Preparing for Coronavirus Related Work Shift: Work from Home, e-Learning, Virtual Classes, e-Textbooks Virtualization, and Communication
We are stuck in very different times. While most of us have heard or read about the advent of Black Death and how it had wiped out huge populations, it is still something that happened in the 14th Century. While many of us have read about the Ebola, or the SARS or have watched Public Announcements about AIDS, we were still aware that it could be prevented with the right measures. COVID-19 has caught us unaware and in a situation that we have never faced before.
Human civilization has never really encountered the idea of ‘remaining contactless’. Everything around us is based on interactions and ‘contact’. We crowd around in the train compartments, we shake hands, we pat each others’ backs when something happens, we enjoy a 3D movie together in a crowded movie theater and vie for the last tickets of a blockbuster, even in business where a virtual meeting could save us both time and money, we take cross country flights to sit over the table and discuss pleasantries. We do all of these because we believe the ‘humane’ connection supersedes everything. Now that smartphones are around and we see people sitting in a crowd and remaining in their own smartphone bubbles, we criticize them. By definition of being human, they are supposed to be interacting, not lost in their own private entertainments.
What we hadn’t accounted for was a ‘black swan’ event — a sudden virus without any known history coming and disrupting the world we live in. Black Swans, as author Nassim Nicholas Taleb described them, are outliers that are so rare that we do build a psychological bias and collective blindness to them and only rationalize them after they have occurred. For us, more than a 9/11, more than any of the recent wars, more than the climate changes that we are seeing, the COVID-19 has turned out to be a way bigger outlier. We do not have a list of ‘guidelines’ — we cannot turn our state into a surveillance state like we do in case of a terrorist threat because the enemy is small, silent, and very very fast. Instead what we have at our hands as of today are the following:
- One of the biggest suppliers of almost anything is in a state of shutdown. China has closed, cities have been quarantined and factories are operating partially in places. In short, are supplies are down.Italy is also facing a complete shutdown.
- Our travels are severely curtailed.
- The state of education is under lockdown. We are used to sending our children to school, the teenagers in college and ourselves in training rooms whenever we need education. It seems that will not work for a while. Any school, anywhere can be shut at any point in time.
- Traditional morning meetings, Monday meets, work lunches, brainstorming sessions will need to wait. Our people are not in the office anymore. As of today, more than 5500 people in California and more than 2500 in New York are under quarantine, stuck at home for the next 15 days
- Business meetings and handshakes. We cannot just reach the clients’ office and ask for a discussion. They may not let you enter even if you are wearing your mask. And its neither safe for you nor for them.
- Meeting up with clients at conferences. Public gatherings are very soon going to be a strict no-no. You cannot end up at a conference, deliver a lecture, set up a booth, impress with your products and create your potential business list.
- Having a full house at your factory or plant. To ensure business continuity, safety of the plant, the overall working mechanism you cannot have everybody at your factories anymore. At least till there is a workable vaccine out in the market to ensure that life can go back to normal.
The popular action that we are witnessing now a lot among the tech companies is emptying out entire offices and asking their employees to work from home. While it is not a new practise in itself, it is not that universal a practice either. Not everyone is used to it — neither the companies nor the employees. As some of my friends who have done WFH in the past say, it’s a great option for working mothers, but chances of growth are severely curtailed. Now, if the entire office starts working from home, you need to look at this practice with an entirely different lens. And if you are not a tech company that is used to similar practices — you are probably running into a major culture shock, because the future seems extremely uncertain.
So, let’s face it. We are in a state of confusion, we are trying to learn more about the virus day by day, we are waiting for a vaccine, and we are trying to figure out how are we going to maintain our production targets, revenue numbers and do all of this at the cost of losing our health and our lives.
Let me start with the basics: Can you have everyone working from home?
Depending on what industry you are in and what is it that you produce, you can determine whether you need to have your entire workforce working from home or a part of it, i.e have the essential resources coming into office to run the production systems while the monitoring is done from supervisors glued into their computer screens at home. If you are running a physical newspaper, you need people at the printing house, but your journalists need tAs journalist Geoffrey James noted in his article in INC 42, Work from home has turned out to be one of the world’s smartest management strategies ever. In a landmark study cited in the Harvard Business Review, call center workers on Ctrip — a Chinese travel website — were given the option to volunteer to work from home for nine months. Half the volunteers did so; the other half was the control group and thus continued to work at the office each day.
