Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Is COVID-19 the push businesses need to fast-track technology adoption?

Some may come out on top when this topsy-turvy world ends.

Up until a month ago, work life for many was routine and involved commuting into work, sending emails, and catching up with colleagues and clients in person.

But since governments worldwide began mandating for people to work from home in a bid to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus outbreak, the new norm has seen homes becoming temporary offices and many business activities shifting online.

As a result, businesses across myriad industries -- government, retail, finance, real estate, health, and education among several others -- have turned to digital tools to support this new way of working.

On one end of the spectrum, there are organisations deploying technologies for the first time to help cope with the new work environment. For instance, in Australia, the Victorian Department of Health and Humans Service (DHHS) recently partnered with Whispir to deploy a platform that would enable it to send secure interactive two-way messages and real-time updates to those who have contracted or have been in close contact with COVID-19.

The platform also allows DHHS to quickly confirm if individuals were complying with the mandatory 14-day self-isolation period or if people experienced any potential symptoms associated with COVID-19.

The Adecco Group is another firm that has had to look to new technologies, such as DocuSign's cloud-based contract management technology, to continue operations. 

"As an HR company, we have relied heavily on cloud-enabled applications in order to continue imperative operations such as client billing and payroll ... With the help of DocuSign, we have continued hiring employees for our clients and processed several payroll cycles seamlessly remotely, which is typically something we usually operate from the office only," Adecco Group Asia Pacific general counsel Carlos Estrada said.

latest developments

Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

From cancelled conferences to disrupted supply chains, not a corner of the global economy is immune to the spread of COVID-19.

Read More

And then there are companies such as Australia's major banks like Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) and Westpac where the concept of relying on technology for online business activities is not so foreign.

According to a CBA spokesperson, in response to COVID-19, the organisation accelerated its existing technology strategy by investing in collaboration tools to enable staff to access essential systems while working remotely.

"In our corporate office locations, we have been moving to split-team work rosters so we can reduce the density of our people within our workspaces and practice social distancing. To support this, we have increased our use of teleconference and virtual collaboration tools across the business to reduce the number of face-to-face meetings and maintain business continuity and keep our staff connected," a CBA spokesperson told ZDNet.

"Our employees have company-issued laptops and mobile devices so they can work from whatever location they feel comfortable.

"From a technology point of view, our key focus is prioritising the stability of the IT systems to make sure our most used business applications continue to be resilient while looking to expand the capacity of our virtual private network and other tools providing our people with multiple options to access our systems remotely and securely. This is all part of our comprehensive collaboration remote access strategy.

"Our initiatives mean we are able to continue to respond to unprecedented numbers of customer requests for assistance at a time they need us more than ever."

Likewise, Westpac said it has been focused on scaling its technologies to continue to meet business needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Our group technology team has been working hard to ensure that our systems can accommodate a significant increase in people working from home. Currently, more than 21,000 Westpac employees are working from home and our systems are functioning well," a Westpac spokesperson said.

"We've steadily increased the capacity to enable remote working and introduced enhanced collaboration capabilities to provide new ways for teams to collaborate digitally. This has allowed our people and our customers greater flexibility in the way they work and interact, and ensures Westpac can continue to provide essential services during this time."

The impact has also been felt by technologies companies themselves. Cisco, for example, not only found that it was assisting customers to transition to the new way of working, but it was also making that happen internally. 

"What we're talking about there is 140,000 employees and partners that are critical to keeping our businesses running. Normally, an organisation of our size would take us about two years and we had about 10 days to get it ready," Cisco Australia and New Zealand CIO Julie Canepa said. 

"This involved preparing over 130,000 corporate provided devices. We also have a BYOD policy at Cisco so we have about 55,000 mobile devices that our employees use, so we needed to get those ready as well across 498 offices, nine of which are here in Australia and New Zealand, and across 94 countries.

"We had a business continuity plan, but they catered for things like tornadoes and earthquakes, one site failover to another site, but I don't think any of us really planned for a global pandemic scenario."

COUNTING THE NUMBERS

Regardless of what stage of adoption businesses are at, there has been no shortage of evidence demonstrating the significant spike in companies uptaking technology.  

For instance, when Optus compared the week ending March 29 to the average data across February, the uptake of fixed data increased by 14%, fixed voice by 18%, and mobile voice calls by 19%.

During the same period, the telco has also seen more Australians use collaboration apps on their phones, with Zoom experiencing a 1,125% spike, Webex 560%, and Microsoft Teams 108%.

It's not too dissimilar to numbers that Slack has seen worldwide. As of February 2020, Slack saw more than 277,000 daily active users in Australia and 70% of active users also used the Slack app on their mobile.

