the US, are beginning to ease coronavirus restrictions.

Now today, we had Salesforce announcing new products to help businesses navigate reopening during a pandemic. So for more on that, I want to bring in Marc Benioff, Salesforce chair and CEO. We also have Yahoo Finance's Julia La Roche joining the conversation. And Marc, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us this afternoon. Let's start with the announcement you made today for Just talk to us about how does this help businesses and communities safely reopen, and what do you think we'll need to do differently when we go back to work here over the next couple weeks, next couple of months?

MARC BENIOFF: Well, you know, this has been such a challenging time for all of us, and especially for our employees. We have 50,000 employees at Salesforce, 50 of them that have had the virus. And you know, my hearts have really been with them and everyone who's been affected by this terrible situation. And as we've looked out, we've really seen this occurring in three phases. And the first phase has been this 90-day crisis phase. That's when we're all in our homes, obviously, and we're sheltering in place, we're quarantined.

During this time, the big thing we've done is we've purchased 60 million units of personal protective equipment, PPE, and distributed that to 200 hospitals. We've worked closely with our partners, including Alibaba in China, to get that prioritized for the United States. That's been extremely important to us. We've also worked with 6,000 organizations to deploy emergency versions of, including the state of California, the state of New York, and others.

But the first phase is really ending, just like you said. You know, we really thought that was a 90-day phase, and we can see that we're getting ready to get back to work. In our office in South Korea, for example, our employees are already meeting with customers, and on May 11th, we will reopen our doors there. And that's an indication to us that all of us need to be ready to get back into the office and deal with the new work environment.

But we need to realize that, when we do get back in the environment, back in the work environment, the virus is still going to be there, and we need to be doing things to mitigate that environment. And so that's why we'll probably have PPE in the environment. We will also be taking our employees' temperatures before they come into the office. And we'll be deploying information technology, like you mentioned, and deploying contact tracing to help our employees be safe in the office environment.

JULIA LA ROCHE: Hey, Marc. It's Julia La Roche. Thank you so much for joining us to talk--


JULIA LA ROCHE: I want to dig a bit more into this idea of reopening. You are the CEO of San Francisco's largest employer, more than 36,000 employees. And you just mentioned a few things. What do you think the reopening looks like for you all, and what are the challenges that come along with that?

MARC BENIOFF: Well, I think that, you know, many of those things that I mentioned we will bring into our workplace. And you can imagine also that social distancing, which we're all doing right now, staying six feet away from another employee or customer or person, well, we're going to do that in the workplace, as well. That will not go away. The reason why is the virus is still going to be out there when we get back to work until we're all vaccinated. So we need to kind of set up a work environment that makes it as safe as possible for our employees.

So like an example, you know that we have a Salesforce tower there where you are in New York, we have one here in San Francisco, but we have these things called elevators. And elevators, well, you all have been in them. 10 people jam in the elevator, the elevator door closes, not great in this pandemic situation. So maybe there's only so many people that can be allowed in the elevator at one point. Maybe people can only sit in certain parts of the office.

There'll probably be shifts of employees. That's why we built shift scheduling into, because you probably will have teams of employees, team one, team two, team three. Maybe team one is in the office on Monday, team two is in the office on Tuesday, team three on Wednesday. We've already deployed this in Singapore, for example. That's because, if someone on team one gets the virus, you know, you don't want to lose team two and team three. You want to keep your productivity going. So there's things that you're going to do.

And we've taken all those-- all of that advice, medical advice from people like Larry Brilliant, who's an epidemiologist, David Agus, who's our chief medical advisor, as well as Scott Gottlieb. And we've put all of that into, as well as recommendations from the Business Roundtable, which is an organization that I belong to of CEOs that is doing policy recommendations. So when you go to, you're going to get advice, you're going to have a community of people to learn safety from, and apps like contact tracing, workforce triage, shift scheduling all in one place.

Now, I could not have imagined that this is something that I would have had to do, Julia, you know, just a few months ago. In fact, Julia, you know, if you remember, we were in World Economic Forum in Davos in Switzerland just a few months ago. We had no idea that this is where we would be today. But we've had to--


MARC BENIOFF: --we've had to shift.

JULIA LA ROCHE: Yeah, it's certainly a new world, Marc.

MARC BENIOFF: Yeah. Amazing.

JULIA LA ROCHE: Yeah. And to that point, you all have been so far ahead of this, whether it was the PPE, leveraging Tableau's data, now coming out with and really making it readily available to companies. I guess one thing that really stood out to me, Marc-- and you just mentioned it-- the contact tracing, leveraging your IT to do that, I guess. What do you think about maybe the privacy implications of that? I would love to hear your thoughts on how do you balance that.

