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Tech Industry Occupies Front Line on Coronavirus Battleground

By Jack M. Germain E-Commerce Times ECT News Network
Mar 3, 2020 4:00 AM PT
due to the coronavirus businesses are enabling more of their employees to work remotely or from home

The coronavirus known as "COVID-19" is posing global threats that are challenging businesses worldwide, forcing them to put new policies and practices into place to prepare for and communicate with their workforces. One of the most critically impacted sectors is the technology industry.

The virus has disrupted global businesses, forcing many tech company workers to cease travel to infected areas. Tech companies associated with major events such as Mobile World Congress, RSA and Google's Las Vegas sales and marketing event most recently felt some consequences.

Many companies in affected areas are straining their tech abilities to have large swaths of their labor forces work remotely. Some businesses are taking steps to prep their employees to work from home.

For instance, tech industry companies with direct exposure to China felt the effects in the very early stages of the virus' appearance there. Disruptions to iPhone supply lines impacted Apple almost immediately.

Closings and slowdowns in China had a nearly immediate impact on Microsoft's installation of its Windows software on laptops and Surface tablets.

The spread of the virus is affecting tech businesses -- both large and small -- that rely on supply chains, conference attendance and transportation in general.

"The coronavirus outbreak is grinding the tech industry down to a crawl," said Michael Bancroft, cohost of Globalive Media's Beyond Innovation on Bloomberg Television.

We've seen industry conferences like MWC Barcelona and F8 called off due to concerns about the virus spreading, and workers are generally being told not to travel," he told the E-Commerce Times.

This crawl is forcing tech companies to rely on telepresence tools to host meetings, which often are less effective than face-to-face meetings for closing sales, Bancroft said.

"We're also seeing the global supply chain for electronic parts significantly disrupted, and companies like Apple have warned their sales results will falter because they can't get access to parts needed to make their devices," he added.

Universal Challenges

The coronavirus is presenting new challenges for businesses. It is forcing them to put new policies and practices into place to prepare for and communicate with their workforces.

There is no question that the impact of the coronavirus will continue to be felt 100 percent in the tech space in terms of the work cycle, remote work access and the overall workforce," said Liz Miller, principal analyst at Constellation Research.

That said, "it could be the technology sector that keeps work flowing in this age of the coronavirus, she told the E-Commerce Times.

"The impact is being felt in ripples as tech companies are canceling massive user group and thought leadership events, seeing both the opportunity to connect with customers and connect with influencers being lost," Miller said.

Spawning New Work Ethics

The coronavirus is driving a surge in remote work and opportunities to work from home. This introduces new challenges for businesses that are not used to supporting a remote workforce or even doing the majority of their work digitally, suggested Rita Selvaggi, CEO of ActivTrak.

"One of the most important things is for employees and employers to understand that we're all in this together and have to make remote work productive," she told the E-Commerce Times.

Tech company or not, the spreading virus is forcing companies to adapt their procedures and use technology to overcome hurdles. For tech-based companies, that probably will mean scrambling for more equipment, suggested Avani Desai, president of Schellman & Company.

"With the issues already seen with the supply chain, we are having to order laptops and phones by the bulk in preparing what it is going to look like in the next one-to-three months," she told the E-Commerce Times.

The use of telecommuting is expected to increase initially where clients are outside of the U.S., but that trend is likely to continue as the virus spreads within the U.S. as well, Desai said.

"We are having to balance the need of our client visits and the health of our employees," she noted, adding that conferences and required ongoing trainning in large groups is forcing his workers to find other venues such as online training.

Viral Changes Abound

To better understand the extent to which COVID-19 is impacting business functions, VoIP phone systems firm 8x8 conducted a survey in partnership with Dynata. The survey asked businesses how they planned on supporting employees as the situation unfolds.

The results of the research have not yet been made public, but a summary was provided to the E-Commerce Times. The survey polled 483 American consumers with a full-time job.

For some 44 percent of respondents, the coronavirus already has impacted the way they do business. Despite the relatively small number of cases reported in the United States, businesses -- especially those with an international presence -- have begun to feel the effects.

Fifty-five percent of survey participants have canceled travel plans and 50 percent are having fewer meetings with employees, customers and prospects.

Eighty-six percent of respondents said their businesses have established and communicated a plan of action for times of crises. Also, 72 percent have reminded employees of behaviors to avoid, and 52 percent have restricted travel.

Companies are increasing their reliance on remote work to keep businesses operational, the survey revealed. For instance, 15 percent of respondents said they already were working remotely as a result of the coronavirus. Another 40 percent were increasing their use of video conferencing.

Furthermore, 90 percent of respondents said they were either confident or very confident that they would remain productive if asked to work remotely as a result of a crisis.

Technology Traffic Overload

Global health concerns created by the coronavirus have led to the largest remote workforce in human history. This is creating massive overloads of Internet traffic, as VPN systems are flooded by tens of millions of employees trying to log in, usually across crowded, long-haul public internet lines, according to Aryaka.

The company on Tuesday announced a solution for eliminating VPN overloads. Aryaka's Secure Remote Access leverages the company's global private backbone and requires no architecture changes by the customer.

"Most companies offer some type of remote VPN solution, but they were never designed for 'peak capacity' -- that is, to scale for the present situation when nearly all the employees in a region are working remotely, said Shashi Kiran, chief marketing officer of Aryaka.

