If COVID-19 has proved anything, it’s that large sectors of the economy can be performed entirely remotely. Even though many states are beginning to relax stay-at-home orders and reopen their economies, several employers will keep substantial portions of their workforce remote for the time being.
The proliferation of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic has raised a new app segment to the center of the stage—workplace apps. Workplace apps such as Slack and Zoom have exploded in popularity as a way to maintain employee productivity while working from home. These apps basically function as virtual offices where employees can log on, work in a shared digital space, and have access to important work-related resources.
COVID-19 has changed the way that we approach work, and it’s likely the effects won’t go away anytime soon. Let’s take a look at how workplace apps are taking advantage of this period to grow.
What Are Workplace Apps?
Even before the pandemic, remote work rates have been steadily increasing for the past 10 years. Remote work rates have risen almost 270% since 2017, and as much as 35% of the workforce is already employed remote on at least a part-time basis.
Employers use workplace apps to manage the daily going-ons of the office. The term “workplace app” is fairly broad and can include any SaaS (software as a service) app, like those for communication such as Slack, apps that are more geared towards operations and management like Facebook’s Workplace, or apps for video teleconferencing such as Zoom. Regardless of the individual differences, workplace apps allow you to keep in contact with colleagues and provide you with resources to be productive throughout the day.
Workplace apps have some benefits which explains why they have picked up so much traction recently. Workplace apps can increase productivity by consolidating communications and allowing multiple people to work on the same project at once. The real benefit is that employees can access work-related materials wherever they need and take place in work-related functions from home.
Case Study: Zoom
Let’s take a look at a specific workplace app company to see how this pandemic has affected things.
Zoom is a communications company founded in 2011 and based out of San Jose, California. They specialize in providing cloud-based video communications for teleconferencing, telecommunication, distance education, and more.
Zoom recently hit headlines due to its explosive growth in 2020. In December 2019, Zoom had about 10 million registered users. By April this year, Zoom announced it had cracked 300 million daily Zoom users. Zoom picked up more subscribers in the past 4 months than they did in the whole of 2019.
Eric S. Yuan provided more progress updates on our 90-day security plan, including exciting announcements about Zoom 5.0 and surpassing 300 million daily Zoom meeting participants… [Blog Post] https://t.co/futy9oiEvA #MeetHappy
— Zoom (@zoom_us) April 23, 2020
“To put this growth in context, as of the end of December last year, the maximum number of daily meeting participants, both free and paid, conducted on Zoom was approximately 10 million,” Zoom CEO Eric Yuan wrote in a letter at the beginning of April. “In March this year, we reached more than 200 million daily meeting participants, both free and paid.”
How did Zoom achieve this feat? Simple. The app’s main selling point is that it offers free 40-minute conference calls for up to 100 participants. Virtually anyone can sign on and take part in a conference. The flexibility and large scale nature of the software is one reason several schools and educational organizations have been using Zoom to administer classes.
With all of Zoom’s success, there are a few problems. The platform has been pegged for security concerns, including “Zoombombing,” in which hackers can find Zoom ID access codes and passwords to joining Zoom calls. Zoombombers will drop into meetings and share offensive material like pornography or violent images.
Many organizations have recognized these shortcomings. Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently banned the use of Zoom for employee meetings, citing security and privacy concerns, and the FBI’s office in Boston, MA used a warning telling users to not publicly share links to the meetings.
Despite the recent security concerns, users seem to be flocking to Zoom in droves. Zoom has managed to ride the initial wave from COVID-19 forcing work at home schedules, and it plans to keep up the momentum as things get back to normal.
Companies Are Trying to Follow Zoom’s Success
Zoom is not the only workplace app platform that is trying to take advantage of the pandemic. Facebook recently unveiled that they were going to be focusing on their video chat services, including Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and revamped video calls for Facebook dating. The new announcement signals Facebook’s largest expansion of video conference software to date.
Google also announced some changes to its Meet video chat service and Verizon has recently acquired BlueJeans Network, a new video conferencing service with a similar architecture to Zoom. Many of these companies already offered video chat services. but the new push in demand is causing them to revisit and update existing video services.