MARC BENIOFF: Well, let me give-- tell you the story, which is the governor of Rhode Island, she called me. And she's amazing. She said, you know, we're doing a great job of managing risk mitigation here in Rhode Island, but we're doing virus testing, but it has to be coupled with contact tracing. So they're doing the testing, but then when they find somebody who has the virus, then they start to interview them and say, well, who have you been with, and who are your friends, who did you have dinner with, who did you see in the last week or two. And then they just call those people back. And that's an information management challenge. You know, that's-- contact tracers are almost like private investigators, if you will. Using our technology, which is the contact tracing now built in to manage, OK, this person was with the person who was infected. Did we talk to this person? Did we notify them? Yes. And then move on.

And so that is a very kind of a manualized contact tracing. It's a little different than the contact tracing that you hear in some Asian countries, which is all automated, where they've traced you through your phone or they know where you've been, and therefore something just automatically appears on your phone and says, oh, you've been with someone who's received the virus. Well, we don't have that level of IT integration in the United States. That's not where we are. Plus, our privacy laws would prevent any such thing from happening.

SEANA SMITH: Hey, Marc, I want to ask you, just to follow up on, and one initiative in that you mentioned is reskilling employees. And we talk time and time again here at Yahoo Finance just some of the changes that will come after the coronavirus outbreak has passed, how it is already changing the economy not only here in the US, but really throughout the world. So I want to get your thoughts, just what are some of the biggest changes that you see from an employee perspective, from someone who manages thousands of people, that you could see happening within your company over the next couple of months or years?

MARC BENIOFF: I think that's such a relevant question because, you know, we're moving into a work environment and people-- a lot of people are going to be looking for jobs. That's why we've been seeing a lot of activity on Trailhead, which is our reskilling system that we've now built into And for people, we have almost 2 million people on Trailhead learning new types of skills. In fact, was built in a non-programmatic environment mostly by non-programmers, a lot of whom were trained on Trailhead. And this idea that you can learn marketable skills in that type of an online environment, this is something that's extremely important at a time like this.

Another great example is we're going to have a big group inside of our company, and every company will have this on reopening, and reopening safely. And all of those skills are going to have to happen on, as well. In fact, we're already training people on how to reopen safely. Those will be experts. You can imagine, you know, training and certifying yourself as somebody who could be hired by a company to make sure their workplace is safe.

You know, the future never equals the past, and we constantly have to be thinking about what it means to have a beginner's mind. You know, in a beginner's mind, there's every possibility. In the expert's mind, there's few. And we need a beginner's mind as we enter this new workplace and getting back to work. We need to have an open mind so we can be ready, you know, and all be a participant in this new economy.

JULIA LA ROCHE: Marc, I think that's so well put, to bring up the beginner's mind, something we've often [INAUDIBLE] about. Another thing that we've talked about, digital transformation. We're seeing this acceleration, it seems like, because of COVID-19. And I want to cite someone in your own press release. It was a customer of Salesforce, and he said I'm confident that, without the digital [INAUDIBLE] transformation we completed with Salesforce and the AppExchange, we would not have been able to adapt and respond as quickly. So my question for you, just looking at your clients-- retail, for example-- what kind of changes are we going to see as it pertains to the digital and the importance of digital going forward?

MARC BENIOFF: Well, Julia, thank you for bringing that up, because we are getting so many stories from our customers of how they're using our technology to be successful at a time like this. And I think you're using a case study which is Tuff Shed, who sent us a note about how they've been able to increase productivity and get back to work safely and get-- move their sales and service organization into their homes. We also saw that with Dell, which is a very large sales and service organization, move entirely into their homes overnight using Salesforce technology.

And that's something that's really possible because of the cloud. It doesn't matter really where you're working. And you know, we can see that our customers have been able to be productive during this environment. And we want to continue to create more and more tools that allow them to do that. We even have a new service called Quip, which is a full productivity environment-- spreadsheets and word processors and collaboration-- that has been extremely successful during this moment. And I think that we're going to see more and more of this going forward, that people need tools that work not only in the office, but work well in the home or the mobile environment, as well.

SEANA SMITH: Marc Benioff, Salesforce chair and CEO. We really appreciate you joining Yahoo Finance.

MARC BENIOFF: Thank you.

SEANA SMITH: We hope to have you back in the future.

MARC BENIOFF: Thank you for having me today.