When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick took responsibility for the safety of his company’s 10,000 employees. He gave them all his mobile phone number and went to work securing help.
One of the people who took him up on that was Amy Tekell, a veteran esports broadcast associate producer at Blizzard Entertainment, who has suffered from COVID-19 for several months now. She hasn’t had to pay any of the costs for her care, which includes house calls from doctors and full coronavirus treatments.
“The symptoms hit me very hard and very fast,” she said in an interview with GamesBeat. “I went from the Friday before feeling the best I’ve ever been. And then by the second day home from work, I was completely incapacitated with fever.”
Back in March, when testing was in very high demand and short supply, Tekell had to figure out how to get tested for the coronavirus. She got Kotick’s attention through his open-door policy and through the help of the human resources department. She got tested at a drive-through facility with the help of the company. And she availed herself of Activision Blizzard’s approved external care providers, Doctor on Demand and Heal, which provide telemedicine services.
Tekell used Heal, which has medical doctors who make house calls. She had asthma, and her tests showed she had positive results for COVID-19 and pneumonia in both her lungs. Getting help early was critical because getting tested in the state was almost impossible at the time. And Kotick has stayed in touch.
“He regularly emails me to check in and to see how I’m doing and if I need anything,” said Tekell, who is in her 30s. “It’s not exactly how you want to be on your CEO’s radar. I’ve never spoken with Bobby before in my life. Honestly, this is the only reason I was able to get oxygen on time. He switched me over to Heal and when I was getting worse and had to go to the hospital, he made sure the Heal director called me to make sure I was getting what I needed.”
In an exclusive interview with GamesBeat, Kotick said his philosophy has been to differentiate his big game publishing company with the quality of its health care in the U.S., and the pandemic was something where he wanted to take personal ownership of the problem. Activision Blizzard announced employees would work from home on March 13. I checked with Activision Blizzard’s peers in the U.S., such as Take-Two Interactive and Electronic Arts, but they were not willing to provide information.
Activision Blizzard’s reputation
The interview with Kotick, one of his major health care providers, and employee patients such as Tekell helped me get a window into the complexities of caring for a giant workforce (in a company with $1.79 billion in revenues last quarter) amid the pandemic and the issues related to reopening.
I don’t have an independent measure of how well health care is working out for all 10,000 employees. But based on our interviews with some employees, I’ve heard no issues beyond those facing all companies during the pandemic, such as challenges early on getting tested. And in some objective measures, the company has both pluses and minuses when it comes to employee happiness.
Activision Blizzard has been on the 100 Best Companies To Work For list for four years running, and it has been on Fortune’s Most Admired Companies list. But on Glassdoor.com, which rates companies and CEOs based on anonymous employee feedback, only 60% of employees would recommend the company to a friend.
One controversy has been about CEO pay. Kotick gets about $30 million a year, and so he should be generous in doing things for his workers that enable him to collect that paycheck. Kotick made $100 million over the past four years, and some shareholders have pointed out that he has continued to make a lot even at times when the company was cutting jobs. At its recent annual meeting, 43.2% of Activision Blizzard shareholders voted against the company’s CEO pay policy.
Activision Blizzard said the pay is based on the performance of the company’s stock. During the past year, Activision Blizzard’s stock price has risen 59% to $73.19 a share. Some shareholder activists have objected to Kotick’s pay.
Kotick was fairly unpopular in February 2019, when the company cut 800 jobs, or 8% of its workforce, at a time when the company was bragging about record performance. Kotick’s reputation on Glassdoor.com is still recovering from that, as only 48% of employees approve of him. If there’s a way for Kotick to regain some approval, how he handles health care could be a key issue.
The company performed well in 2019, and it has been gaining steam like other game companies during the pandemic. On top of that, the company had a strong holiday season thanks to the twin successes of titles such as Call of Duty: Mobile and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. And since March, the free-to-play battle royale mode Call of Duty: Warzone has been downloaded more than 60 million times. All of that has helped Activision Blizzard weather the COVID-19 storm without major cutbacks.
Working with Heal
As mentioned, one of the modern health care innovations that Kotick turned to is Heal, a Los Angeles company that has created a network of doctors who make house calls or do online calls (aka telemedicine). Because everybody was stuck sheltering at home, it wasn’t easy to send the company’s 4,500 California employees to doctors’ offices or hospitals to get tests, which were in short supply anyway.