Today, @verizonbusiness announced it has entered into an agreement to acquire @BlueJeansNet, a trusted enterprise-grade video conferencing and event platform, to help supercharge #Verizon’s #ucaas portfolio and strategy: https://t.co/3xuImuvgc6 #videoconferencing #5G pic.twitter.com/xjuGO5gDX1
— BlueJeans by Verizon (@BlueJeansNet) April 16, 2020
Slack is another extremely popular workplace productivity app that has seen explosive growth. Slack’s share pricing jumped more than 15% in a single day back in March when CEO Stewart Butterfield announced in a Twitter thread that the platform had gained over 9,000 new paying customers in Q1 2020 alone.
My day job (also: night job) is CEO of Slack, a publicly traded company with investors to whom I am a fiduciary, 110k+ paying customers of all sizes, and thousands of employees I care about very, very much. The last few weeks have been ??? Here’s what it's been like. [Thread]
— Stewart Butterfield (@stewart) March 26, 2020
Slack even managed to pull off 30% share growth this year so far, even as the S&P has fallen more than 20%. Share have bounced around like the rest of the market, but have managed to hang on to consistent growth since mid-March. One thing that explains Slack’s popularity is its freemium model which it shares in common with other SaaS applications for the B2B sphere.
Zoom and related platform’s successes raise an important question for would-be investors: Is this explosive growth merely temporary, or is it a sign of a permanent shift in the work landscape? There is no doubt that COVID-19 can accelerate a trend that has already been increasing for the past few years.
One reason to think this trend will stick around is that companies have essentially been forced to make the necessary infrastructure switch to remote work. Simply put, many companies wouldn’t like to renege on those costs they have already sunk into software and equipment for workers.
“We once assumed this shift would take place over 5-10 years,” Perimeter 81 cofounder Sagi Gidali told Fast Company. “But now, we are seeing that it is happening much, much faster.” Perimeter 81 is a company that provides network security for remote work applications.
Challenges to Using Workplace Apps for Remote Work
For most workers, transitioning to using apps for remote work applications has been a relatively trivial manner. Most workplace SaaS applications like Zoom or Slack are designed to be accessed from wherever.
But it’s not that simple for some workers. Many companies, such as engineering and manufacturing firms, deal with sensitive IP and financial data on their servers that need to be accessed with VPNs. Configuring VPNs for remote work and making sure they work with workplace apps requires a hefty expansion of equipment and bandwidth costs, Companies normally do not expect the majority of their employees to access servers remotely, so business network infrastructures may not be optimized for a large volume of remote workers.
For many industries, remote work is just not an option. Restaurants, retail, and other service professions cannot feasibly make the jump to remote work, which begs the question of how widespread the trend will actually be when all is said and done. Workers in the tech industry, for example, tend to have the highest remote work rates. That is because the nature of tech jobs allow them to be done remotely relatively simply. According to Gallup, as of 2016, over half (57%) of all employees in IT/information systems spend at least some time each week working remotely.
One other challenge to adopting the mainstream use of workplace SaaS apps is social interaction. For many workers, a job is more than just a way to make money and an important part of social gathering. A recent survey by software solution provider Boxboat found that about 25% of surveyed workers through digital communications decreased workplace socialization and productivity.
The Future of Remote Work
So what can we expect from workplace SaaS applications in the near future? It’s hard to say exactly, but we have a few ideas. New innovations we expect to see will be geared toward smoothing out day-to-day operations and allowing more daily tasks to be handled remotely.
Here are a couple of speculations on our end: In the near future, workplace apps will
- Offer real-time push notifications for important events
- Collaborative apps that can map individual locations in the workplace
- Automatically handle asset tracking
- Reserve conference rooms and conference calls
- Submit and approve service requests
- One-touch encryption and deception of sensitive work documents
These are just a few possibilities we dreamt up for useful apps to have in the workplace. The reality is likely to be even more exciting. If one thing is certain in the technological world, it is almost impossible to predict exact tech trends and reality often exceeds expectations.
In the meantime, the proliferation of SaaS workplace apps is likely to continue in the near future. We will see by the end of the year if remote work via apps is just a fad or really here to stay for the long term.