Since the coronavirus first spread from the province of Wuhan, cities in China have been in lockdown sending workplaces online in a bid to keep operations as normal as possible during what has now become a world health crisis.

State newspaper China Daily reported early last month that more than half of workers in Beijing – a city with a population of more than 20 million people – started working from home once business returned after an extended Lunar New Year break.

Time magazine was quick to dub it “the world’s largest work-from-home experiment” as employees began setting up home offices to schedule meetings, answer emails, and collaborate on projects.

No cities or workplaces have yet been locked in Australia where only 30 cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed, but fear of the virus has already caused behavioural changes.

More people are wearing masks in public – even though the bushfire smoke has subsided – and supermarkets are struggling to stay stocked as shoppers rush to buy canned goods and other necessities so they don’t get caught short if the situation escalates.

The federal government has issued travel bans and warnings for regions with high levels of infection such as mainland China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea, and the Reserve Bank will likely cut interest rates again today in response to a coronavirus-triggered stock market tumble last week.

NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard even told people to stop shaking hands after the first case of human-to-human transmission in Australia was reported in Sydney yesterday.

And the South Australian government is pushing through legislative changes allowing health authorities to detain people who are at high risk of infecting others with the virus.

A flexible workplace

If the virus, or fear of catching it, does keep Australian workers at home, then IT departments will need to be flexible in how they manage the changing conditions.

Former ACS President and computer science lecturer, Tom Worthington, said IT professionals have to start preparing back-up plans.

“You need to think about what you will do to support many people who are suddenly teleworking,” Worthington said.

“There are the technical matters of figuring out if you have enough network bandwidth or equipment like microphones and cameras to accommodate people working from home.

“And there are training and procedural issues you need to work out as well. You need to ask yourself questions like, which systems won’t work because the user isn’t connected to the usual network?”

Worthington also suggested that people be aware of the effects teleworking can have on personal wellbeing – especially for the workplace chatterbox.

“For some people, sitting in an empty room talking to a camera can challenge the very essence of who they are,” he said.

“Another toll this virus will take on workplaces is with people wondering if their colleagues are sick or if they are getting sick.

“These are the sorts of things IT professionals need to consider so they can look after themselves and their staff and customers.”

Business continuity

For businesses, keeping the lights on as coronavirus spreads could involve procuring new software.

James Eling from Extreme Networks, an IT services company operating out of the Mornington Peninsula, said there has already been a larger uptake in remote working services.

“Some customers are increasing capacity for working from home, but the biggest threat is from the supply chain,” Eling said.

“We are still weeks away from the earliest time that the supply chain will return to normal.”

Extreme Networks uses Microsoft products like Remote Desktop, Teams, and Skype for their engineers to work remotely – a system initially designed to help them work on-site.

Dr Mark Pedersen, CTO at technology consultancy firm KJR, said IT departments need to be aware of the cybersecurity impact new services can have on a business.

“From a cyber security perspective, we’re working to ensure all clients have the proper measures in place to verify and authenticate employee credentials and login attempts from home,” Pedersen said.

“Application and network assurance is also a priority, as organisations are rushing to ensure applications are stable and function with minimal latency when employees are all logging in from home.”

As organisations prepare for potential workplace disruptions, businesses offering collaborative solutions are sharpening their sales skills.

Remote access company, LogMeIn, is offering free three-month licenses to health care providers, schools, local governments, and not-for-profits.

President and CEO of LogMeIn Bill Wagner said he was “making it a top priority [to help] the critical service providers in our communities who are on the front lines”.

And enterprise cloud business, Nutanix, is offering a 30-day ‘enhanced free trial’ of desktop-as-a-service product, Frame.