Almost overnight, the international coronavirus response has thrust every business into a remote working masterclass – but are you ready for it?

Tech vendors are doing their best to help.

Sensing an opportunity to help with the COVID-19 response – and to show off the versatility of cloud computing – cloud vendors have offered a flood of free software and services to support remote working, online collaboration, and core business functions like HR, payroll and accounts payable.

Videoconferencing services, in particular, have become the de facto method for remote communication between isolated individuals and groups.

Myriad offers allow both face-to-face communication, and value-added platforms with additional features to support work teams communicating from their homes.

Companies without old or no videoconferencing and online collaboration tools can check out free offerings from Express Virtual Meetings, Salesforce, 8x8, Intermedia, Google, Microsoft, Avaya, Cloudflare, and Cisco Systems.

Some offer more full-featured ‘digital workplace’ features like secure document exchange, editing, scheduling and the like – as do free offers from the likes of Igloo Software, Atlassian, Stack Overflow, CafeX, and others.

Cloud-productivity provider Zoho this month launched a remote-working tool called Zoho Remotely and offered an emergency support program providing 3 months’ free access to its more than 45 applications for up to 20,000 existing small-business customers.

“While we want to provide relief for as many small business customers as possible, we will prioritise those who are most in need,” co-founder and CEO Sridhar Vembu said, “and hope that others who are adapting to market conditions will help us by allowing program availability to those struggling to stay afloat.”

Supporting the COVID response

In a climate of increasing home-schooling, some firms were targeting education-related uses, with Zoom offering its app for free to US primary and secondary schools, RingCentral offering its video-collaboration tool to educators, Adobe is offering its tools free to students, and Atlassian giving educators a free one-year subscription to its Trello Business Class collaboration tool.

Other firms were chipping in with free offers on remote-access tools (from the likes of Cato Networks and Pulse Secure) or tools to help companies manage their coronavirus monitoring and response (from Qualtrics, ServiceNow, Appian, Safeture, and others).

Big-data analytics company Tableau is offering access to its curated data to help companies evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on their business, while NVIDIA is providing researchers with free access to Parabricks genome sequencing software.

Some geospatial firms were providing free access to help government agencies fighting the COVID-19 outbreak, with aerial mapping firm Hexagon Geospatial offering free access to its detailed online maps of the United States and Europe.

For the many companies extending customer-support systems to employees’ homes, NICE InContact offers its CXone contact-centre tools free for 45 days.

Still others are targeting COVID-19 responders and researchers, with Slack offering free upgrades for anyone involved in such efforts and LogMeIn providing its GoToMeeting videoconferencing app free to “critical front-line service providers”.

Supporting all these apps requires security, and firms like Ping Identity and Okta, which provide single sign-on (SSO) and multi-factor authentication (MFA) tools to tighten system access, have jumped into the fray with 6 months’ free access in an effort to help organisations jump into remote working.

Infrastructure providers are also getting in on the act, with Facebook offering some government agencies 12 months’ access to its Workplace Advanced service, Nutanix offering free services to regional customers, OnScale offering free cloud hours for engineering customers working from home, and Chinese cloud giants Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu AI all offering cloud services for free.

BYOD all over again

The list goes on and on – and many tech businesses are finding other ways to support people during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Such moves are a reminder that, one way or another, the pandemic will eventually burn out and life will return to a new form of normal – but when that happens, businesses that eagerly adopted free tools will face the task of integrating months’ worth of remote working into their normal IT systems.

IT administrators are still dealing with the issues around bring your own device (BYOD) policies, which saw convenience-driven employees and students storing sensitive company data on ‘shadow IT’ cloud services that are not controlled by the IT department.

Expect the same during the coronavirus lockdown – and plan to be broadsided by employees that cluster around new applications that IT knows nothing about.

Where IT executives have been able to patrol employees’ use of ‘shadow IT’ on the company network, with employees working from home there is no way to see what they’re doing.

The recent Okta Businesses@Work 2020 report, which tracks the growth of apps within the company’s broad customer base, found that the average customer is managing 88 different apps – with 10 percent of customers using more than 200 different apps.

After six months of utilitarian adoption of free cloud trials and offers, it’s likely that employees will have become accustomed to new tools that will push these numbers up even higher – and IT managers may struggle to convince them to stop.

This will also have implications for companies with strong governance and accountability requirements: many law firms, for example, will jump at legal practice management software provider Actionstep’s offer of at least 6 months’ free access to its Express tool for law firms.

Once that offer expires, firms will face very real decisions about what to do with the data in that system: six months of work product can’t just be deleted – in law firms or most other types of companies.

There are no clear answers yet – but it’s important for IT strategists to work with employees to ensure their trials of free offers don’t create data concurrency issues down the track.

The coronavirus pandemic “will force companies to radically rethink how they operate and embrace technological investment,” Stuart Carlaw, chief research officer at research firm ABI Research noted in a recent analysis.

“To effect change, there must be a stimulation of a magnitude that means companies cannot do anything but make bold decisions to survive. COVID-19 is that magnitude.”