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Will Coronavirus Revive the ‘Work from Home’ Trend?

Twitter asked all of its 5,000-strong workforce to work from home. They aren’t the first and probably won’t be the last ones asking employees to stay put in the wake of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic causing ripples around the world causing a body blow to an already tired global economy.

The fatalities across the world crossed the 3000-mark and close to 90,000 are undergoing treatment across 40 countries. With the situation appearing far from under control, enterprises are running to find ways to keep the ball rolling without putting their staff to undue risk. A spate of event cancellations across the world suggests that industry is indeed worried.

However, all is not lost. At least not yet. Cisco’s Webex reported a 22-time increase in traffic in China while growth in Japan, South Korea and Singapore was four to five times. Average time spent on Webex doubled in the recent past. Google recently got its 8000-strong staff in Ireland to stay and home and use Hangouts as fears of the virus spread in the country.

In case anyone things that altruism is at the heart of these and other efforts at pushing video conferencing, they’re wrong. Companies owning web-conferencing or video-conferencing facilities on apps or otherwise are pushing the envelope like never before, offering discounts in the process.

Coronavirus spurs ‘work from home’ trend

A survey conducted by Harvard Business School and Boston Consulting Group, reveals that despite the demand from younger professionals and the wide availability of technology that allows for team collaboration and activity, working from home continued to be resisted by a variety of corporate sectors, including IT. Only 30% of decision makers said they were prepared for it.

However, all that is changing due to the Coronavirus crisis. With a hundred thousand being infected by the disease, many companies are reluctant to allow their workforce to enter the office premises. They know how productivity would take a huge dip if just one infected employee came to work.

Twitter has told its employees to work from home to help stop the spread of the Coronavirus. In its official website, the social media giant said it was mandatory for staff in Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea to work remotely.

The company also said it ‘strongly’ encourages of its 5,000 employees around the world to not come into work and prior to that the firm banned all non-essential business travel and events for its workers. The company had already announced that it was pulling out of this month’s South by Southwest media conference in Austin, Texas.

Twitter’s head of human resources Jennifer Christie said: “Our goal is to lower the probability of the spread of the Covid-19 Coronavirus for us – and the world around us.”

Workers at Google’s European headquarters in Dublin are also instructed to work from home as the company tests its preparedness for a potential outbreak in Ireland, but most of the 8,000 workers are expected to return to their workplace next week.

At the same time companies, including telecoms operator A&T and Citigroup, have restricted international travel, especially to Asian countries.

Likewise, Austin-based job listings website Indeed has told its employees to work from home until further notice as the COVID-19 Coronavirus spreads. It had also made the decision to halt all business travel and cancel all near-term Indeed-hosted events.

“Our goal is to minimize the risk to employees and help to lower the probability of the spread of the virus to you, your families and the communities where we operate,” Indeed said in a statement sent to employees.

The Washington Post reports that “IBM, which ended remote work for some U.S. employees, nearly three years ago  said it had asked workers in Coronavirus-affected areas to work from home ‘wherever possible.’

Cryptocurrency exchange platform Coinbase has also asked some employees to start working home this week. “Working from home is not a complete solution but it may help slow the growth of infections,” an official says, adding that Coinbase’s communications document elaborates on its policies that employees who are likely to get sick more easily or for whom getting sick would be particularly problematic should now work with their manager to move to 100% Work From Home (WFH).

Other organizations will surely follow suit, as Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang told investors on a recent earnings call, “The crisis is a very, very big challenge to the society,”, but it also gives people a “chance to try a new way of living and new way of work.”

Read more: Coronavirus Continues to Disrupt Global Tech Events

Will work from home become a norm?

Working from home however is not a recent phenomenon. Remote work was always popular with employees and many organizations preferred it that way. A study by Owl Labs reveals that 34% of U.S. workers would take a pay cut of up to 5% in order to work remotely.”

A recent CNBC article explains this trend. “Younger generation managers are more likely to embrace remote working, both for their employees and their staff. Three-quarters of millennial and Gen Z managers have team members who work a significant portion of their time remotely, versus 58 percent of baby boomers,” writer and entrepreneur Karen Gilchrist mentions in the article

However, some of the reports over the last two years points toward the trend that 44% of global companies didn’t allow any remote work at all. The study reveals that “remote workers say they’re happy in their jobs 29% more than on-site workers.”

Though some exceptions are observed as Foxconn, a giant electronics maker, is trying to tempt employees back into its factories in China with large bonuses, on the whole, Experts believe the potential pandemic will have a positive impact on the growth of remote work and working from home.

But again remote working has its own share of challenges. A tech media executive of a Bangalore-based firm, who works remotely, once said, “The main challenge I face as a remote worker is isolation. Although, the benefits are that I can work out my own hours (pressing deadlines aside) and from any location, the fact that I work alone is something that I had to overcome.”

Read more: Tech Industry Feeling the Heat of Coronavirus

That apart, work from home can give rise to major security issues and technical glitches giving a rough time to CIO/CISOs, who may be prepared to spend sleepless nights. While collaboration technologies, such as web and video conferencing are likely to reach its peak, there are policies that need to be worked out in these areas to ensure safe and secure communication.

In any case, remote work is here to stay, pandemic or not, but the Coronavirus may force the transition more quickly than expected. Remote workers globally make up anywhere from about 5% (those who typically work from home) to nearly two-thirds (who sometimes work remotely) of the workforce. Weighing both its pros and cons, one can say that the trend has been ticking up and a pandemic like Coronavirus has the potential to fast-track the move by making it more universally accepted and prominent.

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Sohini Bagchi
Sohini Bagchi is Editor at Trivone Digital, a published author and a storyteller. She can be reached at sohini.bagchi@trivone.com