Whether it’s in New Delhi, New Orleans or somewhere in-between, there’s no doubt that millions upon millions of people globally have been homebound the past few months. Routine pleasures like seeing loved ones, enjoying a night out, or even just leaving your house have become impossible due to the onset of the COVID-19 virus gripping the world. Governments around the world have asked their citizens to stay home in order to stop the spread of the disease and save lives. Simply put, going places has gone out of style to help flatten the curve.
In the not-so-distant past, the popular rideshare company Uber was a favorite for millions of people looking to get where they’re going. Though the app averages around 90 million monthly users around the world, the global pandemic and the ensuing stay-at-home orders have led to a dramatic slowdown in business for the company, along with other rideshares. Uber specifically has seen thousands of its employees laid off due to the crisis, announcing just yesterday that another 3,000 employees are being let go, cutting off a quarter of its entire workforce.
However, Uber is working on ways of making its rides a safer experience for the essential workers who need to get to their jobs today and for everyone else beyond the end of the pandemic. Senior Product Manager Rebecca Payne is leading a team within the company dedicated to rolling out new features designed to help both drivers and riders in this new germaphobic age. Below is an interview with this high-profile female force behind your next Uber ride about what’s changed and how it keeps customers safer.
What has been your approach to thinking about health and safety as cities start to reopen and people start moving again?
Rebecca: Ever since Dara Khosrowshahi took over as CEO, we really wanted to make it clear that safety is a top priority for Uber, and we’ve developed dozens of features to keep people safe while people are riding, driving, delivering and eating. Now, I think more than ever before, safety will be at the top of everyone’s minds, and we need to incorporate health and hygiene.
We’re working with an already established safety team on this, which gave us a good foundation to build off of and enables us to shift focus to dealing with COVID-19. We’ve gotten expert advice from public health organizations as well as our users to understand their concerns as to what would make them feel safer on a trip, and we’ve been looking at the framework of an Uber trip itself to understand every element in order to ensure the health of riders and drivers.
What are the new immediate safety changes that Uber has implemented?
R: Initailly, when it become clear that COVID-19 was going to cause a major shift, we focused on immediate actions like shutting down Uber Pool, discouraging riders from using the app if their travel wasn’t essential, and supporting earners with assistance if they had been diagnosed or quarantined.
Teams across Uber introduced new initiatives to help earners find new work opportunities, we ramped up Uber Eats to ensure local restaurants can easily switch to delivery, and we allowed people to send packages to loved ones.
Last week, we began announcing new policies and releasing tech to help people feel safe while using the app as cities begin to reemerge into this new normal, such as a requirement for all drivers and riders to wear face masks, for passengers to sit in the back seat, and for a window to be open if possible, which we’re enforcing via new in-app experiences. Riders will have to agree to these actions before booking a trip, and drivers will go through a checklist every time they turn on their app, and be asked to take a selfie to confirm they’re wearing a mask. We’re also allowing both riders and drivers to rate each other on the basis of accountability, to make sure that each party is following the rules and can even cancel if they feel unsafe.
How has Uber’s overall commitment to safety evolved in light of COVID-19?
R: The change has been more of a focus on health, hygiene, and physical access. We’ve announced that we’re dedicating $50 million to purchasing and distributing cleaning supplies and masks to drivers across the world, which is extremely important in this new normal. These aren’t thing you can really find on shelves right now, so we’re sourcing them from manufacturers and sending them straight to our drivers.
Do you foresee these features being used long-term?
R: We built this technology to be super flexible and adaptable to local environments, so actions required by riders or drivers can change over time as public health guidelines evolve and certain countries come out of lockdown. I think the idea of shared responsibility and taking action to keep your community safe is here to stay. We all have our responsibility to do our part, and it’s not about the service you receive anymore; it’s about how you contribute to the safety of that service and how you leave things to the next person.
Do you think COVID-19 will make people more or less likely to use Uber?
R: I think it’ll be a personal decision in what mode of transport people are taking. Like I said, safety is going to be first on everyone’s list and we all have a role to play in keeping each other safe. I think the main reasons people used Uber in the past have been put on pause for the time being; if you used it for going out to bars on weekends or heading into the office, then you don’t need to use it right now. But I do think people will be far more conscious of their surroundings and make decisions based on their experiences and needs to figure out how they want to travel in the future.
As you’ve been re-imagining what all of our next Uber rides will be like, how has working from home changed your approach?
R: Lots of us have been working from home, which on it’s own can be hard to adjust to, but the fact that there’s no clear end date has made it doubly hard. There is a sense, though, that we’re all in this together, and seeing people do their part to flatten the curve is really inspiring. We’ve drawn a lot from that concept and the idea that safety and health will be a shared responsibility going forward. I’ve personally always loved going into the office because I thrive off of interacting with people, so it’s been an adjustment replacing in-person things like idea-bouncing in the hallway with Zoom meetings. I still get to see my colleagues throughout the day, which is really important to me, and keeping up the small talk before meetings and checking in with people after-hours is crucial in creating a sense of normalcy.
What are a few tips you have for leading a team while everyone works from home and shelters in place?
R: For what we’ve been announcing lately, we’ve made sure to have daily check-ins in the mornings and end of the day to touch base and move as fast as possible. They’ve also helped the team and I identify issues and resolve them together. I’m in meetings all day, so I’m not the easiest to get a hold of by email, so I’ve started relying more on instant communication. Plus, we’re all human, and we have to do things to make sure we keep our own sanity in check. I’ve been trying to get some morning workouts done over Zoom each week, and tons of people have been becoming chefs. I’m constantly looking for new recipes and planning meals; and I’ve jumped on the banana bread bandwagon!