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 US$500,000, Rosenberg in 2016 launched the Edge Desk, an adjustable pop-up workspace with cushioned seats that sells for US$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 US, and much of Europe, settles into weeks, if not months, of remote work, capitalism is adapting. Rosenberg said he is not just selling a lot more desks, but he has received interest from dozens of potential overseas distributors in Asia and the Middle East.
Shark Tank, a US reality TV contest for entrepreneurs on ABC, even reached out and asked him to apply to be a contestant, he said. 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,” Rosenberg said, adding that his desk comes assembled and can be collapsed for storage under a bed.
It’s easy to move around, and on many days he works from the backyard of his Deerfield, Illinois, home, he said.
“So many people are demanding that they want to work where they want to work,” he said.
The forced work-from-home shift should not be underestimated, said Kate Lister, who has been analyzing and consulting companies on remote work for more than a decade.
In the US, the evolution of telecommuting has been too slow and elitist, she said. It has often only been a perk for executives and other high-value employees.
The Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 did push firms to expand remote work to cut costs, such as with call centers. 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 percent of US firms offer telecommuting and just 3.6 percent of US workers (about 5 million people) spend at least half their labor hours at home, according to 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 percent 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, and once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s not going back in,” Lister said.
That is precisely the bet Rousseau Kazi is making as cofounder 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.”
The 28-year-old makes a compelling case for why that would 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 is 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. Do not 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, said 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 would be quick and relatively seamless.
Plus, there is research showing that distributed teams are more productive and happier.
Kazi said one of his customers cut e-mail 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 would have to spend more on data protection, Appsian said.
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,” Appsian executive director of security Greg Wendt said.
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, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield said.
Demand for Zoom Video Communications conferencing software has also jumped, with downloads doubling last week, data from Sensor Tower showed.
Research firm Needham said that Zoom is “an exceptional business poised to benefit from the accelerated shift toward work from home,” after initiating coverage with a buy rating on the shares and price target 30 percent above the stock’s most recent close.
The coronavirus “will accelerate the pace of change,” it said.
Meanwhile, back in Deerfield, about 48km north of Chicago, Rosenberg was up at 2am 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.”
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