Commentary / World

We really weren’t ready to work from home

by Alex Webb

Bloomberg

Call it teething problems, disorganization or plain Luddism: The first few weeks of working from home were, for many, far from smooth.

Set aside for a second the impact of hunkering down with children, paramours and housemates. The coronavirus lockdowns revealed a deep division even between white-collar workers: Those employed by companies that have invested in what it takes for employees to switch truly seamlessly between the office and working from home, and those employed by companies that haven’t. Many people discovered it was a myth they could do their job just as easily from the dining room table. What might be de rigueur in Silicon Valley is far from normal elsewhere.

Among firms with more than $1 billion of revenue, a surprisingly small portion — perhaps 10 percent — is used to having much of its workforce regularly work remotely, Gartner Inc. analyst Brian Kropp estimates. Another 40 percent has established work-from-home practices, but didn’t necessarily have the adequate infrastructure for the current crisis. The remaining 50 percent was unprepared and has been scrambling to catch up with panic buying of services and hardware.

That unpreparedness might help explain the whipsawing attitudes toward those facilitating remote work, not least Zoom Video Communications Inc., the voguish web-conferencing provider. At first, there was the upswing. Zoom saw the number of simultaneous users jump from 10 million at the start of the year, to some 200 million by April 1 and 300 million on April 21. Then the backlash, as a series of companies warned their employees against using Zoom’s services.

Daimler AG, the parent of luxury carmaker Mercedes-Benz, cited the software’s “various security gaps” in a memo reported by Bloomberg News, pointing its staff instead toward Microsoft Inc.’s Teams collaboration platform. Yet a slew of such moves probably has as much to do with companies’ preparedness for remote working as it does with any deficiencies on Zoom’s side: Employees seemed simply not to know what they were supposed to be using.

Early in the lockdown, it seemed feasible to let employees use a range of different products if it was to be a temporary arrangement. As the restrictive measures last longer, firms are having to choose between technologies. Microsoft Teams, for instance, can cost as much as $35 monthly per user. Scale that to tens or hundreds of thousands of employees, and it becomes a major cost. You probably don’t want to be paying for several duplicate services at once.

Slack Technologies Inc.’s experience highlights the unreadiness: It enjoyed a surge not just in total users (which includes employees at existing corporate customers), but also in new customers — firms that didn’t previously use its tools.

Executives are realizing that work-from-home means more than just email and videoconferencing. That’s creating an opportunity for firms like Citrix Systems Inc. and Teamviewer AG, which provide so-called virtual private networks letting employees access corporate systems remotely. They allow you to log onto your work computer from your home laptop, route customer service calls to workers’ private telephone numbers or run complex applications — all while keeping the data off the public internet. Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Citrix enjoyed a 20 percent sales jump to $861 million in the first quarter.

Investors might otherwise have expected an increase of less than 5 percent, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Mandeep Singh. Citrix Chief Executive Officer David Henshall said on Thursday that he expects his company to keep benefiting from customers’ realization that their businesses depend on hundreds and hundreds of applications that need to run on powerful networks if the bulk of employees aren’t in the office.

While he warned that doesn’t mean Citrix will be immune to the economic downturn, it’s going to be harder to put the work-from-home trend back in the bottle when people can go back to the office. Now that even companies wary about remote working are building out the necessary infrastructure, employees might as well use it.

The virus has highlighted a bunch of work-from-home defects. It’s also forcing them to be fixed.

Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe’s technology, media and communications industries. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

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