Coronavirus crisis

How the coronavirus is changing tech and 5 things to do about it

Due to the Covid-19 virus, some tech-culture trends are radically accelerating. Others are being reversed. And it's happening all at once. Here's what you need to know.

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Coronavirus crisis

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Let's start with the good news.

Statistically speaking, the overwhelming probability is that you won't get the so-called coronavirus (Covid-19). And if you do get it, you'll very likely have a full recovery.

At some point in the near future, the coronavirus will be contained. A vaccine will be developed and made widely available. It will probably be with us for decades, at least, with a predictable number of people affected each year.

The bad news is more familiar and immediate. At press time, coronavirus cases exceeded 100,000. The news is screaming about death and disease. Fear and panic. Cities blockaded. Flights cancelled. Widespread disruption. Conferences suspended. Economic impact.

The news that affects workplace technology culture is major. But it's less clear whether it's good or bad in the long run. Here are the dizzyingly fast changes the coronavirus is forcing on your organization.

Office work is shifting to remote work

Tech companies Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, Square, Lyft, Coinbase, Bungie and Zoom (which makes videoconferencing solutions for, among other things, remote work) are all encouraging employees to work at home. Thousands of other companies will follow this trend over the coming weeks. This year will usher in the biggest and fastest changes for how business works since the introduction of electricity.

Of course, remote work is possible only for a minority of the overall workforce. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that only 29 percent of the American workforce can work from home. That's about 42 million employees.

The percentage of employees working from home has been steadily increasing for years. But this year, thanks to the coronavirus, that rate of increase is going through the roof.

This is probably a good trend. In general, remote workers are happier, healthier, more productive and more loyal to their company. Remote workers help the environment because they don't drive to work at rush hour every day.

A little-understood dynamic is also worth bringing up here. For many new remote workers, working from home is an acquired taste. It's hard at first. But once they acclimate, settle into a routine and figure out how to stay focused and productive, they love it. A study by Condeco Software found that 75 percent of current teleworkers say they plan to work remotely for the rest of their career. (Most would switch jobs to keep working remotely.) That means the coronavirus will introduce millions of workers to the remote-work lifestyle, and they won't want to go back to office work.

Another impact: Once companies acclimate to having far more remote workers, they'll start hiring nationwide or globally, thus accelerating the expat and digital nomad trends. It will be easier to hire more-qualified employees. And it will be easier for the more-qualified employees to live anywhere.

Tech conferences are going virtual

Mobile World Congress, Google's Google I/O conference, Facebook’s F8 developer conference, the Game Developers Conference, and many others have been canceled or will take place online.

For the next year at least, many conferences already planned will go virtual, with sessions streaming over HD video.

Eventually, I predict, in-person conferences will return. But I expect the number of live conferences to be much lower, and the number of virtual conferences to be much higher after the coronavirus dust settles.

Meetings are going electronic

Ford has banned business travel for all employees. Walmart, Amazon, Nestle, the Washington Post, the State of New Jersey and other organizations are tightly restricting business travel, and many more companies will do the same.

The same thing that's happening to professional conferences is happening to business meetings. In general, a large percentage of face-to-face meetings will be replaced by video calls.

You'll note that all three of these coronavirus-accelerated trends favor the adoption of better videoconference equipment and higher-bandwidth connections, which then make video communication even better and more powerful.

The remote-work acceleration is a massive shift, especially in the provisioning, training and management of security systems for those remote workers.

What you need to do -- and do fast

The coronavirus is changing large-organization technology culture, practice and infrastructure faster than any event or phenomenon ever. And if you're a technology leader, IT or security specialists, c-level executive, business owner, IT buyer or decision maker (and if you're reading this, you almost certainly are), you need to act fast. The changes are coming today, tomorrow and over the coming weeks. Here are five things you need to do:

  1. Create or update a remote-work policy (or what I call a "Bring Your Own Office" policy). A 2018 report from the freelancing website Upwork found that some 57 percent of companies surveyed don't even have a remote-work policy. And many of the companies that do have one haven't updated it in the past five years.
  1. Prepare for a rapid increase in remote work. This preparation involves training, security and policy. Create a list of all positions that could possibly work remotely and prepare for all to work remotely at the same time over an extended period. For some companies, this could approach 90 percent of employees. Act fast on this, because when the decision comes it will happen whether IT is ready or not. As the New York Times said, referring to some large companies, "the coronavirus has moved faster than their preparations."
  1. Prepare for a huge increase in video conferencing. Employees will conference each other, and attend more professional conferences virtually. Bandwidth consumption may increase by an order of magnitude over the next few months. VPN data may skyrocket.
  1. Create or update domestic and international business travel polices. Who can travel, to where and for what purpose? What training do they need? Lay all this out in a clear policy and communicate it. Also: Update it weekly or monthly during the crisis.
  1. Communicate to all employees regularly about the coronavirus. The emails or messages should be created or vetted by multiple departments, including your organization's emergency response team. Employees are getting their news from media sources of varying degrees of fearmongering. The stress and anxiety can disrupt work and create morale problems. It's important to communicate the facts, how they affect the company, the business and the employees, and use every new development as a teachable moment for how employees can stay safe and work better in the post-coronavirus world.

The bottom line on the coronavirus

In the long run, everything is going to be OK. In the short term, large organizations are facing unprecedented rates of technology-culture change. The rule is act fast, remain flexible and accept the changes as inevitable.

Also, very important: The changes will affect your organization long after the coronavirus crisis is over. These changes will have lasting impact.