The study highlighted that “people working from home completed 13.5 percent more calls than the staff in the office did — meaning that Ctrip got almost an extra workday a week out of them,” according to Stanford University professor Nicholas Bloom. In the same study, people who worked from home felt better engaged with the organization and this reduced their attrition by half. It might still be difficult to implement this, but there can be significant differences in payroll as well. For many small organizations, payroll comprises about 30% of their total gross revenue. Employees working from home were often happy to trade about 8% of their salary for the convenience of working from home while contributing about 13% in terms of productivity.
So, given the circumstances, work from home of its entire or partial workforce, might be the most efficient strategy to be adopted by major organizations.
So, what if Work From Home becomes the new normal?
There are several organizations that have been successful with Work From Home as a strategy. It is better to learn some of their best practices while you tailor them to your organization. Here is a recent study of 100 companies that have been doing it better than others, done by none other than Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexandratalty/2020/01/14/work-from-home-2020-the-top-100-companies-for-remote-jobs/#1739c77e4196
You can get the full list here — https://www.flexjobs.com/blog/post/100-top-companies-with-remote-jobs-2020/
The top industries that have addressed it are:
- Medical and Health — This might sound a little strange since healthcare needs a physical presence. However, apart from critical care, there are several fields such as medical records keeping, medical transcription, insurance support, etc. that are being addressed from home. However, you will still need nurses and doctors at the hospital and more so now.
- Computers and IT: Unless your computer has crashed and you don’t have the secret key to re-program it, pretty much a lot can happen with remote support. Your coders, designers, and even IT support team can work from home and keep running a seamless operation in many cases. It might not give you a completely empty workspace though, as you might still need a skeletal team to run smooth operations and if you still believe in paper — your finance head might need to sign off cheques and approvals.
- Customer Service: You can pretty much run a call center with remote employees, train them remotely, monitor their performance and run a smooth show.
- Digital Advertising and Marketing Services: Your digital marketers work online. You can manage them through several online mediums, collaboration software and check their performance in real-time. Your digital marketing efforts need a good mix of creative and analytical brains, data crunchers and engagement managers, It’s not necessary that they are physically present in your workplace.
- Education and Training: Whether it’s for college students or your distributed workforce, eLearning, virtual classes and webinars are methods that you can employ to keep your learners engaged, active, and attending regular education without too much of a hitch. We cover this in greater detail later.
- Accounting and Finance: Work from home has been well taken in organizations like JP Morgan, Wells Fargo, Fiserv etc. You can pretty much make sure that most of your work continues even if people are not attending office.
- HR and Recruiting: Parts of HR and recruiting can be managed from home. So, unless you are running a factory that needs the Labour officer in site, your HR team can continue working remotely for a while.
Online Collaboration for real-time remote work:
You need to invest in effective collaboration tools to ensure that while most of your team works from multiple places they can be connected seamlessly when they are required. Thankfully, the world of remote collaboration is populated with effective tools now to ensure that work can go on seamlessly. Just like when you build an application, in building up an effective work from home strategy for most of your organization, also needs you to build an effective technology stack that will help seamlessly. This can typically be divided into three parts:
- Conferencing Tools
- Collaboration tools
- Learning tools
Most importantly, you will also need a mindset change. And that needs effective communication. You need to ensure people are ‘working’ when they say they are working. But you cannot make your control so overt that it feels like digital surveillance all the time. Best option therefore is to choose tools and methods that makes it free, fun as well as accountable at the same time.
You use many of them right now. Expect your dependency to increase multi-fold as your prepare for larger teams working from home and you need to connect to them in real-time.
Webex: (https://www.webex.co.in/) Owned by Cisco, Webex is one of the oldest conferencing tools which comes with features like web meetings, conferences and events, online trainings and courses (it can double up as a mini LMS as well) as well as remote support.
