【想看中文的读者请点击这里

This post discusses two of the long-term impacts and behavioral changes that I think will emerge from the coronavirus (hereto called “COVID-19”, its proper scientific term): remote work, remote consumption.

Disclaimer: what you will read is generally a positive piece. This is not in any way meant to diminish the human suffering, public health challenges, economic damages, and further straining of U.S.-China relations and China-World relations that COVID-19 has caused.

However, this crisis will pass; all crises do. What emerges from the rubbles of a crisis can be surprisingly positive and accelerate movement towards something new. That “something” could very well be: remote work and remote consumption.

Towards Remote Work

When roughly 700 million people (2-times the population of the United States, 10% of the entire human race) have been quarantined at home for weeks, folks get creative about ways to get work done and live their lives.

Remote work as a concept -- where a company or organization has no physical headquarters, work is done virtually online, and the workforce can live anywhere they choose to -- is relatively new. It’s less new in certain corners of the software industry, where remote online collaboration and coordination is the norm, not the exception. The concept has become fashionable recently with the rapid growth of pure remote tech startups like GitLab, the poster child of remote work culture which currently has north of 1,000 employees. As a steward of the remote work culture, GitLab publishes a detailed handbook that documents how it operates with employees in literally every corner of the world.

COVID-19, just like any other large scale crisis, can be a forcing function to produce fundamental behavior changes in people, companies, and culture. According to the independent research firm, China Beige Book, roughly one-third of the 1,000 businesses in China it has surveyed are operating remotely during the lockdown. So far, remote work has been applied in two broad ways: staying productive and crisis coordination.

Staying Productive

Relatively speaking, the sector that had the easiest time staying productive is the pure software industry -- as in companies whose core product delivered to its customers is software. I do not count software-enabled physical services in this category, for example: ride-sharing, food-delivery, because what they deliver are ultimately physical services that are simply made more convenient by a layer of technology.

This is not a coincidence. Software development, especially when done in an open source way, has had a long history of remote collaboration -- Linux, the now-dominant operating system that powers almost all cloud platforms, was created in 1991 and continues to be developed by engineers collaborating from around the world. Thus, if you are a pure software company, even if you’ve always had physical headquarters and offices, the routine workflow of software development -- bashing bugs, merging code, starting a new feature branch, reviewing code, testing -- can be done from anywhere with a secure Internet connection.

This same characteristic is true for software companies in China. Despite what stereotypes people may assign to Chinese software engineers, many have been deeply connected to the global technology movement for quite some time. They live “outside the wall” so to speak, learn from open source development best practices to do their jobs, and have recently been more vocal about sharing their own thoughts and projects as China’s technology sector takes off.

This is evident from seeing some of the younger, more forward-thinking software startups in China already publishing their own remote work methodologies and experiences (in Chinese) during this COVID-19 crisis, to help other companies less familiar with this way of working cope and stay productive. They share not only workplace processes (how to conduct remote meetings, how to record and share notes, how to follow up on items and tasks, etc.), but the software tools they purchase to boost coordination and productivity for a virtual team, which connects directly to the potential increase in remote consumption (more below).

What may come out of a coping mechanism to weather the storm is mainstream adoption of elements of remote work and collaboration.

Crisis Coordination

The COVID-19 crisis has also generated some interesting examples of building remote organizations from the ground up. The best example is probably wuhan2020, a website built by volunteer developers inside China and in other countries to aggregate and organize relevant information to support the treatment and relief efforts of COVID-19. The information collected and constantly updated is wide-ranging: from what medical supplies are lacking at which hospitals, to procurement and supply chain needs, to a dashboard of the virus’s spread with live updates.

wuhan2020 dashboard screenshot

The entire web application is developed as an open source project, hosted on GitHub, with a Google Group for announcements and Slack channel for real-time coordination and assignment, which has more than 3,700 members at the time of this writing. The documentation and processes for collaborating are written in six different languages: simplified Chinese, traditional Chinese, English, Japanese, Italian, and Portuguese. A developer in Hangzhou appears to have started the project. The top 10 contributors appear to come from various cities in China and the U.S. (many GitHub accounts do not list their locations), so it’s highly unlikely that anyone has met in-person to work on this project.

