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Coronavirus impact: Businesses forced to rely on video conferencing

Companies are missing opportunities to connect on a more personal level with customers and partners as the coronavirus outbreak forces them to rely more heavily on video conferencing.

In January, life sciences technology vendor Veeva held a new year kickoff for its North American employees in Orlando, Fla. A few weeks later, the company held a similar event for its Asia-based employees -- except instead of everyone meeting in Tokyo as planned, the coronavirus outbreak forced workers to dial into Zoom.

The differences between the two events were stark.

The would-be Tokyo attendees sat alone on their computers. In Orlando, colleagues shared meals and dance floors. They visited an amusement park one evening. And by gathering more than 1,000 people in the same place, the company generated a palpable enthusiasm for its vision and goals.

"There is a little bit lost, for sure, in a remote meeting compared to a face-to-face meeting," said Paul Shawah, Veeva's senior vice president for commercial cloud strategy.

Businesses like Veeva are increasingly turning to video conferencing services like Zoom and Cisco Webex to avoid travel in response to the growing threat of the new coronavirus, COVID-19. The disease had sickened nearly 100,000 people worldwide as of March 5, including more than 200 people in the United States, where 14 have died.

Video conferencing apps are providing a convenient alternative to face-to-face meetings during the outbreak. But companies are also missing chances to connect on a more personal level with customers, partners and employees.

Theory Studios, a boutique entertainment company, generates most of its business by attending conferences. The studio scrambled to schedule Zoom meetings after the last-minute cancellation of Google I/O and the postponement of the Game Developers Conference.

"At the end of the day, nothing beats in-person [meetings]," said David Andrade, co-founder of Theory Studios. "It's the joy of sharing a meal -- or maybe the client wanting to tour you around their office -- that turns a regular meeting into a personal, long-lasting connection." At the same time, Andrade has used Zoom to build meaningful relationships long before meeting in person, he said.

Similarly, salespeople for electronics manufacturer ViewSonic are watching closely as premier sponsors begin to withdraw from Enterprise Connect, a trade show scheduled for late March. Some of ViewSonic's customers have also temporarily banned salespeople from their campuses.

"As a sales leader … I would always like to think that travel is essential to business," said Chris Graefe, ViewSonic's director of enterprise sales. "A face-to-face meeting is preferred, obviously." Video conferencing, however, will help maintain relationships amid the travel restrictions, he said.

For Veeva, holding its Asia kickoff on Zoom was "the next best thing," Shawah said. The format even brought some benefits. For example, everything was recorded, allowing those who missed the meeting to catch up. Also, Zoom's chat feature facilitated a robust Q&A session, Shawah said.

Tech vendors capitalize on coronavirus outbreak

Video conferencing providers have responded to the increased need for their services by extending the capabilities of their free offerings.

Cisco is now allowing meetings of unlimited length for up to 100 participants on the free version of Webex. Microsoft is giving out six-month licenses to Office 365 that provide access to a more robust version of Microsoft Teams than is usually available for free. Zoom has lifted the 40-minute cap on free meetings in China.

The vendors hope the uptick in usage will continue even after fears about the virus subside. Free offerings can be an effective way to generate paying customers.

In a conference call with investors Wednesday, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan predicted the outbreak would demonstrate the benefits of Zoom and lead to higher usage among companies. "This will dramatically change the landscape."

Zoom's stock is up more than 50% since late January. Video conferencing vendors, including hardware makers, are expected to rake in $13.8 billion in revenue by 2023, up from $7.8 billion in 2018, according to Frost & Sullivan.

Because so many employees are temporarily working from home, cybersecurity firm Trend Micro has begun hosting company-wide Zoom calls twice a week. Some hope the practice will continue even after people return to the company's offices around the world.

"With this concern happening, and people increasing their use of collaboration tools, I do think it's going to have a lasting effect," said Leah MacMillan, Trend Micro's chief marketing officer.

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