BENTON HARBOR — It didn’t come as a shock to anyone as the parking lots at several Whirlpool Corp. buildings were practically barren last week.

With 77,000 employees around the world – about 4,000 of which are based in Southwest Michigan – Whirlpool has added more workplace policies as the coronavirus continues to spread across the U.S.

The Benton Harbor appliance maker has had more experience with COVID-19 than most North American companies.

Jeff Noel, vice president of communication and public affairs for Whirlpool, said a cross-functional crisis team was formed when the coronavirus began to spread to China and Italy. The reason for this could be traced to Whirlpool’s factory that is about 200 miles from Wuhan, China – a place where the first positive case was discovered – and its European headquarters in Milan, Italy.

The company issued a travel advisory that there would be no intercontinental traveling. Business travel was limited to only essential activities two weeks ago. Heading into last week, those policies evolved into more restrictions to protect employees.

“There was a lot of good planning that was done,” Noel said. “About two weeks ago, we were establishing policies that we believed were appropriate for what we knew. It went from making advisories and asking people to make adjustments to not having any meetings on the property.”

Noel said there is a daily kickoff meeting with more than 40 people around the world who are working to help manage safety issues within the company.

“Everyday we get questions from employees and we look at our policies and amend them,” Noel said. “It’s a terrible situation, it’s an inconvenience, it’s causing concern for so many, and yet to see the employees come together the way they have, shows the strength of this company.”

Among the biggest changes is a requirement for all employees to work from home if they have the capability to do so.

Trina Lawrence, a travel expense administrator for Whirlpool, has been with the company for 19 years. She said she’s never encountered a roadblock for the work place like this in her two decades with Whirlpool.

Since last week, Lawrence has worked from home. She was joined by her husband and three children – the latter of whom are completing school work in a virtual setting.

While her husband uses his home office downstairs – he works from home on a weekly basis – Lawrence stationed her workspace at the breakfast bar. She even collected her office monitor to help with the transition.

“This would not be possible 19 years ago,” Lawrence said. “I’m so thankful we have the technology.”

Working from home has been interesting for Lawrence, as she has had to deal with a lot of the company’s travel arrangements.

“It’s been a huge undertaking lately,” she said. “Right now we’re canceling all our international and domestic travel, and making sure all of our employees are safe.”

Jafferty Northrup, who is a senior manager of communications and events for Whirlpool’s North America region, already had a flexible home office.

But now that her husband is forced to work from home too, concessions had to be made.

With their three children on the first floor of the house, Northrup converted her bedroom into a home office.

“I put my laptop in my bag at night as a way of turning the office back into the bedroom,” she said. “We talked about flip-flopping offices (each week), so I can go downstairs and have a proper space.”

Ironically, Northrup said she is connecting with her work colleagues more as a result of working from home.

“We make a lot of phone calls and a lot of Google Hangouts. We’re picking up the phone more instead of texting,” she said. “We schedule a virtual happy hour and we’re forcing ourselves to appreciate our relationships, both personally and professionally.”

For executives, it’s a strange environment as well.

Noel said this is the most unique situation he’s experienced from a corporate standpoint.

“I remember 9/11 and how tragic that day was. And yet there was a certainty that that day would end,” Noel said. “This is a situation where we’re not at the end yet and we don’t see the end of the tunnel yet.”

Noel said Whirlpool will continue to keep an eye on what other companies are doing to see what can be implemented for the appliance maker’s policies regarding COVID-19.

Contact: twittkowski@TheHP.com, 932-0358, Twitter: @TonyWittkowski