While this is a response to a crisis, the wuhan2020 project is an interesting case study with lasting knowledge and inspiration for entrepreneurs everywhere, not just the ones in China. It’s entirely possible to build a service of impact and scale from scratch, with no offices, no desks, and no in-person interactions.

Looking forward, I suspect the adoption of remote work will first take hold in mid-sized pure software startups and some large tech companies, like Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, Bytedance, who all have the DNA of being a remote first workplace, because their products are primarily digital and their development model is increasingly open source. Many brand new companies in the tech sector will embrace remote work from day 0.

Over time, other more tech-savvy traditional services industries, like banks, insurance, and accounting, will follow, because most financial services can be built and delivered in some form of software. I intentionally left out companies like Huawei, Xiaomi, Didi Chuxing, and Meituan-Dianping. Though they belong in the same breath as other large tech companies in terms of size and influence, I believe because their products are physical goods or their services are physical in nature, they may have a harder time embracing remote work processes at scale.

Towards Remote Consumption

The flip side of the proverbial remote-work-coin is remote consumption, specifically of software services by companies. Remote consumption on the consumer level in China is already quite deep: shopping for groceries, hailing rides, ordering food, e-commerce from livestreams and short videos, are all more commonplace behaviors spanning across age groups rather than novelties reserved for the young early adopters. Payments are increasingly all handled digitally.

However, consumption of cloud-based IT services, or software-as-a-service (SaaS), is still low -- less than 5% low -- when you account for the entire universe of businesses in China that could be buyers of these software services. While delivering and remotely consuming business software -- input payment information, get the software, start using it, get support via email, chat or private remote login -- is mainstream in the U.S., the same type of behavior is by no means common in China. The Chinese enterprise market still demands a lot of human time investment, either in the form of technical services or customer relationship support (which is often a form of power-play between client and vendor that has nothing to do with the service itself).

This is a big source of frustration for Chinese enterprise software companies. Their customer acquisition and maintenance cost is higher than their American counterparts’, while the corresponding IT spending amount by their customers are much lower than their American counterparts, due to cheaper (though growing) labor cost. This situation makes reaching the benchmark gross profit margin of 60-80% for SaaS companies almost impossible.

However, if more remote work takes hold, companies will have more demand for software tools that can virtually stitch their team together. The upticks are already occurring. All the major workplace software products in China: Alibaba’s DingTalk, Tencent’s WeChat Work, Huawei’s Welink, and Bytedance’s Lark, have reported spike in usage. DingTalk in particular has been used as a platform to bring classrooms online to keep school going, while children are forced to stay home. It has been an effective tool -- so effective the children have taken to the app store to down vote the app, where its rating dropped from 4.9 to 1.3 (in Chinese).

To be clear, these services are all provided free by deep-pocketed giants with the money to do so, partially as good public service to support people who are stuck at home during a crisis, but no less self-interested as a way to grow their user base and market share to monetize when the crisis subsides.

Some in the capital market are betting on this opportunity too. Both big time venture capitalists, like Fred Wilson, and Wall Street's its treatment of Zoom's stock price, a videoconferencing company (which is also offering its service for free in China during the COVID-19 crisis), suggest that investors are betting on a future of more virtual meetings.

The multi-billion dollar question is whether remote work, beyond just videoconferencing, will become a fundamental behavior shift and remote consumption of software services will become more mainstream for Chinese businesses seeking productivity and efficiency gains.

Given the advantages of remote work, much of it I’ve experienced personally, I think it will. Many Chinese knowledge workers have already been accidentally “forced” to taste the benefits of remote work due to COVID-19. This shift won’t be overnight. It won’t be 100%. But it will be an order of magnitude bigger than what it is today.

For a detailed analysis of the advantages of remote work and its roots in open source software development, please read my deep dive post on this topic.

