As the number of COVID-19 cases around the world reaches 125000, businesses and educational institutes around the globe are rapidly putting strategies and tools in place to deal with an upsurge in remote working to delay the spread of coronavirus.
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has advised its employees in certain countries to work from home, and Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook also recommending that staff in some cities recommended to work remotely.
However, although some companies have an established remote working policy, for others it has been a test of their digital infrastructure, with access to instant messaging, file sharing, remote meetings, applications used within the business and data essential for business operations to continue.
In light of this, some companies that provide remote working tools have begun offering free services.
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Microsoft, for example, is offering a free six-month trial of its premium Teams chat app, as well as 1TB of storage. According to the company, it has experienced a 500% increase in Teams meetings, calling and conferences in China since the end of January, as well as a 20% increase Teams usage on mobile devices.
Google has also made access to advanced Hangouts Meet video conferencing freely available to all G Suite and G Suite for Education users.
Networking hardware company Cisco has released a free version of its video conferencing solution Webex, after reporting that traffic from China has increased up to 22 times since the start of the outbreak, with signups from countries impacted by coronavirus up seven times.
LogMeIn has announced that it will provide government, educational, healthcare and non-profit organisations, as well as existing LogMeIn customers, with free “Emergency Remote Work Kits” for three months, which include video conferencing, IT support and remote access to devices.
Educational institutions are also facing a remote working challenge, with the announcement yesterday that all schools and colleges in the Republic of Ireland will close until 29 March, and the prospect of upcoming public exams in the UK being postponed. Coursera, the world’s largest online learning platform has announced that it is making its full course catalogue free to every university.
Zoom has lifted the 40-minute limit on Zoom meetings, and is “proactively monitoring servers to ensure maximum reliability amid any capacity increases”.
The company has also scheduled information sessions to familiarise new users with the platform, and it says that doctors in China are now using Zoom for online consolations and diagnosing.
VPN provider Surfshark is also offering six months free VPN access to all companies with fewer than ten employees.
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“We are in a very unprecedented situation right now”
Companies offering remote working tech freebies to help ease the strain of the coronavirus may not be entirely selfless, with companies such as Zoom experiencing a rapidly expanding user base and saw its shares rise 11% as of March, unsurprisingly benefitting from a rapid shift towards working from home.
The ethics of capitalising on the current circumstances is an aspect of the coronavirus outbreak that needs careful consideration, with Facebook announcing last week that it will ban some ads that appear to exploit current fears, such as those for face masks.
However, when it comes to remote working tech, implementing a culture of flexible working, aided by technology, may be a positive outcome of what is otherwise an extremely severe situation.
Although remote working is not possible or practical for every organisation, according to the Office of National Statistics, the number of people working from home in the UK doubled between 2008 and 2018, but presenteeism is still the norm for many organisations, despite workers having the right to request flexible working.
The impact of this mass shift to remote working on productivity and wellbeing remains to be seen, but it may trigger an changes to working culture and ensure that organisations have the technology in place to enable this.
Shashi Kiran, CPO of Aryaka believes that the current unprecedented situation will require many to re-think remote working, with free remote working tech only part of the solution:
“We are in a very unprecedented situation right now, caused almost overnight, where networks and collaboration suites that were designed for part-time telecommuters and mobile workers are now being stretched very thin when they’re expected to operate at peak capacity. Free tools and pricing subsidies help with cost but don’t necessarily improve network performance or employee productivity.
Global companies are being forced to rethink secure remote access solutions that are better aligned to take advantage of these suites, with creative network designs particularly accessing their global virtual private network (VPN) infrastructure. These allow better utilization of global VPN infrastructure to solve capacity problems in local areas and cut through the complexity of ordering and installing more hardware when the solution is required now. Empowered network engineers, working hand-in-hand with their peers in collaboration, security and corporate IT can play a major role in making working from home a more pleasant experience for the worker as well as the company.”