Coronavirus closing schools, offices: A guide to working from home

Video conference apps have experienced an increase in demand in recent weeks

Schools and businesses across the country are telling employees and students to stay home and work via computer connection to avoid the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Harvard University on Tuesday became the latest major school to announce it is moving all classes online by March 23 and until spring recess, following more than 40 other U.S. colleges. A number of large U.S. companies like Amazon, Microsoft, TwitterGoogle, Facebook and Lyft, along with global companies, have asked employees in specific areas to stay home, disrupting financial markets around the world.

Video conference apps/websites such as Microsoft's Teams and Teams for Education, Cisco's WebEx and Zoom, as well as work email alternative Slack, have experienced an increase in demand in recent weeks, and many are offering new incentives to expand services to those in need.

A classroom is seen vacant through a window at Saint Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, R.I., as the school remains closed following a confirmed case of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

"It will be incredibly interesting to see which new technologies and methods of communication we are adopting now in crisis will remain when the crisis recedes," Amy Farley, senior editor at Fast Company business magazine, told FOX Business.


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To adequately prepare one's workplace or classroom for online communication, employers and teachers must not only decide which apps are best to fit their needs but also take other factors like internet safety and accessibility into account when transitioning from in-person to online work.

Microsoft Teams

Microsoft has made extensive efforts in the past year to grow its online workplace called Microsoft Teams, which is getting even more attention now as more workers and teachers tackle responsibilities from home amid virus fears.

Teams is now offering a six-month free trial for potential customers to try out some of the exclusive features that were previously expensed to users' accounts

Fast Company ranked Teams the No. 2 most innovative app of 2020 in its "Most Innovative Companies" list published Tuesday.

"We were looking at Teams because Slack has consistently been a dominant workplace messaging app, and it was notable this summer when Microsoft surpassed Slack in daily active users," Farley explained. "Slack just crossed 12 million users in October and Teams is 20 million now. That growth, for our purposes, was explosive and signaled that Teams is really finding an avid audience and signing up a lot of companies."

Farley expanded on the idea of Teams' unique outreach, saying the app has reached out to workers who don't normally use online messaging and workplace tools like Slack and Teams.


Teams has focused much of its efforts on collaborating with doctors and other health care professionals who want to make telehealth more commonplace.

The Cohen Children’s Medical Center at Northwell Health network hospital in Queens, New York, for example, deployed Teams to all 72,000 of its employees, Microsoft said in a March 6 blog post.

"If you talk to anyone across healthcare, they’ll tell you we have a lot of communication issues: from care provider to care provider, from labs to care providers, from care providers to patients and their families,” Dr. Deborah Mensch, a pediatric cardiologist and the site chief medical information officer at Cohen Children’s Medical Center, said in a statement.

Farley said Ikea has also deployed the app to about 70,000 workers.

"It's a useful messaging product for a lot of people," Farley said. "It will be interesting to see how Microsoft is offering a free, six-month subscription for services you usually have to pay for."

Microsoft Teams for Education

Teams for Education is essentially an online classroom that is free for schools and universities. Teams offers "virtual face-to-face connections, assignments, files and conversations into a single place accessible on either mobile, tablet, PC or browser," Microsoft wrote in a March 2 blog post.


Teams for Education enables teachers to host online lectures with up to 250 participants, create "ad-hoc meetings with selected groups of students" for virtual office hours or tutoring sessions and take part in educational webinars to make sure classrooms are prepared to use Teams without any technical issues.

Kevin Wu, co-founder and CEO of online education resource company OneClass, however, says teachers should avoid extremely large groups of students and consider breaking up classrooms into smaller groups when teaching via Skype, WebEx or Zoom.

"Having a smaller group will make it easier for the educator to assess every learner’s understanding. In the event that an educator finds themselves short-handed, a possible solution could be to seek out additional teaching assistants or find a few students who are already excelling in the class and giving them the opportunity to help their peers," he said, adding that breaking up students into smaller groups will also help to reduce distractions like web browsing.


Slack published a bundle of best practices March 4 for employers and employees working from home due to the outbreak.

The list includes an announcements channel that allows business administrators and managers to send read-only messages to a group of employees; custom statuses that workers and employers can set so colleagues know when someone has stepped away from the computer; channels to separate specific group conversations within a workplace; and direct messaging.


Slack is also hosting regular webinars to explain best practices for teleworkers on a more personal, easy-to-understand level.

