Surfing the tech Wave

Remote working has defined the crisis for millions of people. But how will businesses stay connected with homeworkers in a post-Covid world? James Ashton investigates

Words / James Ashton

Illustration / Geoffroy De Crecy

Remove the row

Column: 1

Eric Yuan has obsessed about communication ever since he was a student at Shandong University of Science and Technology in China eager to see his girlfriend who lived a ten-hour train ride away. That curiosity led him to the United States to work for Webex, a video-conferencing start-up that in 2007 was acquired by Cisco. Convinced that video chat could be made slicker for the smartphone age, Yuan quit in 2011 to found Zoom. It was a crowded market, but he correctly predicted that ease of use and features such as screen sharing and fun, colourful backdrops would win fans. What the workaholic could not have predicted is the Covid-19 pandemic which turned Zoom into the corporate success story of 2020.

The impact of widespread office closures and the determination of work colleagues, friends and family to stay connected during the pandemic was writ large in Zoom’s second-quarter trading update. For the three months to the end of July, sales soared 355% to $663.5m. Thanks to the remote working and socialising boom, the firm reported a base of 370,200 customers with more than 10 employees, a 458% rise. Between the end of March, when lockdown was imposed in many major markets, and the end of August, Zoom’s Nasdaq-listed shares more than doubled.

The company is not alone in reaping the benefits of a global crisis. Following a second wave of Coronavirus, government guidelines are instructing office workers who can work from home to do so over the winter. Employers are acknowledging that working practices may have changed for good.

Security issues

Along with digital banking, digital shopping and every service that can be repurposed to pitch up at someone’s doorway, the technologies that will continue to thrive when Covid-19 is beaten will be those that project office life into the home, enabling people to work productively, securely and safely. Also faring well will be anything that replicates some of the social aspect lost without the daily commute, whether that be water cooler moments or the sensation of after-work drinks. And if these technologies can be condensed into a simple app format, all the better.

Take for example Avast. Out of reach of the corporate IT department, much use has been made of the FTSE100 cyber security firm’s consumer desktop products as homeworkers considered the resilience of the family personal computer. In the six months to the end of June, that resulted in Avast attracting an extra 640,000 paying customers, driving up revenue by 6.6% on an underlying basis.

Maintaining productivity

From protecting remote workers from an unseen threat, technology can also be deployed to protect them from themselves. That includes nudging them to focus on work when they are surrounded by numerous domestic distractions and also making sure they switch off instead of tapping out emails around the clock.

Such workplace wellbeing is now in the hands of apps including StayFocusd, a productivity tool developed for Google Chrome by Transfusion Media, a web design studio based in Los Angeles. It can be set to restrict access to the wrong sort of website, such as putting a block on trawling YouTube during office hours. More experimental is the solution from a start-up called Auctify. In September it began hunting for backing to manufacture what it describes as anti-procrastination spectacles. They use a mini camera and machine learning to alert a user when they stray from that day’s task.

Boosting engagement

Employers are also reaching out to experts who can keep their staff engaged, happy and learning new skills. “We are already getting great interest from clients on how the new world of work affects leadership, management, inclusion, performance, wellness and a range of other behavioural areas where we have deep expertise,” said Octavius Black, chief executive of Mind Gym, a firm that develops and licenses training programmes for corporate clients.

Harder to recreate is the social aspect of work. Professional networking website LinkedIn is bound to be a beneficiary of less face-to-face contact. In the quarter ending in June, it was hit by the weak jobs market and a reduction in ad spend, although revenue still increased by 11% when currency swings were stripped out.

The human factor

What about meeting people for the first time? Again, there is an enterprising start-up attempting to bridge the gap while exchanging business cards is a no-no. Usage of the Lunchclub introduction service for professionals has risen tenfold compared to before the pandemic, and face-to-face get-togethers have been replaced by appointments to chat online. The US firm recently raised $24m to take its valuation above $100m.

Such appetite – from consumers and investors – shows that the world of work will never be the same again. Encouragingly, it is also shows that corporate life stops for nothing.

“Organisations are shifting from addressing their immediate business continuity needs to supporting a future of working anywhere, learning anywhere, and connecting anywhere on Zoom’s video-first platform,” proclaimed Eric Yuan. And a host of other companies are following in its wake, racing to make operating outside the office as effective as possible for all concerned.