Zoom: (https://zoom.us/) One of the new ones, Zoom is known for its user-friendly UX and low barrier to entry. Even if you are not a Zoom Enterprise subscriber, you can log into Zoom using your Google Account and host a web meeting for 45 minutes at a stretch. If Zoom likes you and sees the potential of being a regular customer, they might take notice and increase the time of your meeting as well. A large enterprise ready license comes at about $20 with about 50 hosts and more than 1000 participants. Moreover, if you are just joning a meeting, you don’t need to log in as well. You can simply join in as a guest. You can have a 24 hour meeting as well, good for war-room preparations in times of close market watch or execution.
GoToMeeting: (www.gotomeeting.com) GoToMeeting is a standalone web conferencing support offered by remote support specialists LogMeIn. GoToMeeting comes at a price of $16 per month for a Business license and offers upto 150 participants in a single meeting. In many cases, that is all you will need.
BlueJeans: (https://shop.bluejeans.com/) BlueJeans is used by multiple enterprises now. It doesn’t have a free tier, but comes with a ‘me-prepaid’ plan of $12 and a team option of $17 per month billed annually for a team size of about 75. There is an enterprise plan as well as available and customizable on request.
CyberLink: (https://u.cyberlink.com/) Comes with a basic free version for individuals for a 30 minute meeting and upto 25 participants. This is a great option for gig workers and individuals to connect to small teams. For an enterprise wide web conferencing facility you can opt for the $50 Pro 100 option with about 100 participants with each meeting lasting for 24 hours. It also comes with a virtual makeup plugin that… well.. that makes you look good and makes it a great option for streaming.
Most of these tools come with mobile apps for Android and iOS as well which makes it easy for you to take your meeting from anywhere. (I personally have taken zoom meetings from my car multiple times).
Skype: (https://www.skype.com/en/) I don’t need to introduce Skype afresh. Most of you use it anyway for connecting with family and friends. However, Skype also comes with an Enterprise option that allows secure communication and web-conferencing. Moreover, Skype brings in some cool options such as a subtitling tool, a direct call to phones and HD video calling.
Adobe Connect: (https://www.adobe.com/products/adobeconnect.html) Adobe has a hole suite of products for running an enterprise. Coming from a background of developing state of the art design softwares, also has its advantages. Adobe Connect therefore offers customizable online conferencing rooms along with the necessary features which can help an enterprise brand its own personal virtual room. Also, Adobe Connect does not only pose as a virtual conferencing tool but also as a tool for augmenting eLearning through virtual classroom, providing some of the necessary analytics at the same time.
This might also be a good time for all of these conferencing tool companies to re-look at the way they secure pricing. Usually the trend is to offer a per month affordable option and then ask the user to buy a year-long license. It makes perfect sense as that indicates signing at least a year-long contract and securing your costs for it, after all servers and storage has costs too and you need to pay your people every month. But, let’s look at a different industry and how it has managed streaming services and its customers — Netflix. Netflix survives because of great content and the way it engages its customers with an easy barrier to entry. Netflix actually makes it easy for you to opt out. You pay every month and you always have the option of opting out. The fun is — even if people opt out, they keep coming back.
Now, that the need for web conferencing appears more important than ever, maybe these companies need to re-look at their pricing and lower the barrier to entry by allowing people not just to use it for free in a trial, but to pay on a short term basis and get addicted to working in this manner.
Slack: (https://slack.com/intl/en-in/) One of the powerhouse collaboration tools, Slack has been growing at a rapid phase. More than 6500 companies now use Slack for tech collaboration with big names such as Airbnb, Pinterest, Dropbox and others. Slack operates in channels — where as a firm you can create a channel for your employees and archive conversations around your projects and teams to get things done. A great tool for agile project management communications — slack can help you with seamless communication and tracking across all your scrums.
Miro (https://miro.com/) Miro is a collaborative whiteboard platform that brings teams together, anytime and anywhere (as the legend says in their website). Moreover it comes with 50 integrations across apps and can work well with applications like Slack, Atlassian and others. Some of the organizations that have hopped onto Miro now are Netflix, 3M, Autodesk, Twitter and others. If you are in R&D, design, software development, planning, management, marketing, etc. you might find it useful to use Miro for planning and brainstorming.
