More people are required to work or learn from home because of the coronavirus, COVID-19, prompting the need for a variety of collaboration tools.
With news breaking that dozens of colleges and universities across the United States have told students on Spring Break not to come back until the end of the summer and major companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook closing down offices throughout the west coast, it is clear enterprises in all industries are preparing people for a new reality dependent on work or meeting apps like Slack, Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
Entire cities across China, South Korea, and Italy have already had to deal with lockdowns, and data shows that employees across industries have flocked to a variety of collaboration tools to help them stay connected as governments work to stop the pandemic from spreading further.
“From what we’re hearing, I think most of the vendors in the video-meeting space are reporting increased usage, and in certain cases there has been eye-popping growth of these kinds of video meeting apps,” said Mike Fasciani, Gartner’s research director for unified communications and collaboration.
“This is taking place in markets across Asia and China specifically that had not adopted those kinds of services much in the past but are now turning to those applications as their workers are increasingly isolated from one another.”
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Online meeting, desktop sharing, and video conferencing software service GoToMeeting told TechRepublic it has seen a 20% spike in usage worldwide since the coronavirus concerns began, with usage in Asia doubling.
Lexi Sydow, senior market insights manager at AppAnnie, said its researchers have seen a massive surge in downloads of remote working apps in Italy since Feb. 24. According to the company’s data, during the week of Feb. 22, 417,000 business apps were downloaded across iOS and Google Play in Italy—marking the biggest week for business app downloads in Italy ever.
“This was up 10% from the week prior, and up 30% from the average weekly level of the 52 weeks prior. As of March 3, the top three business apps by daily downloads on iPhone devices in Italy were Hangouts Meet by Google, Microsoft Teams, and ZOOM Cloud Meetings,” Sydow said. “With the high rate of coronavirus cases in Italy and many businesses in affected areas adopting work-from-home policies, we see workers turning to mobile apps to communicate, collaborate, and teleconference to continue uninterrupted from work.”
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Sydow added that AppAnnie researchers saw similar trends emerge in China during the week of Feb. 2, which was the biggest week ever in China in terms of app downloads. There was a huge increase in downloads of business and education apps as schools closed and companies enacted work-from-home policies. Throughout the first half of February, business and education apps were downloaded at levels roughly twice the weekly average in 2019.
“While we haven’t yet seen a surge in downloads of business apps in the US, UK, France, or Germany, we expect these markets to follow a similar trend should the virus continue to spread and businesses enact work-from-home policies to limit potential infection,” Sydow said.
Cloud platforms and smartphone apps dominate
Fasciani said globally, the leading tools that will probably be used more by businesses include Zoom, Cisco Webex, and Microsoft Teams. But in China, people have stuck to more consumer-oriented apps like DingTalk or WeChat, occasionally supplementing those foundational messaging and video applications with other more robust meeting applications.
Fasciani added that in his view, the applications that will gain the most amount of new users will be those that are cloud based and others that are accessed and consumed through people’s smartphones. It may be more difficult for traditional applications that hinge on being the perfect tool for conference rooms to keep up with a new generation of workplace apps designed for mobile use.
In spite of the somewhat dire circumstances, Fasciani noted that this is a great time for businesses to test out a variety of workplace collaboration tools now that many companies are offering them for free over the next few months.
“For those businesses that have not yet done a digital transformation of their unified communications landscape, now is a great time to begin to trial and use these new free-to-use services to see which ones best meet the needs of the business,” he said.
Intelligent workspaces and desktop virtualization
In addition to video conferencing applications and messaging tools, there are more overarching platforms that are designed for a universe of workplace needs.
Intelligent workspaces and desktop virtualization platforms are now being adopted by some businesses to help boost collaboration and replicate the in-office environment, according to Chris Marsh, research director at 451 Research.
Vendors like Citrix, VMware, and Microsoft are the major players in this space, offering tools that virtualize the workplace by providing employees with a place they can securely authenticate into and use to access all of their enterprise applications.
“There are also collaborative work management vendors, what we call CWMs, like Smartsheet, Asana, Wrike and Workfront. A lot of the folks in that space who emerged initially as lightweight project management softwares have since grown into work-wide platforms for different kinds of work,” Marsh said.
“We’re pretty interested in those for remote working because remote working isn’t just about collaboration. It’s not just people being able to message one another. It’s about transparency, visibility, being able to track work, and everyone getting on the same page. I think people being aligned is really important if more people are remote working, and it’s those kinds of tools that allow people to do it.”
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Marsh also mentioned digital canvasses like Atlassian’s Confluence program, NotionHQ, and Coder, which help employees upload content, generate ideas, dole out tasks, have conversations around projects, and edit them like Wikipedia pages.
He also mentioned digital whiteboard platforms as gaining in popularity for some businesses looking to keep remote workers engaged and involved in day-to-day tasks.
One of the key problems enterprises may have now that many employees have no choice but to work from home is that it is easy for people to feel disconnected if they are not around coworkers.
“If this goes on for quite a while, people may feel connected to their team or their manager but they may begin to feel disconnected from their company. Anybody who is making decisions around what technology is going to be deployed in their enterprise environment should probably think about that,” Marsh said.
“There are team collaboration tools but you also need to keep people engaged and aligned with what the company is trying to do at a strategic level.”
What does this mean for the future?
Some companies are using the influx of at-home workers to expand their business and make teleworking more of the norm.
On Monday, Poshu Yeung, vice president of Tencent International Business Group, announced the creation of Tencent Meeting, a conferencing platform integrated with the company’s suite of applications and tools.
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“In recent years, more and more companies have implemented remote working policies, providing employees with greater freedom and flexibility. We are also glad to gain the trust of our government and industry partners, including both the Ministry of Trade and Industry of Singapore and Chongqing government, in using our services for their collaboration’s signing ceremony. We look forward to equipping more enterprises and customers with our efficient and reliable technology in the future,” Yeung said.
Through their cloud platform, Tencent is offering customers high-definition, secure multi-person cloud conferencing tools to rival Huawei, which Fasciani said was the major conference room and premise-based video conferencing service in China.
Even as some workers head back to their offices in China, there will be many employees across the world who may not want to go back after experiencing weeks, if not months, of the work-from-home experience.
Marsh and Fasciani mentioned that many of the companies building these collaboration tools and workplace platforms are eager to let enterprises use their tools for free so people get used to them for more than just a short period of time.
“Once you’ve got people used to working from home, how do you get them back into the office? I think that what we’re seeing now with the expansion in the use of these video and work collaboration services is the start of a new generation of uptake of those kinds of applications for the remote worker experience,” Fasciani said.
“I don’t know that it just snaps back to the way that it was. This impact will have legs for the long run.”