The ongoing Covid-19 crisis has prompted organisations to adopt collaboration tools and remote working solutions to ensure business continuity. These digital workspace solutions that comprise unified collaboration technologies, virtual office solutions, cloud services, etc. are helping employees access relevant data and stay connected as they operate from remote locations. Further, the inability to hold events and conferences due to social distancing norms has brought augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) solutions to the fore. They support virtual events and webinars, which are becoming the new normal in this modern business scenario.

A look at some of the easy-to-use communication tools that are driving business continuity and creating new opportunities for companies offering these platforms…

Transition to remote working

The coronavirus outbreak has forced organisations to allow work from home (WFH) given the high risks of transmission. Earlier, although it was not uncommon for organisations to allow WFH under certain circumstances, it was restricted to a few employees and to a limited number of days.

Most employers always hesitated at the idea of giving employees frequent WFH days as they risked losing productivity since the employees could not be kept under constant supervision. Further, the lack of technology restricted this policy, particularly for those in telemarketing and customer service positions.

A major enabler for the current organisation-wide transition to the WFH model has been the evolving digital ecosystem. Today, with the ubiquitous availability of communication technology and business applications on the cloud, remote working has become an accepted practice in many offices, especially during times of crisis. Further, the rising adoption of advanced technologies such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning and internet of things is helping businesses redefine their IT infrastructure. These technologies have enabled businesses to create a dynamic interface that integrates internal and external workplace communication tools, and eliminates technical barriers. As a result, around 96 per cent organisations have implemented WFH, according to an industry survey.

Cloud to the rescue

A key requirement for enabling WFH is access to all files and folders stored in office servers. To this end, cloud-based software-as-a-solution (SaaS) products are being used. They allow employees to gain fast, easy and secure access to files, programs and applications from home. Further, some cloud providers like Zoho Corp are packaging solutions that enable collaboration in an easy-to-use suite called Zoho Remotely.

According to Ashwin Kumar, director, data centre and cloud operations, Linode India, “The current events have accelerated the adoption of agile technologies, which will drive businesses to rapidly embrace digital transformation. This is especially critical for the small and medium enterprise sector, which is facing increased challenges to ensure both technological and financial continuity. With businesses intensifying remote working and increasingly depending on digital communications for employee and customer interaction, the demand for resilient, accessible and affordable cloud infrastructure has increased, not only in India, but also around the globe.”

Rising uptake of collaboration platforms

The transition of organisations to the remote working model has led to a massive spike in the uptake of collaboration platforms. These include chat and conferencing apps like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, Vidyo, Tencent Conference, WeChat Work and Slack, which enable organisations to stay connected via messaging, voice and video calls, etc. Other such platforms include Basecamp 3, a project management app that enables message boards, to-do lists, schedules, docs, file storage, real-time group chats, etc; Harvest that allows organisations to track time, log expenses and manage invoices; and Google’s G-Suite that includes apps like Docs, Hangout and Drive, which make coordinating and sharing files easier.

For instance, daily downloads of the Zoom app, which has emerged as the go-to app for official meetings and informal gatherings, have increased from around 170,000 in mid-February 2020 to around 2.5 million as of end March 2020. Further, Vidyo, the go-to app for holding meetings between government officials, has supported a total of 79,405 calls lasting more than 37,909 hours from March 20, 2020 (four days before the lockdown began) to April 9, 2020, as per data from the National Informatics Centre.

In a bid to support remote working of organisations, several vendors including Microsoft, Google, Slack, Zoom, Cisco and LogMeIn have started offering their chat, video conferencing and other collaboration services for free. Many among these have even started providing additional paid features at no extra cost.

Telcos too have emerged as front runners in supporting the remote working boom. All three private telcos – Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea Limited and Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited – are leaving no stone unturned in enabling their enterprise customers to ensure business continuity. These telcos are offering home broadband solutions and virtual private network (VPN) services, and undertaking software-based expansions for customers that need faster broadband services. Meanwhile, state-run Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) is providing free access to its corporate customers for one month to encourage employees to WFH. Under this, employees of companies that have subscribed to MTNL’s corporate servers and use its broadband connection can now access their company’s servers at home free of cost through MTNL’s VPN over broadband. While the current home broadband and enterprise business services market opportunity is estimated at Rs 300 billion-Rs 340 billion, industry estimates expect it to increase by 25-30 per cent in the medium term if the pandemic persists for a long duration.

Entering the era of virtual events

The ongoing pandemic has also made it impossible to conduct events and conferences. In this scenario, organisations have started conducting virtual events powered by technologies like AR/VR and mixed reality (MR). In fact, VR headset maker HTC held its first virtual “VIVE Ecosystem Conference” using VR technology. The event, conducted in March 2020, witnessed the participation of around 2,000 people from more than 55 countries and marked the first physical industry event that was fully replaced by extended reality (XR), an umbrella term that encompasses VR, AR and MR.

The key advantage of using XR for conducting conferences is that it gives a real-world feeling of actually attending a conference or event. Recognising this, a number of organisations are moving towards this technology for launching products, conducting demonstrations and holding expos. In India, companies such as Hyderabad-based Imaginate and Gurugram-based Queppelin are witnessing an increased demand for VR, AR and MR technologies from India and abroad. As per Imaginate, the demand for such solutions has increased by more than two and a half times during March 2020. The company is also doing demos for virtual expos.

Challenges galore

While the majority of organisations have made the transition to remote working solutions, there have been a few roadblocks. Key among these has been the urgent need to provide these solutions at a large scale and at short notice. Organisations that had been practising WFH were at an advantage while others faced a crisis. Further, the lack of digital infrastructure is another major barrier to effective remote working. Getting seamless connectivity and bandwidth as everyone in the country turns to remote communication is another challenge. Since connectivity is erratic, it may affect collaboration in the workspace. Moreover, the remote working mechanism may expose critical business data to potential security threats.

Creating a digital workforce for the future

The Covid-19 outbreak has disrupted business operations, but has also forced companies to jump on the digital bandwagon to ensure business continuity. Remote working has become the new normal in the current business scenario. As industry experts suggest that this new culture is here to stay, organisations should come up with flexible and adaptive policies that help build a digital workforce. This digital workforce be well equipped to tackle crises like the coronavirus outbreak in the future.