As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded this spring, newly remote workers and homebound residents turned to the internet in record numbers to close the distance with the wider world.
Comcast, Washington’s largest internet provider, saw usage soar on its Xfinity residential internet network. Beginning in early March, Comcast saw a 32% increase in peak traffic on its system, while mobile wi-fi use among Xfinity Mobile customers rose 36%. The most stunning leap (to which many of us can relate): Video conferencing experienced a 285% surge.
Well-wired and among the first places to see widespread closures due to coronavirus, the Puget Sound region became a testing ground for how Comcast’s home broadband networks would hold up nationwide during this extraordinary moment.
Rob Brenner, vice president of Comcast Business in Washington state, says the network continued to perform effectively as most office workers began doing their jobs from home.
Amid that shift, Comcast’s capability held steady, Brenner explains, thanks to the technical team’s forward-looking practices that have them consistently peering ahead six to nine months, setting a solid foundation for whatever may arise. “Because of all the work we did in advance,” Brenner says, “we were already in a good position.”
Brenner, whose work has him collaborating with businesses throughout Washington, knows the Puget Sound region’s economy well. “Because of the influx of folks who come into this great state, we have to future-proof.”
Online life has quickly become the “new normal” for everyone from families learning at home to business owners and nonprofit leaders. While the network has seen traffic plateau, it is increasingly clear digital life has been forever changed.
BUSINESS (NOT QUITE) AS USUAL
As the pandemic took shape, it shook small businesses like an earthquake. Some were flattened entirely. Business owners urgently called asking to suspend service until they could get back on their feet. Brenner knew Comcast needed to be a “good neighbor” and offer users the chance to pause their service, to avoid taking on additional expenses at a time when businesses weren’t operating. “It was obviously the right thing to do,” he says.
In that spirit, Comcast donated to COVID-19 relief efforts. The company gave $50,000 to the city of Seattle’s Small Business Stabilization Fund that provides capital grants of up to $10,000 to small businesses rocked by the pandemic. Comcast partnered with the mayor’s office to promote the program, hoping to encourage other donors to support the fund.
While small businesses were hit hardest, mid-size companies weren’t far behind. In contrast, Comcast’s enterprise team saw some larger clients up their bandwidth to meet new demand. “We want to do whatever we can to help businesses of all sizes,” Brenner says.
Increasingly, Brenner and his team have seen glimmers of hope for business owners, like a large Seattle-area credit union that’s been able to handle customer calls throughout the crisis (and even hire) and a coffee company that’s opening a new café. Despite the many challenges, Comcast’s customers are finding ways to survive, if not thrive.
‘WE KNOW HOW TO PIVOT’
The pandemic forced business owner and empowerment expert Lindsey T.H. Jackson to practice what she teaches — first and foremost, accepting what is beyond one’s control and being guided by what is within.
A self-proclaimed “Renaissance woman,” Jackson’s work defies labels. She is a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant and communications coach. She’s also an artist, storyteller and social scientist. Jackson works with individuals and institutions, usually through in-person events and engagements. Since the pandemic, she’s had to transition to a digital world both professionally and personally, helping her young children navigate online learning while building her business.
Jackson and her team at LTHJ GLOBAL look to support and empower clients, helping them to reach their highest potential, eradicate bias and heal trauma. Now unable to do their work in person, the company’s workshops have gone virtual, covering topics from anti-racism training and mindful mothering to “Woman on Fire,” a course on becoming a powerful leader and change-agent in the workplace and at home.
“There is potential for us to continue to evolve into an equitable, inclusive, nourishing society,” Jackson says.
The pandemic disrupted plans for Jackson’s business. The release of her book From the Ashes: A 30 Day Renaissance to Thinking Well, Feeling Well, & Living Well was pushed from March to October. Her play, #enlightenedAF: The thoughts and words of crazy women, won’t debut until late 2021.
As a public speaker and performance artist, Jackson misses her audience and the energy exchange that comes from sharing physical space.
“It was challenging on a personal level,” Jackson says. “I had to grieve for that part of myself not being fed.”