Fast & Company listed Slack as one of its top 50 enterprise companies in 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2016. While the app did not make Fast Company's 2020 list of most innovative companies, Farley said Slack helped shaped the online work industry from the very beginning.

"Our most innovative companies list reflects companies innovation projects that achieved impact and innovation over the past year," Farley explained, adding that while the magazine "didn't see as much innovation" with Slack this year, the app "is responsible for changing office culture in a lot of countries."


Zoom is helping people get work done from home by extending free use of the app; enabling telemedicine tools; providing mental health training for those who have been severely impacted by the virus, such as Wuhan, China, residents; and launching education conference-call tools like Outschool, Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan wrote in a Feb. 26 blog post.

Kevin Wu, co-founder and COO of online education resource company OneClass, recommended Zoom and WebEx as platforms "that can allow teachers to quickly jump on" and avoid technical issues but added that Zoom and WebEx "are two options that support larger sessions with more participants."

Outschool is a Zoom feature that provides "Free Remote Teacher Training Webinars" that demonstrate "how to adapt teaching practices and curriculum to a live video chat classroom. These webinars are led by Outschool’s experienced teachers who have transitioned from in-person to online teaching. Educators can sign up and find available times/dates here," a March 6 blog post reads.


Wu emphasized the importance of utilizing tools like Outschool, saying "most teachers and professors" may not be used to teaching online, which can cause " some challenges when getting set up" for an online class. He added that educators "will also need to figure out how to help their students troubleshoot any technical issues they may experience when connecting to the virtual classroom."


WebEx is another popular remote work app used by big and small businesses, freelancers and schools alike.

The app published a plan to tackle remote work concerns amid the virus outbreak March 2, including more free WebEx capabilities as part of a plan to help companies from across the globe have more access to features that are typically expensed. Features include unlimited app usage, collaboration between up to 100 participants, and toll dial-in capabilities.

"There is an unprecedented increase in remote working happening worldwide, which is growing exponentially daily," the company said in its blog post. "Today, due to global circumstances resulting from COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease), many who are working from home are not doing so as a perk, but as an imperative."

"It’s our priority to enable people to work from anywhere (including home), anytime, and on any device so they stay connected with their teams and can continue their business operations. As the market leader, we’re enabling this in multiple ways," the post continued.

Factors to consider

In addition to deciding which telework app is right for a business or classroom, there are other telework tips employers and teachers should take into consideration when making the transition from in-person work to remote work.

Wu said that one upside to a transition from in-person work and school to online sessions is that it's forcing schools and businesses to consider innovative work- and school-from-home options that they didn't have to think much about before.


Farley similarly expressed curiosity with the ways this new health crisis will bring about more workplace innovation in the future.

"It's a really interesting time because a lot of companies that haven't used messaging apps and video conferencing are going to become more comfortable using them," she said.

A masked worker looks out from his office in Beijing, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

"I think we're going to have a much better understanding of our appetite to work and learn remotely," Farley added. "We'll also learn which work trips and corporate travel is essential versus what is just nice to have. This is something we will continue to be wrestling with in the fall. Some technology we are deploying right now might last [for a while]."

One such technology is the use of a VPN, or virtual private network, service. Many companies offer VPNs to employees for free as part of partnerships with VPN providers like Amazon Web Services. Employers should consider enforcing the use of a VPN service to ensure internet protection since some home networks are less secure than work networks.


Farley also brought up the fact that this uptick in online work will also make people realize how essential face-to-face interaction still is in school and in the workplace.

Wu brought up that another important factor to consider in this mass temporary switch from in-person classroom teaching and online teaching "will be internet access, a computer and a working microphone."

A worker disinfects a classroom at a school that has suspended classes as a precautionary measure against the new coronavirus in San Juan city in Manila, Philippines on Monday, March 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

"At a minimum, it will be essential for students who are learning at home to have access to a stable internet connection, a laptop or desktop computer, and a working microphone. The student should also have their physical notebooks and binders ready so that they can also be prepared to take notes during the session," Wu said.

Approximately 3 million students across the U.S. lack access to basic home internet services and other digital devices, which is why some schools are opting to outright cancel classes until the crisis subsides, as the Associated Press reported Monday.

"We want to discourage practices that disproportionately impact certain populations, especially those that are more at risk," Rhett Nelson, director of alternative learning at Washington's education department told AP.