More specifically, in Sydney alone, for work-weeks between February 17-21 and March 23-27, the number of messages that were sent per user grew 39%, with the number of messages sent on desktop growing almost 50%, and from mobile just over 18%.

"Between February 1 and March 25, we added over 9,000 new paid customers, so that's 80% above what we had done in the previous two quarters -- our Q3 and Q4 of last fiscal year when we announced 5,000 new paying customers. It's just exponential growth in that respect," Slack APAC head Matt Loop said.

"The number of messages being sent has also been increasing. And most importantly ... the key number of users active on Slack each weekday is now over a billion minutes each day.

"Quite frankly this is not surprising given what's going on, but it's also promising that people are getting value and people are turning to us in this time of need."

Rival platform Microsoft Teams has seen similar uptake. Microsoft Australia national technology officer Lee Hickin pointed to how 57% of meetings in Teams in Australia now include video content, while the usage of Windows Virtual Desktop has grown threefold worldwide.

"Many customers who have had access to these tools and the ability to work in the cloud are now slicing through any lingering red tape to roll out remote virtual desktops to their staff," Hickin said.

"At the same time as we are helping our customers get their employees set up to work remotely, we are working with many of them to rapidly build and develop completely new applications for their customers – helping businesses pivot in order to find fresh ways to create revenue and keep afloat."

Cisco's Webex platform also saw usage numbers skyrocket. During March, there were 14 billion minutes spent on the platform globally, nearly twice the number recorded in February. In the last week of March alone, according to Cisco Australia and New Zealand director of collaboration Peter Self, there were 28 million minutes spent on the platform.

latest developments

Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

From cancelled conferences to disrupted supply chains, not a corner of the global economy is immune to the spread of COVID-19.

Read More

As for Akamai, it saw global internet traffic up 30% from the end of February to the end of March, compared to a typical month-over-month growth of just 3%.

Within Australia alone, Akamai APJ managing director Graeme Beardsell said the company has being seeing "a considerable uptick".

"When I look across the region, what we've been seeing since late January is customers coming to us and asking us to help them with two things: One is a response to a brand new way of doing business, a brand new of interacting their customers and their ecosystem; and also to help them through a crisis where they have real problems to deliver services and products to their customers," he said.

From SAP's standpoint, since making its Ariba Discovery sourcing software temporarily free of charge to help businesses cope with supply chain disruptions, buyer postings have increased by 51% and supplier responses have jumped by 177%, with the Asia Pacific and Japan region seeing the second-highest level of postings at 29% of the total, after Europe, the Middle East, and Africa at 37%.

"With the breadth of our portfolio, and the different ways in which coronavirus is impacting different sectors, we are seeing varied patterns of demand depending on the product and sector," SAP ANZ president and managing director Damien Bueno said.

"For example, more businesses are relying on platforms like SAP Ariba and SAP Qualtrics to secure supply chains and understand how their customers and employees are dealing with the crisis."

"With customers covering essential service providers from healthcare to retail, government to emergency services, we have strong business continuity plans in place to secure our business, and in turn, our customers'."

Riverbed customers have also responded positively to the company's 90-day free trial offering of its Client Accelerator tool.

"A large volume of customers suddenly have a huge urgency to improve their network and app performance, so … we've said to customers, 'let's just deploy the Riverbed technology now, to get you the needed performance boost and we'll worry about the commerce piece later'," said Frank Ong, Riverbed Australia and New Zealand regional vice president.

"We've seen a big uptake of the free trial and … one particular local Australian customer in the engineering industry, who has 40% of their workforce in Australia and the rest dispersed globally, previously had 1,200 staff set up to work from home.

"Now they're supporting over 6,000 workers remotely. The IT team's biggest concerns were 'can our VPN handle the load?' and 'how is our WAN acceleration?' We've managed to help them increase their VPN speed by over 50% and we've managed to decrease the load on its WAN, all whilst increasing their remote workforce five-fold.

"Although it's a stressful time for many trying to get these projects off the ground, customers are achieving huge transformations in a spectacularly short space of time with very positive results."

IBM managing partner Doug Robinson revealed the company has also been an experiencing a general uplift, attributing part of it to an increase in business as a result of seeing some competitors closing shop until the pandemic blows over.

"We've seen some clients almost pause and then realise even things like workshops can be really productive online with the right tools, and they've gone from a pause to an accelerate. We've seen people adjust to thinking this is possible," he said.

"Not everyone has transitioned well, we've seen competitors are getting contracts cancelled because they can't deliver; our demand has gone up as a result."

FROM THE FRONTLINE

The need to continue operating does not ring truer during this period than for those in the medical sector.

