As coronavirus worsens, companies renew focus on collaboration, remote work

While some companies and organizations are cancelling big events such as MWC and Facebook’s F8, others are looking to see what’s in their collaboration toolbox to keep workers healthy and productive.

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As the U.S. braces for the coronavirus epidemic, businesses looking to protect the health of their employees are taking steps to support staff working from home – leading to a surge in demand for video conferencing technology and other collaboration tools.

The stock prices of Slack and video-conferencing software Zoom have risen in the past month, even as the overall stock market saw serious declines last week. Zoom has also gained a number of new users amid the outbreak, according to CNBC, with company officials saying they’ve seen more active users in the first two months of 2020 than in all of last year.

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, in a blog post, talked up the features offered by the company’s products and how they could be useful during the outbreak.

Though the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. remains low compared to other parts of the world, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned last week that the virus is likely to spread to further in the coming months. Two coronavirus deaths in the U.S. were reported over the weekend, and suspected cases of the virus began popping up in different states.

Even before that, on Thursday, Facebook decided to cancel the in-person component of its F8 2020 developer’s conference in San Jose, Calif. That decision came just 10 days after the social media company announced it was cancelling its global marketing summit in San Francisco. Other companies with well-known tech events, such as Apple’s WWDC, are also eyeing the prospect of cancelling their events.

IT needs to make plans now

The prospect of cancelled events and the need to keep workers productive is pushing companies to revisit collaboration tools and work-from-home policies, said Raúl Castañón-Martínez, senior analyst at 451 Research. “The coronavirus outbreak will definitely lead IT organizations to look at how they are supporting remote work, as it already has resulted in organizations cancelling attendance to industry events as in the case of MWC.

“While there already was interest, this could act as a catalyst accelerating adoption of technologies that enable remote workers,” he said.

Remote work has significantly increased in China as a result of restricted movement; in a conference call last week, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, advised U.S. companies to start making similar preparations.

“For adults, businesses can replace in-person meetings with video or telephone conferences and increase teleworking options,” she said last Tuesday. “Now is the time for businesses, hospitals, communities, schools and everyday people to begin preparing.”

On Thursday, IBM – which had moved away from remote work for its employees several years ago – urged employees in hard-hit areas to stay home, according to the Washington Post. Other companies are restricting business travel, or pulling out of events.

Remote working is not a new concept, with research from Merchant Savvy showing that 69% of businesses in the U.S. already have a remote working policy in place – 7% higher than the global average and a three-fold increase from 1996.

Even so, Castañón-Martínez stressed that, while there is an increased awareness about remote working, the majority of organizations are not prepared for its wide-spread enablement – and many are still evaluating requirements and solutions.

A 2017 survey by Polycom of 25,234 employees in the U.S. and 11 other countries found that 37% of respondents used video conferencing software every day to better collaborate with colleagues. Teams can often be dispersed across different states and communicating via video can help to improve employee relationships and drive productivity – and slow the spread of illness like coronavirus.

The same study also found that 62% of respondents didn’t believe the tools they had in place were adequate, and wanted their employers to provide better technology that’s both easy to use and helps them stay connected with their colleagues.

CDC: Companies should encourage telework

The official advice from the CDC states: “For employees who are able to telework, supervisors should encourage employees to telework instead of coming into the workplace until symptoms are completely resolved. Ensure that you have the information technology and infrastructure needed to support multiple employees who may be able to work from home.”

In his statement, Zoom’s Yuan said the company was doing everything it could to support those affected by the outbreak “by committing our reliable technology, expanded access, and agile customer service.”

The company removed the time limit on two-person meetings for users in China and scheduled a number of on-demand resources and tutorials to help new adopters learn how to use the platform “with ease and at their convenience.”

California-based BlueJeans is also providing support to customers that might be affected by the outbreak, according to a spokesperson. “BlueJeans is making every effort to support the growth in meetings by scaling up our cloud infrastructure and network capacity.”

One of the biggest issues stemming from working at home for long periods is that employees will need technology that allows them to collaborate remotely with the colleagues they usually sit next to, as well as workers in different offices across the country and external partners and clients.

“Enabling a distributed workforce is a complex endeavour,  particularly considering the growing security and compliance requirements that IT organizations have to deal with,” said Castañón-Martínez. “A good place to start is by evaluating how their current communications and technology stack supports different use cases.”

Castañón-Martínez said that the uptake in remote working has directly led to the rise of vendors like Zoom, which emerged precisely due to its relevance for enabling and connecting remote teams. While Zoom continues to focus on videoconferencing, CafeX Communications recently launched a new collaboration tool called Challo to tackle external collaboration while other options like Microsoft Teams and Workplace by Facebook are looking at ways to better address the needs of frontline workers, both in and outside the office.

Matthew Finnegan contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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