Feb 26, 2020 - Health

Work goes remote in the face of the coronavirus

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The coronavirus outbreak has already forced millions to work from home in China, and as the outbreak goes global, remote work could emerge as a vital public health strategy.

Why it matters: Businesses should be ready to "replace in-person meetings with video or telephone conferences and can increase teleworking options," Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters.

In the absence of a vaccine or an effective treatment, one of the best ways to control the spread of a new disease is through social distancing.

  • One study found that nationwide 18-day school closures in Mexico during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic was associated with a 29% to 37% reduction in flu transmission rates.
  • During the much worse 1918 flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people globally, cities that closed schools and banned public gatherings early during the epidemic had weekly death rates about 50% lower than cities that delayed such closures.

What's happening: The videoconferencing company Zoom has been one of the few stocks to rise even as fears about the coronavirus pull down the market.

  • In China, Alibaba's collaboration platform DingTalk became the most-downloaded free iOS app in the country in early February.
  • In Hong Kong, where classes are suspended until at least March 2, schools are experimenting with creating an interactive educational experience for homebound students using Zoom, according to the South China Morning Post.
  • For some companies, telework may prove a boon — a 2015 Stanford University study found that productivity among call-center employees at one Chinese travel agency increased by 13% when they worked from home.
"The combination of limiting travel due to coronavirus fears and the desire to lower carbon footprints tells me that we may have reached videoconferencing’s moment."
— Union Square Ventures co-founder Fred Wilson

But, but, but: Not every business can easily operate remotely.

  • Apple has warned investors it expects to fall short of its revenue goals as its China factories slowly reopen after forced closures.
  • Worse is the possibility that the coronavirus could disrupt the global supply chains that produce the medicines and protective gear needed to combat the outbreak itself.

As the coronavirus spreads around the world, it's inevitable that we'll see more office closures. If employees can't work remotely, the economic effects of the virus could rival the human toll.

  • SARS killed fewer than 1,000 people, but travel and trade disruptions cost the global economy an estimated $40 billion.
  • The coronavirus has already infected and killed far more people than SARS, and it's brought a far more important China to a standstill. Analysts at Oxford Economics estimate that an international coronavirus outbreak could cost the global economy more than $1 trillion.

The bottom line: Investing in resilient remote work infrastructure can soften the economic blow of a pandemic, says David Henshall, CEO of the remote work company Citrix. "This is where remote work can stand up to the challenge."

Editor's note: This piece has been updated to clarify Citrix is a remote work company.

Go deeper

Remote work shift calls for fast footwork

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Air CEO Shane Hegde received a frantic call last week from New York nonprofit Robin Hood (not to be confused with the brokerage app). The organization needed to immediately finish moving all its digital assets to the cloud as it was suddenly sending employees to work from home.

The only solution: He dispatched an employee to Robin Hood’s offices to pick up more than 20 hard drives and upload their contents as fast as possible.

SARS made Hong Kong and Singapore ready for coronavirus

A teacher in Hong Kong shows students hand hygiene during the SARS outbreak in 2003. Photo: Tommy Cheng/AFP via Getty Images

Despite their proximity to China, Hong Kong and Singapore have managed to keep COVID-19 infections and death extraordinarily low.

Why it matters: As coronavirus cases surge in parts of the U.S., it's natural to look at the examples of cities that have handled the disease better. But the single most important factor may be something the U.S. can't replicate: the experience of the SARS outbreak in 2003.

Go deeperArrowMar 25, 2020 - Health

How to run a company in self-isolation

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Millions have embarked on an enforced work-from-home experiment, but it's a little more difficult if you're the CEO of an online messaging company — and you're in quarantine.

Why it matters: Companies that enable remote working have become virtual utilities at a moment of high demand, and they're pushing hard to remain reliable while working under the same conditions as the rest of us.