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Inside Lyft’s coronavirus response team

April 22, 2020, 6:00 PM UTC
Courtesy Angie Westbrock

Before corporate offices closed nationwide, Lyft cofounder John Zimmer called upon his company’s vice president of global operations, Angie Westbrock.

In February, Zimmer tasked Westbrock with setting up a war room to navigate Lyft’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which was already rattling U.S. companies—and suggesting that Lyft’s core business, which depends on putting a driver and passenger in close proximity, would be at risk. Now, what started as a team of fewer than 10 has grown to 30—who meet every morning over Google Hangouts—with new Lyft employees across functions pulled into the task force every day. The ride-share company’s process for building a dedicated coronavirus response team provides a peek into how companies across corporate America have reacted to the growing threat.

A quick pivot

Westbrock’s usual job involves leading the 850 people who make up Lyft’s field teams in cities across the country. Now, she reports directly to Lyft’s cofounders—a change in her reporting structure—to provide daily updates on the crisis.

Her task force is the “quarterback”: identifying problems and assigning the best people and teams to make decisions about how to solve them. Then, once there’s a plan in place, the task force decides what part of the company is best positioned to execute on the solution.

The Lyft coronavirus task force meeting on Zoom in April. Credit: Courtesy of Lyft

One of the first decisions the group made was how to get hand sanitizer to Lyft’s drivers—from determining the budget needed to execute the task to setting up no-contact delivery of the sanitizer. More recently, the product marketing employees on the task force put together updates for drivers on the latest Centers for Disease Control guidance, CARES Act financial relief eligibility, and new delivery jobs—intended to replace some of Lyft’s usual, slowed ride-share business. On the internal side, the task force reviewed all work-from-home and travel policies, as well as standards for communicating with drivers.

About 75% of the day is spent on specific responses to the outbreak; the other 25% is spent on “how to operate in the new world order,” says Heather Freeland, vice president of marketing and another early member of the task force. Key players in the group come from operations, legal, marketing, internal and external communications, and safety and security.

Who’s managing the task force

As the team grew, its members noticed a trend: Two-thirds of task force employees were women. “It’s not surprising to me. When you think about the skills women bring to the table—being very empathetic, understanding the complexity of the situation, being gracious with one another; traits that come out of an incredible amount of multitasking and empathy—it makes women well suited for this,” Westbrock says.

But it’s not a totally organic trend; most members of the group were asked to join by management—and were required to leave their old jobs behind for the time being. Is the gender breakdown of Lyft’s coronavirus task force simply the continuation of a trend that places women in “operator” roles—rather than the very top jobs? “I would’ve raised my hand regardless,” says Freeland. “Throughout my career, I’ve been on front lines of crises. I came from Facebook, where I was on front lines of the Cambridge Analytica issue. I feel like I have the mental playbook and stamina to withstand pressures.”

Long-term lessons

A task force built to manage workflows and decision-making during a crisis can’t solve the crisis itself; Lyft, like all companies, faces enormous pressure as consumer spending plummets and business travel comes to a halt. Some decisions—like cofounders Zimmer and Logan Green agreeing to take no salary until June—are above its pay grade. But the group may be well equipped to move Lyft beyond the crisis.

“The working models we’ve built to move fast, with agility throughout the crisis—they enable us to move fast with tight teams, not too many stakeholders, and clear approval processes,” Freeland says. “We’re excited we will be able to apply them elsewhere as well.”

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