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Coronavirus spurs spike in Zoom, Microsoft, Cisco use as workers stay home

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

With the World Health Organization officially declaring the coronavirus a pandemic on Wednesday, and infections skyrocketing across the U.S., employers from Silicon Valley to Wall Street are ordering employees to work from home — or offering them the chance to do so.

On Tuesday, Google (GOOG, GOOGL) recommended that all employees in North America work from home if their roles permitted, several days after it told Seattle workers to stay at home along with Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft.

The surge in remote working amid the coronavirus scare has led to an explosion of users jumping on video conferencing and chat apps ranging from Zoom (ZM) and Webex to Microsoft’s (MSFT) Teams. And with the coronavirus expected to continue to spread, the amount of companies taking advantage of such services is only likely to climb.

But as service providers are learning, not every company is prepared for their workforces to work from home.

Video apps are blowing up

As the coronavirus has marched from continent to continent, video and chat service providers have seen their user numbers and traffic explode to unprecedented levels.

More employees are working from the comfort of their homes. Image: Getty

At Cisco (CSCO), which owns the Webex service, Sri Srinivasan, senior vice president and general manager for the Team Collaboration Group, said the company saw a 22-times increase in traffic to Webex from Japan, Singapore, and South Korea following Lunar New Year celebrations in China.

And by March 10, the company had seen as much traffic from the region as it normally does for the entire month.

“As you move into AMEA [Asia, Middle East, Africa], Europe, we are seeing pick-up in a major way,” Srinivasan said. “Last night we saw at twice the normal volume as countries kind of hunker down. You know as Italy, in particular, Milan being the financial capital, there is quite a bit of work from home situations starting up.”

Microsoft, meanwhile, saw usage of its Teams app explode in China amid the country’s lockdowns, with Teams meetings jumping 500%, and usage of the Teams mobile app increasing by 200% in the country from the month of January to the month of February.

As more employers seek access to video services, providers see an opportunity to gain new clients. 

Zoom CFO Kelly Steckelberg said the company began seeing increased demand for its service from Asia roughly 5 to 6 weeks ago. At that point, the company dropped the standard 40-minute time limit on free video conferencing, giving users unlimited access to the service.

Cisco has taken a similar step, launching a free offer last week that gives users in 52 countries subscription-free, unlimited access to its Webex software.

Businesses are struggling to keep up

But as companies send their employees home, some are beginning to realize they’re not properly equipped to handle having large chunks of their workforces work remotely.

“In terms of the type of challenges we see, I think it’s preparedness,” Srinivasan said. “I’m kind of seeing how organizations are scrambling to prepare for the work from home situation.”

According to Srinivasan, clients have been dealing with issues related to their VPN, or virtual private network, capacity being overwhelmed, and what types of virtual desktop offerings they should use.

“Forget the collaboration aspects, it’s basically how to keep the business secure,” Srinivasan said, adding that some firms are finding themselves having to purchase laptops for the employees to ensure they can work from home.

Steckelberg, for her part, said that Zoom has its own library of webinars to get companies up to speed on how to use the service and what it needs to get ready to implement it.

If you expect to be working from home soon, there are a number of steps you can take to prepare yourself ranging from testing your internet speeds to ensuring you have the right apps to remotely connect to your company’s network.

That’s a lesson Steckelberg said she learned herself. As she began working from home amid the virus, Steckelberg realized that her own network connection couldn’t support her needs.

“I work in the office, I always come to the office,” she said. “And now that we’re working from home, I have to get set up.”

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