As a result, local VPN servers are getting overloaded with the number of connections and amount of traffic required to support such a large increase in demand, impacting employee productivity, he said.

The company is offering a free VPN concentrator domain license with new qualifying purchases of the Aryaka SmartSecure Remote Access solution. The promotion is valid until April 30 for both new and existing customers.

Tech Ahead, Not So Bad

High-tech may be the most prepared industry to adapt and survive as the coronavirus continues to spread, said Alexander Kehoe, operations director of Caveni. The actual labor infrastructure of technology companies can make them the best type of industry during any sort of disruption, like a viral outbreak.

"Despite the obvious concerns over the waves in the financial market causing short term losses, most tech companies have a very robust remote infrastructure in place," Kehoe told the E-Commerce Times. "The vast majority of tech companies' top talent is fully capable of working while isolated at home."

That serves as a significant advantage over many traditional companies. Some short term turmoil might hit tech companies, but their user base, their employees and their products are relatively insulated from any severe consequences, Kehoe said.

For example, Amazon may see gains as people stock up on products. Amazon's cloud services probably will not be affected at all.

"All in all, the tech industry will not see too much in terms of overall impact," Kehoe predicted.

Tech Firms Face Brand Threats

The coronavirus absolutely will impact the tech industry in three key ways, noted Constellation Research's Miller. First will be its impact on product. With so much of tech today fueled by global workforces, the coronavirus will mean having to manage production, innovation and sales cycles around a pandemic reaction and the long-term health and productivity management of these global teams.

"Everything from manufacturing to raw materials will be impacted ... the question will be how long will our supply chains be disrupted in the near term? And how will we minimize impact to the overarching value chain in the long term?" she said.

The second point of impact is how people actually work, according to Miller. The impact on manufacturing and on making the things that power technology and electronics is only one part of the situation. The industry is seeing a ripple effect in the necessity to shift work styles away from the physical work space to the virtual.

This is not like the financial slowdown that caused skyrocketing gas prices and fares during the 2008 global recession. This is a matter of not getting on planes, not coming into the office, and not gathering on a scale that currently ranges from precaution to outright fear, she explained.

"In the end, we will settle on a new work culture post-coronavirus-outbreak that normalizes a societal pact where if you are sick -- no matter what the work culture dictates, you work from home. You might not log off completely, but each individual will bear the corporate culture responsibility of NOT being the super spreader [of the virus]," Miller said.

The third impact affects tech brands. Right now we are in the throes of event disruptions due to major technology players weighing the risks of hosting events versus cancelling them.

The biggest so far was the cancellation of Mobile World Congress. That decision impacted mobile technology players and the entire city of Barcelona as well as the financial fortunes of many businesses in the surrounding region. Now user group and influencer conferences are being canceled due to an abundance of caution.

"This is as much a brand safety decision as it is a public safety one, demanding that new ways to connect, engage and communicate will come into play," Miller said.

For example, do you have a hand-shake-free conference? Do you opt in for smaller, more contained, and more intimate dinners and knowledge exchange scenarios? Is a virtual event going to cut it?

"While the current conversations are revolving around risk, this will eventually shift to conversations led by brand security and business impact," Miller predicted.

Can Tech Save Biz From Cyber Onslaught?

As businesses take action to protect employees from the health crisis by ceasing travel and implementing remote working plans, they inadvertently are exposing themselves to mass cyberthreats, warned Morten Brøgger, CEO of Wire.

The coronavirus will be one of the biggest experiments in remote-working history, he told the E-Commerce Times. Companies need to be prepared for the security implications associated with employees working from various locations, often via unsecured WiFi networks.

"However, for companies it's not just about being prepared for a global pandemic. It's also about readiness for the future," Brøgger said.

Cybercriminals already are exploiting these weaknesses and launching coronavirus-related phishing scams and cyberattacks. Companies need to set up the right framework to prevent any halt in their business operations lest these issues present damage to the economy at large, he added.

It is common for cybercriminals to use high-profile, global news stories in their schemes. The coronavirus outbreak is no different. Cybercriminals are using the fear and vulnerability surrounding the event to scam individuals, Brøgger explained.

It is likely that coronavirus-related email phishing campaigns will continue. In fact 96 percent of all data breaches start with email phishing.

On top of this, companies now are requiring employees to work remotely. This will help avoid contamination and further spread of the coronavirus, but it also means that employees are working outside the bounds of secure company perimeters.

What to Do

Brøgger recommends that all companies -- tech or otherwise -- take these steps to ward off cyber intrusions:

  • Alert your entire workforce. Lack of employee awareness and training is one of the No. 2 mistakes a company can make.
  • Scrutinize everything that comes into their inbox. Auhenticate everything and be aware of of domains, names, or subject lines that are slightly off or that they do not recognize.
  • Try to switch all critical internal communications to a secure messaging platform. Phishing attacks mainly arise from "open" email systems like Gmail where messages are able to be sent and received from anyone.
  • Companies should consider shifting all critical communications involving sensitive data and information to a secure environment that offers end-to-end encryption and with sharing by invitation only.


Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open source technologies. He has written numerous reviews of Linux distros and other open source software. Email Jack.


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