Analysis

Are businesses really ready to go remote? We're about to find out.

Old-school businesses are about to get a crash course in remote work.

Empty desks in an office

Several huge companies have asked employees to forgo most business travel and work from home thanks to panic over the coronavirus outbreak.

Photo: Getty Images

Enterprise software companies have earned billions of dollars in revenue by promising to help their customers create the digital workplace of the future. We're about to find out if the business world is ready for that future.

Thanks to panic over the coronavirus outbreak, dozens of major conferences have been canceled in recent weeks, and several huge companies — Amazon, Microsoft and Chevron — have asked employees to forgo most business travel and work from home. That means lots of people accustomed to doing business face to face — whether through sales calls or managing their employees — will have to depend entirely on digital collaboration tools such as video conferencing and messaging apps.

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This is as much a cultural shift as a technological one. Digital collaboration tools have been around for decades, but most large and medium-size companies still have headquarters and satellite offices, where you can still walk down the hall to ask a colleague a question when you really need to know something. Even with all the right tools, companies will need to adopt new attitudes and working strategies to go fully remote.

Companies that have been using Slack, Zoom or even older tools like Office 365 and G Suite as part of their daily work will now have to rely entirely on those tools in a quarantined world, which makes the next several weeks one of the largest enterprise-software focus groups ever assembled. This is likely to go smoother inside tech companies compared to the rest of the business world, which will be discovering the benefits and limitations of remote workplace collaboration tools in a big way.

For insights on how to go remote, companies and managers might look to the experience of Automattic, developer of the Wordpress blogging software. Last year Steph Yiu, head of support for Wordpress VIP, gave a presentation on how the company manages a remote workplace of more than 1,000 employees spread around the world.

Automattic uses an internally developed communications tool called P2 ( available here) to connect employees, who also use other tools like Google Docs and Slack, according to Yiu's presentation. But the company's culture revolves around the mantra "P2 or it didn't happen," enforcing that tool as a single source of truth across the entire company for business that matters.

Companies that haven't grown around a remote-work philosophy like Automattic might find such a transition to digital-only difficult. For most office workers, communication takes place across many different channels, including tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams, email for minor matters and phone calls or in-person meetings when serious business needs to be addressed.

As an example, Amazon's famous "two-pizza" team-building strategy obviously wasn't designed with remote work in mind; it was built around the value that in-person collaboration delivers for most people. Obviously, those ideas can be adapted for the remote workplace, but workflows and business processes designed around human interaction could push existing digital collaboration tools — often used unevenly across departments inside major companies — to new limits.

Likewise, as the country braces for the economic impact of a prolonged coronavirus outbreak, businesses will also need to adopt tools that help them reach their customers.

As the maxim goes, "the future is already here: it's just not evenly distributed." There are dozens of customer support tools available on the market, and revenue from Zoom's video-conferencing software surged 78% last year as more and more people use it for introductory pitches or meetings.

But across a huge swath of the economy, in-person sales calls are expected as details get ironed out and multiyear commitments are discussed. Video conferencing technology has come a very long way over the last several years — though it's still a horrible pain sometimes — but anyone who has used even the best video conferencing software knows that it just isn't the same as meeting with people in real life.

In a memo yesterday, Sequoia Capital advised its portfolio companies to start thinking about this disruption now and to assess their sales pipelines accordingly. "While travel companies are directly impacted, all companies that depend on in-person meetings to conduct sales, business development, or partnership discussions are being affected," the firm wrote in a message to its founders that it posted on Medium on Thursday.

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As another maxim goes, "never let a crisis go to waste." A prolonged period of remote work will expose the gaps in current workplace collaboration tools, and even once the crisis passes, companies might start to think more creatively about incorporating remote work into their business strategies.

Lots of tech companies have already been thinking about becoming friendlier to remote work as the price of living and doing business in the Bay Area and other urban business centers skyrocketed over the last decade. This creates an enormous opportunity for fresh thinking in workplace collaboration tool design, and puts pressure on the existing powers in this space to adapt to unforeseen needs.

It's fair to say we are in uncharted waters right now, as the scope of the virus outbreak within the U.S. might not be known for weeks. The good news for businesses affected by these worrying developments is that they've never had better options for running a business over the internet.

The bad news is, now they have to figure out how to actually use those tools.

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