But Heal applied its energy to the problem and found a way to get testing done. It armed its doctors with test kits and sent them to the homes of Activision Blizzard employees who needed the tests. One of the points is to make sure that patients in the most need like Tekell don’t feel like a cog in a wheel. She wanted to avoid the hospital and was able to get oxygen within hours of Heal and Activision Blizzard making calls. She got an oxygen machine that replenishes itself and has spare tanks in case the power goes out.
“It’s been especially helpful because it’s giving people peace of mind in a way that they never would have gotten otherwise,” Kotick said.
Heal has about 170 doctors on demand, and overall they paid more than 350 visits to Activision Blizzard’s workforce during the pandemic. Of the 10,000 employees in the company, six of them tested positive for COVID-19, and Kotick kept personal tabs on how they were doing. A Heal doctor calls Tekell twice a week. The doctor also made house calls to listen to her breathing and examine her lungs.
Tekell has been stuck in her home with her roommates for 3.5 months. Kotick sent her Grubhub money to get others to shop for her, and she hasn’t had to pay for any of the care.
“Bobby Kotick was extremely proactive about protecting the entire Activision Blizzard workforce, and specifically, the families in the workforce,” Heal CEO Nick Desai said in an interview with GamesBeat. “Their HR team and Bobby reached out to us, and I spoke personally numerous times about the testing and testing options.”
There were approved tests that weren’t working and unapproved tests that should have been working, Desai said.
“Bobby really took the time to learn what tests work and what tests don’t work and how we could do this,” he said. “We created a very specific, detailed plan to provide care to all of their employees and their families, in almost all of the markets around the country. We’re working with other companies. From our view, Activision Blizzard is showing real leadership.”
Can any company do this?
It sounds like a luxurious service. But those doctors don’t need expensive offices or other personnel, so it actually ends up being efficient and cost-effective, Kotick said. The cost of an in-person Heal visit is $99, while the cost for a telemedicine online call is $59. For COVID-19 visits, Activision Blizzard pays 100% of those costs, which are less than what it would have paid for sending employees to doctors’ offices or hospitals.
In that way, Kotick believes that services like Heal, Doctors Direct, Grand Rounds, and Collective Health are affordable for a wide variety of companies. Each one of those companies tackles a piece of the health care puzzle. Grand Rounds, for instance, provides a second opinion for your diagnosis.
“We don’t just do this for the employee, their family, their immediate family. So we’re managing the care right now of probably half a dozen parents,” Kotick said. “Even if they’re outside of the scope of the employee’s coverage, if an employee sends us an email saying we have a family member’s health care bill, we’ll pay for that first medical visit from the Heal doctors.”
Activision Blizzard offers a health maintenance organization plan as well, which 20% of its workforce uses, largely for non-COVID-19 matters.
It seems like something that Kotick could have delegated to his human resources team. But Kotick also wanted to send a message that there was nothing more important than taking care of the employees. He didn’t want anyone to drop the ball when it came to health care.
“We are helping people with routine medications and refills so that they don’t get sick or so they don’t have to go to the doctor’s office during this crazy time,” Desai said. “This is exactly consistent with lowering health care costs by doing things this way. We are helping diagnose early, and make sure they don’t have to end up in the hospital. We can help Activision Blizzard permanently lower health care costs and improve outcomes by delivering great care to their employees in a highly flexible manner.”
And with employees in places like Sweden, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Spain, the different health care services were quite complicated.
Mental health challenges
Some employees have taken advantage not only of the coronavirus testing services but also the mental health help. One employee, who asked not to be identified, said he had a mental breakdown for a short but critical time. He reached out to the company and was able to get almost-immediate care and mental health therapy. He had been under stress because of a tough family situation, and the company provided the care that he needed and he was able to get back to work, the employee said in an interview.
“My situation was added to the stress and strain of lockdown,” he said. “I was in a very bad, dangerous state. I reached out over the weekend, and I immediately heard back from one of our leaders, and they immediately helped me get help with my mental health issues. Through Heal, I found a psychologist and was able to set up an appointment very quickly.”
