Leading technology companies are canceling conferences and limiting business travel in response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Vendors are also extending the free licenses and trial periods of remote-friendly offerings.
Changed policies are particularly relevant in the communication and collaboration technology realm, as businesses around the world ask employees to work from home.
Cisco is offering 90-day Webex licenses to businesses that are not customers, the company announced Monday. It is expanding its free offer to include unlimited usage, support of up to 100 participants and toll dial-in on top of VoIP offerings.
Microsoft is rolling out updates to its free version of Teams that lifts user limits and allows users to schedule video calling and conferencing meetings, a Microsoft spokesperson told CIO Dive in a statement Tuesday. "By making Teams available to all for free for six months, we hope that we can support public health and safety by making remote work even easier."
In a similar move, Google Cloud is offering free, advanced video conferencing through Hangouts Meet for all G Suite and G Suite for Education customers, the company announced Tuesday. Google Cloud will make the enterprise-level capabilities — up to 250 participants per call, live streaming up to 100,000 viewers in a domain, and meeting recording — free to customers through July 1.
Zoom too lifted time limits for meetings with more than two participants for its free offering in China and is proactively monitoring server capacity.
The sense of corporate responsibility is balanced with a bittersweet prospect the outbreak provides: Business opportunity.
"There is a two-sided coin here," Tom Eagle, senior director, analyst at Gartner, told CIO Dive. Meeting solutions companies have a sense of corporate and social responsibility and the necessary technology on hand to apply against a crisis.
On the flip side of that coin, as the crisis subsides, will the vendors use this as a foot in the door — natural extension of using services as a result of this situation? "There is going to be some retention and stickiness" of solution adoption following the outbreak, Eagle said.
Who works remotely
The cloud-based conferencing market has matured at a healthy clip, representing a $2 billion-$3 billion market, which grows 7% year-over-year, according to Gartner. It has a high penetration in the enterprise market and has long-term growth potential.
But it's also important to note primary geographic adoption.
Meeting solutions are mainly adopted in North America and Europe, Mike Fasciani, senior director, analyst at Gartner, told CIO Dive. The Asia-Pacific, Africa and Latin America markets have been slower to adopt digital workplace technologies.
The communication cultures in those regions prioritize face-to-face meetings, opportunities that are hindered with travel bans in place in China and normal routines inhibited by outbreak response.
Cisco has seen increased usage since the start of the outbreak. Traffic connecting China-based Webex users has increased 22 times over, according to the company. The sign-up rates for the free version in impacted countries is seven times higher than pre-outbreak signups.
Along with Zoom, Microsoft and LogMeIn, Cisco is considered a leader in Gartner's Magic Quadrant for Meeting Solutions. Zoom, a videoconferencing company, brought in more active users so far this year than all of 2019 because of coronavirus concern, CNBC reports, based on Bernstein Research last week.
"This has the potential to change that market view," said Fasciani. "But we will see whether or not this has legs."
The vendor to watch is Zoom, a pure-play video conferencing provider — sussing out Webex adoption in Cisco's earnings is a more difficult task.
The market could see a drop in the average price per seat as more companies adopt the free version of meeting solution tools. It will provide the vendors with a trove of leads with the potential to "upsell for conversion," Eagle said.
It will serve as a place "to farm for the coming years," Fasciani said.
Emergency response and the open office
In an open office plan where coworkers are within arm's reach, proximity is top of mind amid an outbreak. An online survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults from tech PR firm Bospar found half of Americans worry about contracting the virus because of open offices.
COVID-19 spreads through person to person contact in relatively close proximity — within 6 feet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For business to continue uninterrupted, business continuity plans require rethinking the definition of an office.
While it is standard for companies to have a business continuity plan in place, many do not, said Frank Trovato, research director, Info-Tech Research Group, in an interview with CIO Dive.
As pervasive as remote work is, there are many organizations where it does not fit company culture, Trovato said. If employees are not at their desk, they're perceived as not productive.
Response to the outbreak has the potential to debunk that, in the event companies are forced to close offices.
Companies are leaning on remote work policies as contingency in case of staff exposure. On Monday, F5 Networks closed its headquarters in Seattle to sanitize the building after an employee came into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus, The Seattle Times reports. The company asked employees to work from home and use virtual meetings in place of large work events.
Twitter is "strongly encouraging" its global workforce to work from home in an effort to lower the probability of the spreading the virus "for us — and the world around us," the company said in a statement Monday.
Companies that enable remote work temporarily may learn the potential opportunity, Trovato said. And once companies allow staff previously not allowed to work from home the remote opportunity, "it's hard to put that genie in the bottle."
While the outbreak could spark remote work policy adoption, it could become an building block for a business continuity plan, necessary in facilities disruption, natural disasters or even snow days.
It doesn't have to be as dramatic as the outbreak, Trovato said. This is an opportunity for CIOs to be proactive in supporting the business and recognizing what something like the outbreak might mean, whether that's remote work or overall business continuity.