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Chinese Version Below

冠状病毒,远程办公,远程消费

在此篇文章里,我想设想一下在冠状病毒,COVID-19,疫情被控制,大家生活回复正常后,有可能会产生的两个长期影响和变化:远程办公,远程软件服务消费。

需要声明一下:这篇文章总体态度比较正面。我不想让这种“正面”使读者误解我对整个COVID-19的态度。这次冠状病毒疫情给千千万万的人带来的痛苦、公共卫生体制的挑战、经济的损失,以及中美关系和中国与世界关系的进一步紧张都是值得继续关注,思考和反省的。

然而,这场危机早晚过去,所有的危机都会过去。从危机的废墟中浮现出来的新东西往往出人意料,会加速新生事物的发展。这种“东西”很可能是更多的远程办公和远程软件服务消费。

走向远程办公

当大约7亿中国人民(美国总人口的2倍,全人类的10%)在家里被隔离数周后,大家对怎样继续完成工作,继续生活是很有创意的。

远程办公这个概念相对比较新颖。没有实体总部和办公室,所有工作在网上完成,员工可以住在任何地方 -- 听起来还是有点想写科幻小说。而在软件行业的某些角落,远程在线协作工作其实是一种常态,并不是什么新鲜事儿。随着像GitLab这样的纯远程办公的科技公司的迅速发展,这个概念最近变得很时髦。GitLab是远程办公文化的典范,目前已有超过1000名员工。作为远程办公文化的”布道师“,GitLab的官网还出版了一本手册(英文),详细记录了它如何管理和协调遍布在世界每个角落的员工。

与其他大规模危机一样,COVID-19有可能是一种促使人们、公司和社会废除久习惯,接受新习惯的力量。一家叫“中国黄皮书“(China Beige Book)的独立研究所调查了1000家国内企业,数据显示,约三分之一正在用远程办公来维持公司运作。目前为止,远程办公的用点体现在两个方面:保持生产力和危机协调。

保持生产力

在COVID-19这个波浪中,最容易保持生产效率的行业是纯软件行业。这里的“纯软件行业”是指最终交付给客户的产品是纯数字化的那种公司。 因此,我不把像共享乘车、快递等以线下服务为主的科技公司算成“纯软件行业”。

这不是个巧合。软件开发,尤其是以开源方法论进行的软件开发,有着悠久的远程协作历:Linux,也就是全世界占主导地位的操作系统,所有共有云平台的核心操作系统,创建于1991年。从那以后,整个Linux项目一直在以创始人Linus Torvald的主导下和全世界各地的工程师们的远程协作开发而逐渐壮大起来。因此,如果你是一家纯粹的软件公司,即使你一直有实体总部和办公室,软件开发的常规工作流程,比如修bug、合并新代码、创建新分支、审查代码、测试等,都可以在任何以个可以安全上网的地方完成。

国内软件公司也不例外。尽管西方人有时可能对国内的软件工程师有成见,但许多程序员已经长期在吸收国际科技潮流的走向。可以说,他们一直生活在“墙外”,学习开源开发的方法论和精髓来提高自己的工作效率。最近随着国内科技行业的腾飞,他们开始更愿意也更自信的分享自己的想法和项目。

一些较年轻的国内软件创业公司,在此次COVID-19危机期间已经开始分享自己的远程办公方法和实践,以帮助其他不太熟悉这种工作方式的公司能保持工作效率。他们不仅分享了关于工作流程经验 (比如何进行远程会议、如何记录和共享笔记、如何跟进项目和任务等),同时也介绍了它们常用的软件工具,以提高远程团队的协调性和生产力,这与远程软件服务消费的未来增长紧密相连。

应对这场“病毒风暴”的临时机制很可能会让远程办公和远程协作更主流。

危机协调

这次COVID-19危机也产生了一些从零开始的远程组织的例子。最好的典范应该是wuhan2020。这是一个由国内和国外的志愿者们联手开发的网站,旨在收集支持COVID-19治疗和救援工作的相关信息,比如:哪些医院缺少什么医疗用品,采购和供应链需要,实时更新的病毒传播仪表盘。

wuhan2020仪表板截图

整个网站都是一个开源项目,托管在GitHub上,有一个Google Groups的邮件群发组和一个Slack 频道进行实时协调和工作分配,在本文发表的时候,频道里已经有3700多个成员。协作的文档及流程已用六种不同的语言编写:简体中文、繁体中文、英语、日语、意大利语和葡萄牙语。这个项目看似是由一个住在杭州的工程师起头的,前十名贡献者(contributors)都来自于中国和美国不同城市(不是所有的GitHub账户都写地理位置),所以这个团队有过当面合作的可能性极小。