It didn’t cost anything extra. Activision Blizzard didn’t necessarily pay the most competitive wage in the case of this employee, but the fact that the emergency help didn’t cost anything was very important for this employee, who didn’t have money to pay massive hospital bills.
Notably, the employee made the decision to go directly through HR, rather than bother Kotick directly with his issues. He didn’t want raise alarms as long as he was getting what he needed.
Returning to work
In China, employees faced the coronavirus first. And that helped give Kotick ideas about what had to happen before sending employees back to work. “We’ve already been able to put a lot of things in practice,” Kotick said.
While the situation is fluid, Kotick said that essential workers would go back first. That’s a relatively small number of staffers, he said. Most of the employees may have the option to go back to work in the coming months. (Kotick said that before the latest wave of infections in California).
“Now we are working with them to design specific back-to-work solutions to help them plan return to the workplace for essential workers and then all workers,” Desai said. “They continue to work with us to deliver highly flexible care models in the home, via telemedicine.”
The first thing employees will have to do is fill out a questionnaire. The Heal doctors can clear anyone who has been sick already. Then they will need to get tested in places like Santa Monica and Irvine, using PCR testing (polymerase chain reaction). It’s a costly test requiring a nasal swab, but it can check for a variety of coronaviruses, not just COVID-19, as well as the flu and other bacterial infections. Those tests deliver results instantly, Kotick said.
The unnamed employee I interviewed said, “I’m looking forward to going back to the office because I am a little stir-crazy at home. Just having the flexibility to work from home — I really prefer that kind of approach. People have many different situations, and having a flexible work situation is important.”
Employees can also opt for saliva tests that they can send back via the mail. If the employees pass two different kinds of tests, they can go into the office. They’ll find that the company has installed machines with big chambers where you put your outerwear to sterilize with ultraviolet light.
The doors in places like bathrooms are being automated to eliminate the need to touch them. People will wander through the building doing thermometer tests on employees. Teams will work in shifts so they can work in a team environment, but in a socially distanced way, with masks and gloves. The company will post hand sanitizer.
“Our biggest challenge right now is how we test for quality assurance,” said Kotick. That occurs in places like Minnesota, where as many as 500 people will have to test games. Then there is the challenge of testing games with prototype hardware for the next-generation consoles. That entails a lot of shared equipment, as does motion capture, where actors wearing special suits are captured on video so artists can render them as game characters. Another tough challenge is what happens if someone becomes symptomatic while at work.
When it comes to a lot of these measures on going back to work, Kotick said, “We have no sensitivity to cost. But you don’t have to do this in a way where it’s going be wildly expensive. It is going to be expensive. But the cost is really dependent on testing and the frequency of it.”
This is where Activision Blizzard’s cash hoard of $5.9 billion is an advantage over its rivals. But the bottom line is that the costs are manageable for the company, Kotick said.
What other companies should know
As far as the message for all companies, Kotick said, “I think it’s all businesses, not just game companies, that have to do this. I don’t think that there’s anything more important than the health and safety of yourself and your family members.”
Kotick also said that besides health care, companies should also focus on helping employees who are parents deal with the costs of education, as many parents have had to home-school their kids. Kotick has also tried to make that a point of differentiation for Activision Blizzard. He said that it helps if kids can be outside when they meet with babysitters. But inviting someone into a home is a risk.
“The message to game companies would be that we don’t have a population of talented people that you can draw from outside industries,” Kotick said. “Designers, animators, artists, and engineers — these are very specific skills.”
He added, “If you want to be a differentiated destination for people to come work in your company, especially now, health care has always been the thing to prioritize. I don’t think companies generally are able to do what we do. I also don’t think the leadership of the companies are enthusiastically motivated to do it. But I think it’s something that we saw as always being a part of our culture.”
Tekell said, “It’s definitely been a journey. There were days when I wondered if I was ever going to get better. My Heal doctor would say, ‘Don’t feel like going downstairs and washing a dish.’ She stayed with me every step of the way. I couldn’t be happier with how they’ve treated me. Heal is great. They’re definitely slammed. I’m beyond pneumonia. My lungs are clear. I’m making progress.”
While most other people are keeping their affairs private, Tekell added, “I’ve been very open about this. I’ve been telling people what I’m going through on Facebook. I’ve seen so many people saying COVID-19 is fake. But I’m saying I’m real. This is real.”