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The Effect of Coronavirus on Remote Work

This week, organizations all over Europe and Asia joined China’s massive remote work experiment to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. All schools in Japan have shut down until April, Switzerland has now banned events with more than 1,000 attendees, and similar safety measures in other countries are causing everyone to rethink the way they work.

The scale of this remote work experiment is unprecedented, with millions of people now working from their homes every day in high-risk regions. None of them have much choice in the matter, and all indications point to even more people experimenting with remote work in the coming days and or weeks as the Coronavirus now lives on all inhabited continents.

Financial markets have already adjusted to the probability of global supply chain disruptions, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Coronavirus is now beginning to impact the way companies all around the world communicate.

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Travel restrictions and office closures means all communication now moves through phones and laptops instead of face-to-face meetings. On the surface, that doesn’t sound like a big deal. But it’s not just meetings. It’s office stand-ups, water cooler conversations, serendipitous encounters, and all the subtle communication that happens in an office which now must be moved online.

Instead of popping into your colleagues' office to review a document, a whole new system of technical overhead is now required. Your teammates must be using the same collaboration software as you, and everyone needs to be fluent in commenting, screen sharing, and collaborating in real time.

If not, a five minute document review turns into hours of back-and-forth emails and productivity slows to a crawl. Simply put, this is a major shift for most companies.

Some workplaces already have company-wide Slack systems, Zoom meeting protocols, and even offer remote work options for employees on a regular basis. But the latest data from the ongoing Coronavirus epidemic shows these companies are few and far between. The vast majority of teams affected by the Coronavirus appear to be jumping off the deep-end into fully-remote work for the first time.

Available data also suggests that as teams are transitioning to remote work en masse, their remote working tools of choice are struggling to keep up with demand.

Remote Work Is Already Being Reflected In Stock Prices

Zoom, Atlassian, and Slack are among the most obvious “remote work” companies for investors looking to hedge against the effects of Coronavirus. They all offer slightly different products, but share a common thread of being collaboration software that can be used by workers around the world. The effect on their stock prices has been clear during last week’s historic stock market rout.

During a week where all major stock indices were down 10-12%, Slack finished down only 2.5%, Zoom finished down just 1% (after hitting an all-time high on Friday morning), and Atlassian even eked out a small gain on the week.

It’s clear that financial markets are expecting employees all over the world to begin adopting remote-first tools in high enough volumes to offset broader economic weakness.

How much adoption are these tools actually getting? Google offers us a few hints.

Google Searches For Remote Tools

Searches for the topic of “Telecommuting” on Google have spiked by 900% in South Korea, 800% in Japan, and 250% in Italy since the Coronavirus hit each region.

Telecommuting Interest over time

The shocking increases in search volume can also be observed across searches for specific tools such as Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams.

  • Zoom searches have increased by 525% in South Korea, 150% in Japan, and 104% in Italy.
  • Slack searches have increased 17% in South Korea, are flat in Japan, and are up 19% in Italy.
  • Microsoft Teams searches have increased 186% in South Korea, are down 17% in Japan, and are up 108% in Italy.

And these search results only represent a fraction of the tools that help location-independent teams succeed.

A Remote Work Boom Too Big To Handle

The entire remote software industry is (or will soon be) experiencing a boom in sales, trials, and new users. While the extra traffic is basically free and marketing efficiency is through the roof, some teams are experiencing too much growth to handle.

There are many examples of popular remote tools facing shutdowns, delays, or technical issues due to the surge in users during the Coronavirus. When the virus first presented a major threat in Asia, these were a few notable failures:

  1. Alibaba's teamwork app, Dingtalk, crashed due to too many concurrent video conferences saturating the server and bandwitdh
  2. Tencent's for enterprise messaging app, Wechat for Business, crashed. Connection was extremely unstable
  3. Baidu's office VPN was busy and employees were asked to stay disconnected to leave bandwith for sysadmins
  4. Huawei's WeLink was unavailable for a while
  5. Bytedance (company behind TikTok)'s Lark, an online office suite like GApps only had some minor issues
  6. Zoom offered a free version to mainland users and it's extremely popular. But it lacks non-video-conf features. e.g. simple daily poll to see if your colleagues were healthy or not.

This is a concern that all companies building remote tools need to be on top of. Employers everywhere are forming first impressions of the products that enable their workers to contribute from anywhere in the world.

And while the sharp increase in remote work may only last a few weeks before the Coronavirus fades away, it may also represent a gateway to a new way of building teams and communicating in an increasingly global economy.

Either way, the remote work movement is experiencing an important inflection point as companies are forced to re-think the structure and communication strategies of their teams.