Coronavirus pushing people towards work from home
Coronavirus could permanently shift working patterns as companies forced to embrace remote working by the pandemic find that their employees do not want to return to the office once the closures are lifted.
The sudden increase in working from home is presenting problems as well as opportunities: on the one hand, startups such as Slack and Zoom and established giants including Google and Microsoft are offering their tools for free, in the hope that people who start using them in a crisis may carry on once normality returns.
On the other hand, some systems are already creaking at the edges. Corporate networks, unused to having a majority of their connections coming in over virtual private networks (VPNs), are experiencing unusual quirks, while internet service providers have come under pressure to lift bandwidth caps so that remote workers do not get cut off from their employers halfway through the month.
Large technology firms were some of the first to make the switch to remote working for all their staff, building on pre-existing infrastructure such as office chat groups, remote access to critical tools, and the fact that much knowledge work can be carried out remotely.
In Seattle, the hub of many of America's early Covid-19 cases, companies including Amazon, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Google advised workers to stop coming in to the office in late February. In early March, Twitter "strongly advised" all its employees worldwide to do the same, and on Wednesday, made it compulsory.
That's certainly what the industry behind remote work is hoping. "We are fully prepared for this situation," said a spokesperson for Slack, which makes popular business chat software. "First and foremost, our concern is for the families and individuals affected by the coronavirus.
"For now, we are focused on helping people around the world adapt to remote work with free resources. For example, we have been hosting free consultations for companies adapting to remote work for the first time. We've been speaking to companies of all sizes and from all industries - from large enterprises with hundreds of thousands of employees, to small businesses with a team of five."
Still, technology can only go so far, and working from home is not for everyone. "I've worked 100% remote before," said one tech industry worker who has been sent home, "and there comes a point where even an introvert would like to see another human."
Tools for remote working
Slack, the über workplace management tool, is loved and loathed in equal measure, but one thing it has going for it is its free-to-play business model: rather than needing to sign up the entire organisation at once, it is easy for individual teams, desks and offices to get started with the free tier, and expand as they see fit. That means it is best placed to help home workers quickly recreate the sort of in-person chat they had in the office.
Where Slack recreates the feeling of turning to a colleague for a quick chat that's as much personal as professional, Trello is more like your boss walking over to "just check on how you're doing". The project management software lets teams arrange and assign tasks, track wider project progress, and build workflows for repeated jobs - perfect for day four or five of working from home, when you might start to wonder if your boss has forgotten you exist.
Videoconferencing tools are 10 a penny, but Zoom has impressed many by ironing out the kinks in an often-frustrating process. The app lifted its limit on free accounts as a response to the crisis, and theoretically supports up to 1,000 participants in a single meeting, though it's unclear whether that's actually a positive. The company has had some controversies, however, from an insecure plugin for Mac clients that was fixed in June to a questionable "attention tracking" feature that allows horrible bosses to use AI to check whether their employees are actually looking at the screen.
Just as important as making sure you work well at home is making sure you take breaks from work at home. The Pomodoro method, a well-known approach to focus management that lets you break the day into 20-minute chunks with five-minute rests, is one such approach. Tomates, a simple and cheap Mac app, helps you to automate those timers - although any similar app will work too, or a simple physical timer like the tomato alarms the method is named after.
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