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The user experience of ‘teleworking’ evolves with the times

March 17, 2020, 4:01 PM UTC

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As the coronavirus goes global, companies that once expected employees to endure punishing commutes and jet around the world are telling workers to stay home.

Big employers from Google to Amazon to Goldman Sachs have announced work-from-home policies; in Japan, where face-to-face meetings are deeply embedded into corporate culture, companies like NTT Group, SoftBank, and MUFG Bank have introduced new policies for “telework.” (So has Fortune.) Meanwhile, cancelled or rescheduled global conferences include the Mobile World Congress, the Adobe Summit, Facebook’s F8, Google Cloud Next, Microsoft’s MVP Summit, IBM’s Think, South by Southwest, and (alas!) Fortune’s Brainstorm Design.

This feels like a lasting shift. Even before the outbreak, concerns about urban sprawl, property costs, work-life balance, and climate change had some employers reexamining whether people really need to occupy the same physical space to work productively, close a sale, or exchange ideas. The good news is that new platforms are transforming remote work and virtual meetings, with many offering free trials of their services during the outbreak. A few standouts: 

Slack (enterprise chat):

Slack’s interface provides co-workers with a freewheeling way to chat, call each other, and swap files. It almost feels like being at the office. The company faces stiff competition from Microsoft Teams, which last fall claimed 20 million users to Slack’s 12 million. In December, Slack said paid customers with more than $1 million in revenue exceeded 50 for the first time, up from 30 a year ago. CEO Stewart Butterfield says about 70 percent of Slack’s top customers also use Office 365—and that most use parts of the Office 365 suite but choose Slack over Teams for messaging. (That’s true for me.)

Zoom (webinars and video conferencing):

Cisco’s Webex, launched in 1995, is the pioneer in corporate video-conferencing. But lately Zoom, launched in 2011 by veteran Webex engineer Eric Yuan, has stolen the limelight. The platform gets rave reviews for design, affordability, stability and video quality. Zoom, which claimed 13 million monthly active users at the end of 2019, added another 2 million in January and February. Among them: my kids, who’ve been using Zoom daily to connect with teachers and classmates since Hong Kong ordered schools to close last month.

Hopin, Run the World (virtual conferences):

London-based Hopin raised $6.5 million in venture funding for a platform the Financial Times calls a combination of “Twitch-style livestreams of keynotes, Zoom-style video conferencing for groups, and one-to-one conversations inspired by Chatroulette.” It allows as many as 100,000 users to participate in an event at once. Founder John Boufarhat promises his 20-person team will scale that to more than 1 million by the end of the year. CNBC reports that before the outbreak, Hopin had a waitlist of about 10,000 sign-ups; in February alone it registered 8,000 more.

Run the World, based in Mountain View, offers video conferencing, ticketing, networking, and other functions for conference organizers in exchange for 25 percent of ticket sales. Founded by former Facebook colleagues Xiaoyin Qu and Xuan Jiang, the venture has raised $4.3 million from investors including Andreessen Horowitz.

Mural, The Wild (digital whiteboards and virtual studios):

Mural, with offices in San Francisco and Buenos Aires, is a cloud-based collaboration platform that allows distributed teams to draw, display, and organize visual elements on a variety of different devices. Lead trainer Mark Tippin calls it a digital whiteboard that helps users see each other as well as their ideas. The company has about 4,000 corporate customers worldwide, including design heavyweights IBM, SAP, and Steelcase. CEO Mariano Suarez-Battan says Mural has received thousands of new user requests per day since the outbreak.

And then there’s The Wild, whose technology lives up to its name. The software allows architects and designers to don headsets and wireless handheld prompts to collaborate on projects using virtual and augmented reality. 

Designers and design thinkers, who have always been at the vanguard of the remote work revolution, will play a leading role in taking this trend mainstream. How are these new technologies changing your working hours? And how can we use them to extend the reach of Fortune events in this new reality? Send your insights and suggestions my way.

More design news below.

Clay Chandler


This edition of Business By Design was curated by Margaret Rhodes.

DES04.20.animated for BxD
A sampling of the 100 best-ever designs, according to Fortune's new survey.
Icons by MartÍn Laksman; Animation by Nicole Vergalla

New icons. Sixty years ago, Fortune surveyed designers and experts to compile a list of the 100 best-designed products of the era. This month, Fortune recreated the survey and updated the list, adding digital products and new services to the 100 best designs.