Crew: (https://www.home.crewapp.com) Crew is a frontline focused app that believes that if your frontline workers need to succeed they need to be backed up by the rest of the organization with data, communication and other required inputs. Apart from being used as a communication tool, Crew has also been used as a training medium keeping frontline workers up with the necessary training in their own time. Crew also keeps people prepared. When you are not used to working from home, you may lose out on the urgency bit and not join in remotely on time. This is where Crew comes into play — they will notify you before your shift is supposed to start so that you are on your toes, even at home.
Trello (https://trello.com) We ourselves have been using Trello a lot in collaborating not just internally but with our clients as well. Much of the eLearning content that we develop gets reviewed, gets comments etc, over Trello. It’s an easy tool that offer a user a dashboard of all the tasks shared with him/her to check each of them off and send across comments. Trello, with its continuous softboard look — offers a great collaboration mechanism
Basecamp: (https://basecamp.com/) Basecamp is an effective alternative to Trello as well. Basecamp allows you the feature of sharing docs, files, build schedules, to-dos, check in with people, etc. Till date Basecamp has about 3.3 million sign ups.
Last but not the least — use WhatsApp for communication. We already have groups there, you can make a video call, you can conduct a video chat use it effectively (without spamming it with forwards) when you are working from home. Communicate sparsely but effectively, do not speak a lot just because you want to, make sure your key points have reached your audience and people have understood the actionables.
With large forces working from home, you will not have the necessary classroom sessions for a while. The restrictions for Coronavirus are on large gatherings, travel, office atmosphere, etc. Let’s face it, one person with symptoms (even without the virus) can quarantine your entire workfloor for the next 15 days. It’s time you focus on eLearning and Virtual Classrooms to help you navigate the learning atmosphere.
If you have never been in eLearning, here is a short primer that can you help you get up to date on it:
Questions you ask about eLearning: Download link
In China, where schools, colleges and offices have closed down, eLearning has taken a massive surge of continuing education and training. DingTalk by Alibaba, even though developed as an office conferencing solution, has taken up school education in unprecedented ways as children are tuning into virtual classes. You, on the other hand, might not have to be so unprepared as we already know the impact the pandemic can have. We just need to be remain prepared for it.
Here are some of the things that you can do:
Use a buy vs build model: If you have got a need for a module that will take time for you to build, buy it instead even if for a limited time. There are quite a few MOOC providers — such as edX, Coursera, Udemy, Edcast, Skillsoft, etc. However, just remember when you buy these courses that they were meant for a larger audience, so you might want to design pre-test, post-test, additional modules for your employees/students on top of them as well.
So the module that we would request you to follow is — buy, build and tailor. Even Youtube is a great teacher, with thousands of hours of learning content in it. Use them as well when you tailor your learning content
Even though this is a buy vs build model I would still recommend you to work with an eLearning firm that is open to working out a buy model for you as well as ready to build additional modules to tailor the content as per your learner needs. Do talk to us if you need it. We have been facilitating a mix of available content along with custom content for a while now.
Here’s a short overview of how to go about using eLearning and Virtual Classes
While collaboration tools can help you if you are a corporate, what if you are a University stuck with a situation where students are no longer coming to class? This too can be solved. Did you know the you could distribute all your textbooks through Amazon Kindle — an app that can be downloaded by anybody using an Android or iOS phone. Get your textbooks online. We help many Universities and Institutes get all their textbooks on Amazon Kindle for easy distribution. Even if you are a University based in Italy and have students in Germany — you can ensure a seamless reading experience for them.
Ok, so now that textbooks are out of the way, here’s how you can deliver seamless lectures.
In Learning too, just like marketing or application development, it’s better for you to have a technology stack at hand. If you are an organization that needs learning data from multiple sources, you might need to use a Learning Records Store as well along with an LMS. So, here’s what you do:
Step 1: Get an LMS
If you don’t have one yet, get a Learning Management System (LMS) Most LMSs are based out of cloud now. We can also build one for you in Moodle as well as help you procure one. Some of the LMSs that we present here are:
Moodle: Moodle is an open source solution to building an LMS. It is driven and supported by an open source community with regular updates. We can build one up for you if you are unsure about how many users will finally use it. Moodle can be customized as per your needs and used from the cloud. However, Moodle will take a few weeks to be up. That’s when you can turn to other proprietory LMSs, such as:
GCube: GCube, based in India, and with multiple awards behind it offers a LMS as well as a LXP experience. GCube runs SCORM compliant courses and also offers a range of data to be captured in the learning experience. The LMS also comes powered with its own authoring tool and can be used for creating courses as well. GCube is xAPI compliant, which means it can track a learner’s performance across other sites as well.