Yet streaming video helps Jackson fill that void. Thanks to an unexpected partnership with the Greater Seattle Business Association, she now hosts and co-produces a web-series, Keeping it Real with Lindsey T.H. Jackson.
The series, airing Thursdays at 10 a.m. PST, centers on the psychological side of coronavirus. It reaches viewers of all walks of life, from fellow entrepreneurs to stay-at-home parents. Each episode is available for viewing on Jackson’s site and her YouTube after it airs.
"It all happened very organically," Jackson says. “It's great that as artists, we know how to pivot.”
This reset has brought about some beautiful surprises. “What’s possible,” Jackson says, “is even more creative, more collaborative, more energized than before.” This seems to be the consensus among some local nonprofits, too.
FINDING THE POSSIBLE
For Seattle-based Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) and its thousands of low-income members, the shift since COVID-19 began has been all-encompassing, says Alexandra Olins, director of employment and citizenship services for the nonprofit.
ACRS supports clients, many of them Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, in becoming self-sufficient while maintaining their own cultural identities. The nonprofit offers programs ranging from recovery and behavioral health support to employment training while remaining the largest provider of naturalization services in Washington.
Transitioning to a virtual world presented countless challenges since many of their members have limited English and digital literacy skills, and no home internet connection.
“Everything we did previously was in person,” Olins says.
Olins confesses that the staff spent the first week scratching their heads. Yet they quickly reframed the question to: “What is possible?”
“The wheels,” she says, “started spinning.”
For five years, Comcast in Washington state has partnered with ACRS on digital literacy programming, giving grants and resources to help the nonprofit grow its technology learning and training programs, and the two organizations have had a relationship for nearly a decade. The service's digital literacy class, a 10-week program funded by Comcast, now meets Friday mornings for about an hour live via video conference. Students get comfortable with remote learning, using Gmail and exploring timely topics like scamming and phishing.
The ACRS citizenship program hosts classes through video streaming while assisting individuals through an online chat service. The nonprofit’s workplace preparedness program now operates through Zoom and FaceTime.
In order to set up the twice-weekly Ready to Work classes, ACRS collaborated with Seattle Public Library, the instructors from Literacy Source and their partners at HomeSight to acquire and distribute Chromebooks to students, help them connect to the internet and, in some cases, distribute hotspots from the library. Classroom assistants from Somali Community Services of Seattle even showed up on students’ doorsteps (wearing gloves and masks) to help them get online.
Students’ digital knowledge has skyrocketed, Olins says. Instructors and students, who range in age from about 25 to 75, are doing things they wouldn't have imagined possible six months ago. Many now use chat, Zoom and Google Classroom with ease.
“I’m amazed at how nimble and how can-do everyone has been,” Olins says.
These days, she says, some of the instructors become giddy when talking about their online work.
Brenner expects that, in many ways, this pandemic will permanently change how we do business.
“It’s a great test to see how people and businesses are flexing virtually,” the Comcast Business vice president says, “If you weren’t an expert before this, you probably are now.”
Although this period has shown the advantages of in-person connection, Brenner thinks it has highlighted countless benefits of the virtual world, too. There is an immense time gain; regional employees can hop between meetings without hitting the road.
“In the virtual world,” he says, “you can go quickly to different areas and frankly have meaningful conversations and get questions answered.”
So, what’s kept Comcast’s collaborative team centered throughout these unsteady times? Staying visible, having empathy and listening to others. Twice-daily team “huddles” help to check on the staff’s safety and well-being. Employees newer to their roles have more questions, so consistent communication is crucial.
“Everybody is linking arms together to help everybody else,” he says.
And as much as constant connection has become a necessity and often a joy, even Brenner knows that sometimes, you simply have to unplug. His favorite solution? A walk with his beloved Boston terrier.
Brenner is hopeful that most businesses will bounce back, and he’s confident Comcast will play a role in that process. While he looks forward to a return to some degree of “normalcy,” he also hopes we retain many of the lessons gained.
“I’m optimistic about the future,” he says. “Without a doubt.”