The show must go on. As the coronavirus outbreak forces museums and concert halls around the world to close, some institutions are keeping audiences entertained through streaming. The Metropolitan Opera will broadcast nightly operas on its website—for free.

Racism at FIT. The Fashion Institute of Technology is under fire for allowing racist attitudes to flourish on its campus. In a February fashion show, a student dressed models in oversized lips and “monkey” ears; African-American students reported being told their hair was “unprofessional” and not in line with European standards.   

A gift from Louis Vuitton. Luxury conglomerate LVMH will use three of its perfume and cosmetics factories—typically meant for producing Dior and Givenchy products—to make hand sanitizer gel, at no cost, for French hospitals.

Conducting good ideas. Healthcare professionals say that designing hospitals with more copper parts could help stem the spread of bacteria and viruses. Copper ions kill bugs within minutes, making the material optimum for door knobs, beds, and IV stands.


March 19: John Maeda will release his Design in Tech report. Visit Maeda’s YouTube channel to watch.

March 20: Art Basel will broadcast digital viewings of galleries from the now-cancelled Hong Kong fair.

April 1: Deadline to enter the Core77 Design Awards.

April 17: Deadline to enter Fast Company’s 2020 Innovation by Design Awards.


The Internet is awash in tips and survival guides for working from home during the coronavirus outbreak. Getting properly dressed and taking short walks will help, but they say nothing of syncing up with colleagues. For that, IDEO has a few recommendations for turning the constraints of at-home work into interesting new models for remote collaboration. To keep teams engaged, try these four IDEO-approved tactics:

  • Send coworkers a “virtual meeting survival kit,” with personal whiteboards or locking pouches for phones, to ensure people stay physically dialed in to meetings.
  • Design rituals around how teams use digital meeting tools, such as meditation or coffee breaks over video.
  • When doing remote user research, use the chance to engage local networks and on-the-ground sources in different regions.
  • Take the opportunity to learn something new. Or teach. Organizations can take what they’re saving in travel expenses and invest it in L&D.


The power of one chart

Along with “social distancing,” the coronavirus has introduced the phrase “flatten the curve” into our lives. A rallying cry in the form of an infographic, “flattening the curve” means taking preventative health measures in order to slow the number of new COVID-19 cases so they don’t balloon past what our healthcare system can handle. Fast Company reports that a 2007 CDC report published the initial concept before an Economist journalist reinterpreted it for the coronavirus era as a cartoon and a (more serious) data visualization.

So far, the graphic is proving to be a powerful tool during a confusing time. Coronavirus misinformation is spreading alongside the actual virus, so it seems like a good omen that #FlattenTheCurve is not only trending, but resonating. The graphic also forms the bedrock for other forms of communication: In a special report, The Washington Post used the visual to simulate how different models of behavior affect the spread of infection, illustrating each outcome with a different curve. “Watch this,” tweeted former president Barack Obama. “It shows why we should all do the right thing and stay home to the fullest extent possible.” 

As a designer, I find it interesting (but not surprising) that my own pandemic ‘ah-hah’ moments have been driven by data visualizations,” tweeted design and product consultant Kim Goodwin. “Well-presented data can change minds and change behaviors. Data visualization is a critical public health and communication skill.” For those confused about how to behave during a pandemic, just look to the chart.


Annals of modern consumerism

“As with many aesthetically pleasing food trends that have thrived in the era of constant internet access, the value of a deluxe cupcake isn’t necessarily in its physical consumption. Instead, it’s more like an edible Gucci logo belt, or a sprinkle-topped boutique hotel with a beautifully decorated lobby bar and painfully cramped showers. These goods are the least expensive way to gain temporary entry to a particular consumer class—for example, Gucci belts cost $450, while one of the brand’s bags could easily set you back $3,500. The brand’s belts are not any better at belting than many far less expensive options, but they provide a conduit for a person of middling means to transport herself into the lavish life she wants, if only within the highly edited confines of a carefully staged Instagram photo.”

Atlantic writer Amanda Mull, writing about the rising category of taste-signaling “premiocre” consumer goods and experiences