Adobe Captivate Prime: Adobe has anyway been a market leader for several products across marketing and design. In Learning Solutions too, Adobe had a major market share in the world of eLearning authoring tools too. Adobe Captivate Prime, even though a comparatively newer offering (with an existence of 3–4 years) is a feature-rich LMS that can be made up and running with even 100 registered users in a short time. Moreover, Captivate Prime has rich social learning features — which might be a useful feature when going ‘social’ online seems to be the only option left for many of the users for a while.
Also, when you are getting your LMS make sure to check out that third party content (such as EdX, Coursera, etc. ) can be integrated there. The LMSs I mentioned here integrate third party content seamlessly.
Step 2: Get your Content Plan ready
Remember the buy vs build model that we spoke about earlier. When you figure out what are the trainings that you require, it will make sense to list out all the topics that you need and what each of them are supposed to do for your learners. i.e map out the objectives for the learners parallely.
Once you have done this, give us a call so that we can work with you to get your curriculum ready. There are three options that you can look at here:
- Buy based content from MOOC sites and then add a layer on top of it in terms of relevant case studies pertaining to your industry, lectures from your subject matter experts and content tailored to your company. This will be good for comprehension/knowledge level courses.
- For application or analysis level courses, you can go for a custom build option — where we build it right from scratch and then test it out with your learners for effectiveness.
- Third, for fast delivery and comprehension level topics, go for a lecture -capture method with a subject matter expert. We will come shortly to the tools that you need to use for this.
Step 3: Get a Virtual Classroom software
We have mentioned the use of webinar and conference softwares earlier and as we saw from DingTalk, webinar softwares can sometimes double up as learning platforms as well primary for facilities such as recording, multiple user connects, etc.
However, Virtual Classrooms with distinct features like analytics, identifying attention spans, etc. can be pretty useful when it comes to online lectures.
One of the softwares that we often work with and recommend is the Impartus Virtual Classroom. The prime advantages of using it are the following:
- An useful lecture capture method with unlimited participants and features such as muting of participants, selective mike enablement, video capture, recording, etc along with a built in whiteboard feature for effective collaboration. You can even drag and drop videos from Youtube when you are explaining something right into your presentation that is being streamed live in your classroom. So pretty much everything that you require to ensure that your classes can run smoothly even when online.
- We have issues like distraction even in a classroom. Impartus interestingly solves this problem by adding the feature of identifying which of the participants has kept the video on switch off mode and has opened up another window on his/her computer while you are teaching. Besides, you can add quizzes, questions in the middle of lectures to keep people engaged, ask them to show their ‘virtual’ hand if they have a question and type on the chatbox as well. The analytics is pretty detailed as well.
The other virtual classroom that you can use is Adobe Connect as well. I have mentioned it in the list of web conferencing tools, but it can be equally powerful as a Learning tool. Currently, John’s Hopkins University uses Adobe Connect to conduct online learning classes. Also, you can use just one tool for many purposes here along with the Adobe support. Adobe Connect also comes with the features of measuring learner engagement during lectures, has a live classroom and recording features. Most importantly, Adobe also provides an ecosystem where the Connect can be integrated with the LMS (Captivate Prime) along with an authoring tool (Captivate) for you to create content, record lectures and put it altogether in your LMS i.e Captivate Prime. Also, being xAPI compliant, you can create the necessary xAPI statements to measure learner engagements outside of your LMS as well such as Youtube, external articles, etc.
Hopefully, this should have given you an idea of how to handle the looming future of work in the wake of a global virus scare, gear up your communication channels, and freeze on a contingency plan to ensure that your people are ready to embrace the change in work pattern.
(I’m also writing it an interesting moment, right after I had an internal meeting to discussed how to maintain business continuity in case the entire team shifts home en-masse and starts working from there).
I would love to hear about the challenges you are facing and address them as well. Please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Look forward to a new article on Virtualization and how it can help you navigate the current scare soon.
We address L&D challenges, Content Solutions, Graphic Design and Packaging Solutions at scale. We will be happy to help you out with any work challenges.