Businesses are cashing in on the surge of remote workers
A few years ago, Marc Rosenberg was trying to figure out what to do with his life after a career marketing toys for the likes of Hasbro. He fancied himself an inventor, but of what?
Rosenberg discovered just what when he stepped into his daughter’s college dorm and saw her roommates on their beds, typing away on laptops. They barely used their desks because they said they were uncomfortable. An idea was born, and after crowdfunding about $500,000, Rosenberg in 2016 launched the Edge Desk, an adjustable pop-up workspace with cushioned seats that now sells for $400.
Almost overnight, the pandemic has created a booming work-from-home economy, and Rosenberg’s business jumped eight-fold in the past few weeks.
“It's been crazy,” said Rosenberg, who has just one full-time employee besides himself. “We’re managing the best we can.”
As the U.S., and much of Europe, settles into weeks, if not months, of remote work, capitalism is adapting. Rosenberg said he’s not just selling a lot more desks, but he’s received interest from dozens of potential overseas distributors in Asia and the Middle East. ABC’s “Shark Tank,” a reality-TV contest for entrepreneurs, even reached out, he said, and asked him to apply to be a contestant. The 55-year-old is passing because he wants to focus on his next goal: building a sales team.
“This is going to be a seismic shift,” said Rosenberg, who was quick to point out that his desk comes assembled and can be collapsed for storage under a bed. It’s easy to move around, he continued, and on many days he works from the backyard of his Deerfield, Illinois, home. “So many people are demanding that they want to work where they want to work.”
According to Kate Lister, who has been analyzing and consulting companies on remote work for more than a decade, the current, forced work-from-home shift shouldn’t be underestimated. In the U.S., the evolution of telecommuting has been too slow and elitist, she says. It’s often only been a perk for executives and other high-value employees. The Great Recession did push firms to expand remote work to cut costs (think call centers). And over the past few years, more firms have rolled it out to recruit and retain talent in one of the tightest job markets on record, although unemployment is about to swell.
Even with those incentives, only 7% of U.S. firms offer telecommuting and just 3.6% of American workers (5 million employees) spend at least half their labor hours at home, according to recent government data analyzed by Global Workplace Analytics, the consultancy Lister founded and runs. The growth of remote work has been plodding along at about 10% a year — until now when tens of millions of Americans are thrust into setting up home offices on the fly.
“This is the perfect storm,” Lister said. “And once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s not going back in.”
That’s precisely the bet Rousseau Kazi is making as co-founder and chief executive officer of Threads, a collaboration tool that employs topic forums like those found on Reddit to speed project work for remote workforces.
The Facebook veteran reckons that the pandemic has sped up the move home by as much as a decade. Threads, founded about three years ago and counting Silicon Valley stalwart Sequoia Capital as an investor, had been adding users slowly, but as its waitlist ballooned and demand surged, it decided to scrap a broader launch later this year and instead this week offered up a version to anyone for free through July 1.
“We decided we needed to help this,” said Kazi, who managed teams at Facebook working on projects ranging from mobile applications to search functions. “Our bet is the world is going to become more distributed.”
And the 28-year-old makes a compelling case for why that will happen. Shocks to the system like the virus often cause society to leapfrog. The sharing economy, spearheaded by the likes of Uber and Airbnb, was just getting started when the financial crisis hit. A few years later, society’s view about vacationing in a stranger’s home dramatically shifted. It’s now seen to many as a cheaper—and more fun—way to travel.
“This has taken a trend that’s already happening, just like the sharing economy, and bent the curve,” Kazi said.
What was once just the domain of tech firms is likely to become one of the next in-demand skill sets. Don’t be surprised if “distributed management”— a way to work together through online collaboration—starts popping up on many more LinkedIn bios. Expect an increasing number of companies to describe themselves as “fully distributed,” meaning everyone works remotely most of the time.
Global demand for collaboration tools will increase “exponentially” because of the outbreak, according to Wayne Kurtzman, research director for social, community and collaboration at research firm IDC. A big reason is that so many workers already use similar tools in their personal lives, so once they get the corporate version of video chat, instant messaging or forums, adoption will be quick and relatively seamless. Plus, there’s research showing that distributed teams are more productive, and happier. Kazi said one of his customers cut email traffic in half.
“A lot of the friction and time wasted is gone,” said Kurtzman, who has been involved in collaboration software for more than two decades. “That’s what a lot of companies will start learning.”
To make sure the information being shared remotely is safe, companies will have to spend more on data protection, according to Appsian. The cybersecurity firm expects hackers to be readying attacks because of the increased vulnerabilities created by so many more remote workers.
“Without a doubt, there are a lot of really happy bad guys,” said Greg Wendt, Appsian’s executive director of security.
Slack Technologies, which offers a web-based chat platform, has seen a surge of interest and a massive outpouring of questions from new and existing users, said CEO Stewart Butterfield. Demand for Zoom Video Communications conferencing software has also jumped, with downloads doubling last week, according to data from Sensor Tower.
Research firm Needham said this week said Zoom is “an exceptional business poised to benefit from the accelerated shift towards work from home,” after initiating coverage with a buy rating on the shares and price target 30% above the stock’s most recent close. Coronavirus "will accelerate the pace of change.”
Meanwhile, back in Deerfield, about 30 miles north of Chicago, Rosenberg was up at 2 a.m. talking to his manufacturing partner in Vietnam. His mind is racing with ideas for where to expand next and new products, like a paintbrush holder that artists can clip onto the desk.
“We are prepared to grow exponentially,” Rosenberg said. “We’re really just getting started.”