Work in the Time of Corona: An Alert for the Amalgam Community

Summary: This piece provides guidance on:
Novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has wreaked havoc on the tech workplace in the early part of 2020. And, like the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel “Love in the Time of Cholera,” we all face legitimate challenges in deciding how rational and detached or how personal and connected to be at a specific time in history.

 

I’m not a doctor or a public health expert, but I do have a background in unified communications and virtual events and I typically attend 25-30 events per year in my role as an industry analyst, influencer, speaker, and consultant to help companies with their technology strategies and vendor selection processes. And I do a lot of work in projecting the spread of trends. My livelihood is literally dependent on my ability to accurately project new trends, and then to cover them in a timely fashion. In that light, here’s my perspective on where we are from a COVID-19 perspective, how this affects us from a technology perspective, and recommendations for remote work and virtual events.

 

 

As I write this, approximately 100,000 cases of novel coronavirus have been confirmed globally, with about 500 of those being confirmed in the United States. Out of those cases, approximately 3,600 deaths have been reported, with 22 of those being recorded in the United States. Based on those metrics, coronavirus would seem to have roughly a 3.5-4% fatality rate.  Fortunately, this rate is not quite accurate both for good and bad reasons.

 

On the bright side, it is unlikely that these deaths are being spread throughout the full population of current coronavirus cases, as many cases are asymptomatic (especially for patients under the age of 60). In China, which has both the most testing and presumably the highest concentration of coronavirus, the CRF (case-fatality rate) of COVID-19 was measured at roughly 2.3% based on over 72,000 cases reported according to a recent article posted in JAMA while recent counts in heavily tested areas such as China and South Korea place the coronavirus fatality rate at around 0.6-0.7% .

 

Recent counts in heavily tested areas such as China and South Korea place the coronavirus fatality rate at around 0.6-0.7%

 

This last range of mortality rates, if accurate, would be about 7-9 times greater than Influenza B during the most recent flu (Influenza B) season which is preliminarily estimated to result in between 20,000 and 52,000 deaths according to CDC In-Season Burden Estimates.

 

Given all of these metrics, it is likely that the fatality rate of coronavirus is both highly dependent on pre-existing conditions and sanitation practices within each country and that the fatality rate for countries highly focused on testing and prevention is typically under 1%. The flip side is that the United States is likely highly underreporting the number of cases currently active. Based on a fatality rate of 0.7%, 22 deaths would extrapolate to over 3,000 cases rather than 500, meaning that there are roughly 2,500 undiagnosed cases in the United States at this time.

 

Because clinicians have significantly more experience in diagnosing the flu compared to novel coronavirus, the US is better able to estimate the number of cases and the general rate of medical visits, hospitalizations, and deaths associated with the flu virus that we see every year. Currently, the relative lack of testing and familiarity with COVID-19 means that only the most highly symptomatic cases are currently being tracked and counted. Based on this sampling challenge that currently exists, it is unlikely that the “true” fatality rate for COVID-19 is as high as currently reported. As testing becomes more common, current sampling issues will become less biased (but not fully unbiased, as it is unlikely that the US will start randomly testing asymptomatic people for COVID-19 for political and social reasons) and we will start to discover the actual fatality rate.

 

On the negative side, testing has been extremely slow in the United States where less than 5,000 tests have been conducted compared to the rate of testing in South Korea, where roughly 10,000 tests are occurring each day, or in China which processes over 50,000 tests per day. Perhaps the hardest part of preparing for COVID-19 is simply the lack of reliable data that currently exists. Between US doubts on the accuracy of Chinese data, the lack of testing in the United States and other large countries with frequent travel and commerce with China, and the lack of lay understanding on recommended practices to prevent and avoid COVID-19, it is hard to accurately calculate the true risk of the virus to the general population. This uncertainty, even more than the health metrics, is providing to be a formidable challenge in the workplace.

 

The Changing Face of Work in the Time of Corona

 

Other than knowing that the fatality rate increases rapidly after turning 60 or having a current respiratory or serious health risk, the confusion associated with managing and forecasting day-to-day activity has led many parts of the United States, such as much of the technology sector workforce, to avoid contact and to cancel or push online large live events.

 

In today’s environment, the phrase “Too Big to Fail” has morphed into “Too Big to Proceed” in the event world.