Speaking to ZDNet, Orion Health chief medical officer Dr Chris Hobson pointed to how people have turned to telehealth as a core solution to enable remote consultations.

"[Telehealth] was always there and people had the idea beforehand, but [COVID-19] has really pushed it. I think it's good. You shouldn't have to see a doctor for a lot of things unless the doctor has to put hands on patients because you can do an awful lot remotely," he said.

He added how the uptake of telehealth would alleviate growing pressures that the frontline continues to face in the wake of the pandemic, as well as reduce unnecessary visits to clinics.   

"We've always had these long waiting times in emergency rooms and long queues. But some of that could be done online when the doctor is ready, so you can go about your job rather than having to sit in a waiting room for an hour," Hobson said.

Hobson attributed the wider adoption of telehealth to increased government funding, pointing to the likes of the US government's $2 trillion stimulus package and the Australian government's AU$669 million telehealth program as examples.

"Traditionally, administrators of health pay for a face-to-face consultation but not for remote, so we've seen a lot of breakthroughs on that front," he said.

NEED FOR SPEED

Optus Business vice president of product Deon Liebenberg explained how the pandemic in some ways has fast-tracked the adoption of new technologies.

"Our prime minister has been very active in promoting flattening the curve. For us, the curve of mobility and remote working is being brought forward during this time, which forces companies and individuals to rethink the way of working," he told ZDNet.

"Remote working and having collaboration tools is a reality for individuals who have been remote two to three days a week, and that's been easy, but imagine someone that's never worked remotely; we have to help and support that adoption curve."

Slack APAC head Matt Loop agrees that the pandemic has accelerated the technology timelines for businesses.

"I mean Slack has been, for the last six years, a rapidly growing company … but without question this has moved up in the timeline, by months, if not years, perhaps for more traditionally laggard companies to get on the platform," he said.

Similarly, ServiceNow ANZ vice president and managing director David Oakley said as a result of the crisis, there has been a dramatic shift in how organisations prioritise technology to help maintain the continuity of existing business functions.

"The digital focus for business, employees, and customers, has been unprecedented," he said.

"Businesses that have established technology foundations are looking to innovate faster to meet demand. Digital workflows are already being used to manage resources, action customer service requests, and support employee work processes. There's a growing number of work apps being developed to respond quickly to communities, who are saying 'hey, we need an app for this'.

"Across more traditional industries, organisations are looking at digital workflows in two ways: The first, to reinvent the way consumers access products and services, digitally; and two, to help make work better for employees who are adjusting to new ways of working."

The shift, according to Keith Buckley, Citrix Australia and New Zealand managing director and area vice president, is indicative of how resilient and adaptable businesses can be during times of adversity.

"I would agree that the pandemic has forced many businesses to rapidly fast-track digital workspace solutions in order to maintain continuity during these uncertain times," he said.

"We've seen many Australian CEOs and their team work tirelessly to make this transition a reality and as seamless as possible for their employees -- to keep Australian workers in jobs and the economy going. We are inspired by how quickly some companies have undergone a digital transformation in the last few weeks and we feel privileged to have supported this journey in some way."

A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

Looking ahead, Optus' Liebenberg predicts that post-COVID-19, there will be a likelihood more business will regularly practice remote working.

"At the end of this journey we'll have moved from a connected to a hyperconnected world, and the way we live, interact, the way we work, this is forcing work to be hyperconnected," he said.

"What that means is traditionally sitting in a board room with 80% of the meeting being in the room and 20% being on screen, I believe we will move to hyperconnectivity where almost 100% will be either from your phone, tablet, laptop, and that's a reality."

Slack's APAC head believes there will be an ongoing trend where corporate emails disappear before inboxes, and instead, there will be a demand for alternative communication tools.

"Companies will emerge from this time with a changed attitude and an idea as to what great collaboration will look like and how to achieve it. I think Slack will have a big part in that," Loop said.

"For existing customers of ours, we'll be put to the test to see if we can help enable remote work to ensure they can get work done, despite some of the biggest and most challenging disruptions that we've ever experienced."

There is also a firm belief from Erich Gerber, Tibco Software APJ and EMEA senior vice president, that with businesses accelerating digital transformations globally, there will be an emergence of new business models.

"Post-COVID-19, newly equipped businesses will be the new normal. This will include the even wider adoption of social collaboration platforms and video conferencing capabilities. As a natural consequence, the task to orchestrate all these data streams, correlate them, and enable them to form actionable insights will increase in its complexity. We will likely see an increased demand to protect data and remote equipment," he said.

Equally optimistic was Canepa from Cisco. She firmly believes the world will not return to a same way it did things before.

"This is a time for us to break from the past and think about how to do things differently," she said.

Related Coverage