虽然这个项目是对一个特殊危机的紧急回应,但wuhan2020的故事是一个以远程办公为基础,从零开始,而迅速打造的一个有规模,有影响力的服务的的案例,对中国及世界各地的企业家和创业者都有值得学习效仿的地方。

展望未来,我觉得远程办公最有可能先在一些国内中性的纯软件企业及个别巨头里(如阿里巴巴、腾讯、百度、字节跳动)现扎根。原因是这些公司都有远办公的DNA。他们的主打产品都是软件产品,他们的开发模式越来越开放。一些全新的科技创业公司也很有可以从第一天就采用远程办公。

随着时间的推移,其他传统服务行业,如银行、保险和会计事务所,也将紧跟其后,因为大多数金融服务都可以变成软件,完全数字化。我有意没有题到华为、小米、滴滴出行和美团点评等公司。尽管他们在规模和影响力上与其他科技巨头不相上下,但以我个人看法,因为他们的产品是实物的或者他们的服务是线下的,远程办公的流程在这种公司扎根扩大的过程要漫长很多。

走向远程消费

远程办公反面既是远程消费。需要澄清的是:我这里提到的是远程采购软件服务的那种远程消费。在日常消费者层面,国内的远程消费习惯已经超越欧美市场。线上购买日用品、搭车、点餐外卖、从直播和段视屏购物,这些都是日常常见行为,不新奇了。绝大部分的支付也都是全数字化。

然而,基于云计算为基础的IT服务(或软件服务,SaaS)的运用量仍然很低——还不到所有可能购买软件服务的企业的5%。

在美国,远程运用企业软件服务并付费,交付及接受客服的购买习惯已经比较成熟。在中国并非如此。国内企业服务市场仍然需要大量的人力资源投入,无论是售前还是售后,无论是技术服务还是和客户搞好关系(这里的投入经常与客户和供应商之间的地位高低不同有关,与产品本身无关)。

这个现象给国内企业软件公司带来的很多苦恼和阻力。他们获取客户和维护账户的成本高于美国同行,而国内客户的IT支出要比美国企业低得多,和劳动成本低有关(尽管在增长)。这种情况使得国内SaaS公司几乎不可能达到60-80%毛利率坐标。

如果未来有更多公司以远程办公为主,企业们对软件服务及工具就有更多的需求去建立和协调远程团队。这个趋势已有苗头。近期国内所有大场的企业办公产品:阿里的钉钉、腾讯的企业微信、华为的Welink和字节跳动的Lark都说有突然的大幅度的用户增长(英文链接)。尤其是钉钉已被用为直播在线教育的平台,帮助锁在家里的孩子们做到“停课不停学”。因为效果过好,也受到了小朋友们的“好评”,导致APP的评分从4.9狂跌到1.3

明确地说,产品目前都是这些财大气粗的巨头们免费提供的,一部分是为了支持因为COVID-19疫情而困在家里的人们,但我相信也有私心,想扩大用户群,以后在疫情结束后再变成付费用户。

部份资本市场也看准了这个机会。无论是从像Fred Wilson这样的大牌风险投资家,还是华尔街对Zoom股价大力支撑(Zoom是一家视频会议公司,在COVID-19危机期间也在中国免费提供服务),都证明投资行业在押注未来会有更多的电话视频会议。

这里的核心问题,也是一个值数十亿美金的问题,就是远程办公(不仅仅是视频会议)是否会主流化,采购远程软件服务的消费是否也会变成中国企业寻求提升生产率和整体效率的一个主流方式。

我认为会的。远程办公的优势,我个人经历过很多。这次为了适应疫情给大家带来的各种困难,也有更多的人被迫尝到了远程办公的甜头。这个转型不会是一夜之间,也不会是100%。但绝对会比今天多10x。

对远程办公的优势劣势分析及它和开源软件开发模式的关联有兴趣的朋友,请看我对这个主题的深入分析

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