 

Recent cancellations include, but are definitely not limited to: Mobile World Congress, HIMSS, SXSW, Strata Data and AI Conference, Domopalooza, Oracle Modern Business Experience, Adobe Summit, and SAS Global Forum.  (For a longer list of tech events affected by COVID-19, check out superanalyst Ray Wang’s list on his site.)

 

These events, alone, represent an estimated $1 billion that would have been spent in these areas and this is only a small cross-section of one industry in the February and March time frame. Given this, it’s not hard to imagine how billions of dollars in commerce are being erased as a result of COVID-19 across travel, hospitality, tourism, and complex B2B commerce where sales are often reliant on multiple site visits and detailed discussions.

 

So, how should we react to this health issue? Major companies including Apple, Microsoft, Google,  JP Morgan, and Facebook have both initiated business travel bans and efforts to enforce work-from-home policies for employees able to do so. From a practical perspective, this means that people are unlikely to meet remote employees, partners, customers, or prospective clients in person in the near future.

 

In light of this reality, Amalgam Insights provides the following recommendations for the work community.

 

 

First, learn to differentiate between conferencing, messaging, file sharing, community management, and virtual events platforms and figure out which of these platforms you need to maintain business as usual. These are five different types of platforms used to handle remote business and each one has its own strengths and weaknesses:

 

  1. Conferencing platforms are voice, web, and video conferencing tools used to hold group calls and chats. These can be both standalone tools such as WebEx, Zoom, BlueJeans, GoToMeeting, Skype for Business, and Adobe Connect or embedded within larger platforms such as Slack, Google Hangouts, and Zoho Meeting. These platforms are useful for small group conversations fitting in the “Two Pizza” rule that Amazon has made famous as a meeting size. (For those of you who haven’t seen this before, Amazon has a theory that any meeting should be limited to people who can be fed by two pizzas. If two pizzas aren’t enough, there are too many people in the room.)

    These platforms can also be used for large top-down meetings with managed question and answer sessions included, but need to be monitored to support “mute-all” capabilities by an active moderator.

  2. Messaging platforms are asynchronous tools that allow teams to message each other both to formally chat about projects and informally discuss topics. Solutions in this category include Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Zoho Cliq, and their smaller competitors such as Chanty, Fleep, Flock, Ryver, and Glip. There are also interesting hybrid solutions that include presence and virtual offices such as Sococo. These solutions are useful for providing space for less structured and spontaneous conversation. As companies put one of these platforms in place to support remote work, it is important to set up channels for each topic and for employees to maintain some level of rigor in separating conversations. Otherwise, it can be too easy for teams to pour all of their thoughts into a single stream of consciousness in a set of general channels, which becomes impossible to parse. Amalgam recommends a combination of topical channels and “water cooler” channels that allow for discussion of either informal or less structured topics.

  3. File Sharing solutions provide a combination of storage, workflow management, project management, deal rooms, and collaboration to work both between teams and with current and potential clients. Your organization may have already invested in the likes of Microsoft Sharepoint and OneDrive, OpenText, Box, DropBox, Google Drive, Egnyte, or other similar vendors, but with the increased need for remote work and support, it may be time to reconsider your vendor or to increase either capacity or functionality to reflect the increased need to share files with other employees, partners, clients, potential customers, and the market at large.

  4. Community Management solutions focus on creating a hub for customers to provide feedback and to engage both with each other and with clients. Key vendors in this space include Salesforce Community Cloud, Influitive, Khoros, Igloo, and Telligent. This platform is increasingly important at a time when direct client interaction is currently limited by corporate travel bans and event cancellations. For product managers, support engineers, sales and pre-sales professionals, and marketers to keep in touch with the pulse of their customers, some version of community management becomes even more important than before. Amalgam Insights also suggests looking at high-quality Learning Management Systems such as Skillsoft, CrossKnowledge, and Adobe Connect Learning as potential solutions to support immersive external education.

