Companies all over the world have ordered employees to work from home as widespread social distancing measures are brought in to fight the coronavirus. To ensure this shift is successful, workers must have access to the internet and adequate devices and software platforms, a situation that would have created major difficulties even a decade ago.

Although the global pandemic has left many organisations with no choice but to rapidly navigate the world of remote working, the trend is part of a workplace behavioural shift that has been growing over the past five years. In part, this trend is due to the emergence of the gig economy – an entire sector of independent workers, contractors and freelancers working at distance, often at home. For instance, the latest IWG Global Workspace Survey revealed that 73% of people in the UK consider flexible working to be ‘normal’, with 68% of UK businesses reported to have a flexible workspace policy. The International Labor Organization in the US estimates that prior to the pandemic, 34% of the US workforce belonged to the gig economy and doteveryone estimated that the gig economy was worth £2bn in the UK alone – and that was before the coronavirus took over.

This gradual change in how we view work arrangements means many organisations were already on a path of digital transition – establishing remote working arrangements to keep pace. Yet even so, almost overnight, they were forced to complete the adjustment.

However, despite incredibly short timelines to prepare workers for distance working, the shift has been on the whole, a successful one. Pressure on networks, internet providers and software platforms have been intense, but they have kept businesses alive where decades ago, the inability to work or progress strategies would have caused entire economies to falter completely.

There are many are providers offering vital tools that are currently keeping businesses operating throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Video-conferencing specialist Zoom for instance said it has seen a significant lift in usage over the past few weeks. According to data gathered by downloads for Zoom increased by 1,270% between February 22 and March 22, and its smartphone app is currently the top free downloaded app in Apple’s app store. CFO Kelly Steckelberg says that the pandemic has caused them to focus entirely on dealing with demand and to manage it effectively, and that to do this, they have increased data centre capacity and bandwidth.

Seattle-based Microsoft’s Teams have also reported a jump in usage since workers have been told to work from home. “Chat was up 50 per cent week over week and meetings were up 37 per cent, and we’re seeing usage upticks among customers too” said Vice President for Microsoft 365 Jared Spataro.

Messaging service Slack has also seen a surge in demand. Last week its blog post outlined what it was doing to keep its service up and running to support teams working from home, whilst other software providers such as Cisco Webex added additional features to its free Webex service to firms affected by coronavirus – allowing users to host meetings with up to 100 participants for an unlimited amount of time. In addition, services such as PowWowNow extended the free trial of the company’s suite of technology products including web meetings, video and conference calling services from 14 to 60 days to help employees work from home and stay productive during the pandemic.

It is also not only day to day work that technology is allowing to continue through the pandemic. Many significant conferences and events have been digitally transformed to support important discussions that allow global economies to progress. For example, the 2020 edition of Cannes-based music industry conference Midem, and the technology conference Cisco Live, which were both cancelled due to concerns about Coronavirus, will now take place in virtual form. In addition, Gamescom 2020 announced plans to host a ‘major digital event’ if Coronavirus forces the show to be cancelled in June.

In another example, #GMIS2020, the third edition of the Global Manufacturing and Industrialisation Summit due to take place in April alongside Hannover Messe, has been converted into a series of digital sessions. In just a few weeks, the organisers have realigned the Summit so it may now virtually convene thought-leaders and business pioneers from the global manufacturing community to discuss, debate and shape the future of the manufacturing sector. As head of #GMIS2020’s organising committee Badr Al Olama explains; “Before the coronavirus, many discussions around the Fourth Industrial Revolution were negative. Concerns about the ‘digital disruption’ of the manufacturing sector, or a perceived threat to livelihoods and the economic prosperity of our society gained significant traction, yet the pandemic has redefined this conversation.”

“The effects of the coronavirus have forced businesses and economies to pivot towards an era of ‘digital restoration’ – where the the Fourth Industrial Revolution is seen as a force for good, central to restoring much of our daily lives and helping us overcome this unprecedented challenge,” he continued.

Supporting this view, some believe that the shift to virtual conferences serves only to add to the benefits of attending events. For instance, virtual conferences ensure that attendees continue to benefit from the learnings and online networking opportunities these events provide, while providing the reassurance that they are not being exposed to the virus or harming others by spreading the disease.

Digital events also mean that planners can keep clients and sponsors happy by allowing them to have dedicated virtual sessions, or incorporating them into panels or discussions, so their brand presence remains strong. In addition, virtual events have the added benefit of helping cut costs and alleviate issues around accessibility and sustainability compared to traditional events.

The pandemic has caused societies the world over to re-examine how they live in order to protect their most vulnerable members. As a result, companies are learning that remote, distributed teams can easily “plug and play” with enterprise platforms and be just as efficient as they would be in an office environment.

After the initial global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic passes, it is likely that remote-working, virtual training and events, and digital collaboration become part of our everyday lives. Consequently, the longer organisations are forced to collaborate remotely, the more ingrained digital working, conferences and events will become. If this is the case, it is likely to lead to the next step in a tech-powered future of work; blurring the distinction between employee and freelancer, office and home – forever.


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