  5. Virtual event platforms are different from conferencing platforms. Repeat, virtual event platforms are different from conferencing platforms. Not every conferencing solution is adequate for large-scale virtual events. Please do not make this mistake. Virtual events focus on providing a platform for mass internal or external communications, including spaces for keynote and educational presentations, question and answer sessions, informal networking, experiences, social media, and gamification. As businesses consider virtual event platforms to support or replace in-person events, consider both the previously mentioned functionalities as well as the number of people who can be involved and the level of control, configuration, and administration that exists for event managers to personalize the experience for attendees and sponsors. Key products in this space include On24, vFairs, 6Connex, INXPO, Workcast, GoToWebinar, and BrightTALK.
As a continuation of the virtual event theme, consider the opportunity to provide virtual events as a potential opportunity to provide a combination of presentation, education, and networking. It is no secret that events are being closed down around the world and it is unlikely that this trend will stop over the next few weeks. Virtual events should ideally make remote interactions more personal through video, custom digital content, premium remote experiences supported by celebrities or unique experiences, or possibly even hybrid experiences where physical objects or software demos are sent to attendees for live shared demonstrations conducted online by experts.

 

If you are transitioning key events to virtual events, consider how to build an experience above and beyond simply presenting online. What is the branded experience? What swag are attendees going to receive? How are attendees going to meet their fellow “birds of a flock” across roles, verticals, and interests? Can you create additional virtual events such as a virtual 5K through STRAVA, a virtual charity telethon, a virtual concert, branded playlists of music or podcasts, professional certification opportunities for PMPs or CPAs, viral social media threads, virtual Instagram backdrops and fun hashtags? The sky is the limit when a marketing team decides to fully unlock virtual and augmented experiences, but only if event teams evolve their thinking beyond simple digital presentations.

 

Managing Remote Workers At Scale

 

And from a work perspective, Amalgam Insights cannot overemphasize the need to provide additional channels for synchronous and asynchronous communications. Those of us who have worked remotely for years know how important it is to both pursue collaboration and to set limits to get work done to create the advantages of working with colleagues while avoiding the distractions that can destroy productivity. Set “on-call” hours for people to access each other, even outside of service personnel. Build time and space for serendipitous conversations and break times by creating presence and identity-based communications.

 

 

As remote work has become more necessary, technology vendors are providing a number of free trials and capabilities to fill this current gap. Here are a few options to consider:

 

Zoho is offering the free use of Remotely, a suite of 11 apps designed to support remote workers, for free until July 1. This suite is the broadest offering that Amalgam has seen in responding to the Corona crisis, is used internally by Zoho workers globally, and includes:

 

  • Zoho ShowTime – Engagement and training tool
  • Zoho Writer – Collaborative word processor
  • Zoho Sheet – Collaborative spreadsheet application
  • Zoho Cliq – Instant messaging/chat platform
  • Zoho Show – Business presentation tool
  • Zoho Meeting – Video conferencing tool
  • Zoho Sprints – Agile project management software
  • Zoho Lens (in the United States) and Assist – Remote support software
  • Zoho WorkDrive – Document management tool
  • Zoho Projects – Comprehensive project management tool

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LogmeIn is offering “Emergency Remote Work Kits” to provide three months of access to meeting (GoToMeeting), webinar (GoToWebinar), remote access (Pro, Central, and GoToMyPC), and support apps (Rescueassist).

 

Google is providing advanced Hangouts Meet capabilities to all GSuite and GSuite for Education customers until July 1st to support up to 250 participants per call, live one-way streaming for up to 100,000 viewers, and recording meetings that can be saved to Google Drive

 

Microsoft is providing a free 6 month trial for Office 365 for users that call their sales teams and will be supporting video calls via Teams for free tiers of users starting on March 10th.

 

Cisco is providing 90-day free WebEx licenses through its direct sales team and through partners with meeting support for up to 100 users and unlimited usage.

 

Conclusion

 

In uncertain times comes both risk and opportunity. As we deal with the challenges both of the coronavirus and the operational challenges created by the response to this virus, we have an opportunity to become both more flexible and productive workers by taking advantage of remote technologies. Smart companies will use this opportunity to test-drive new apps, develop and mature their remote work policies, improve their virtual event efforts, and find new ways to provide better client experiences.

 

And, of course, please wash your hands, don’t cough on people, be considerate of your public surroundings, and respect other people’s wishes if they don’t wish to be touched. Although my personal perspective is that we have had worse viruses in the past 20 years, good hygiene and manners are always important.

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