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Your deep dive into Southeast Asian tech
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Hi readers, it’s Katrina again.
Have you ever played in an escape room? I’ve never done so because I’m afraid it would get claustrophobic.
But a few months ago, I heard of a company that’s building virtual escape rooms for remote teams. Now that sounds less daunting.
The company, US-based Puzzle Break, makes escape rooms for corporate team building. It had to close all its locations and lay off most of its staff when Covid-19 hit. Then it decided to pivot to digital games. It has since hired back the staff and more, and now serves companies around the world—some with as many as 20,000 players joining remotely.
Theirs isn’t the only story of a company improvising and adapting to survive the immediate effects of the pandemic—community quarantines, limited consumer movement, and remote work.
Companies that have never served or prioritized remote teams are now doing so, while others, like Puzzle Break, are only just discovering the remote workforce market.
Let’s learn more.
- Gradually, then all of a sudden
- Virtual coworking, anyone?
- Wellness for remote employees
- Remote hiring and employment
- Meet the elephants in the room
Gradually, then all of a sudden
If you follow blogs devoted to remote work, you’ll know that last year, many pundits were predicting that the 2020s would herald the remote-work revolution. But they were talking about a decade.
We all know what came next—in less than half a year, Covid-19 forced a global shift to remote work, whether or not companies were ready or eager to adopt it. Tech giants like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and LinkedIn have since extended their remote-work policies until at least mid-2021.
As one venture capitalist put it, the shift to remote work happened “gradually, then all of a sudden”.
For example, here’s a chart showing interest in remote working and related search terms globally from February to June:
Interest surged in March and has recently started to wane, though not back to pre-pandemic levels.
As a result, 2020 has been a record year for the likes of Zoom, which was installed over 300 million times in Q2 2020 alone. Its revenue of US$663.5 million during that quarter was a 355% year-on-year increase. Microsoft Teams now has more than 115 million daily active users, up from 75 million in April and 44 million in March.
Aside from cloud-based tools that have been enabling remote communication and collaboration way before the pandemic struck, there are newer apps that target recruiters and managers for remote teams. Other tools aim to cultivate employee engagement and well-being in a physically disconnected world.
Here’s a map of more than 45 categories that serve the remote industry, created by Elaine Zelby, principal and director of growth at Venture-capital firm SignalFire:
The infographic isn’t exhaustive, of course. Note that it focuses on startups, so it doesn’t include tools like Microsoft 365.
In this edition of Deeper, we won’t be covering all the categories of companies serving this market. Instead, let’s dig into the novel ideas and new trends.
Virtual coworking, anyone?
Coworking spaces—like most public and commercial spaces—have suffered from the decrease in footfall during this pandemic. As a remote worker and regular user of these spaces, I felt the loss of a “third space” to escape to, as well as a place where I could see other people also working remotely and thus not feel so much like an outlier in a world where pants-in-office-seats was the norm.
Then in May, I heard of an alternative: virtual coworking.
I haven’t tried it yet—not for lack of interest, but simply because I couldn’t exert excess mental energy to figure out how to adopt yet another Covid-induced change of routine.
Remote-How, one of the first companies I’ve heard to offer virtual coworking, says it’s a great way to access “a more global pool of people to interact with”. The company also argues that small companies have overtaken many coworking spaces, making them feel like extensions of offices and losing the focus on individuality and networking. (And they’re not wrong!)
By vetting applications for membership, Remote-How makes sure the community is made up of remote professionals keen on getting and giving support through an online community. It promises “facilitated deep work sessions, guest lectures, wellbeing, and workout sessions, and even more”.
More coworking spaces are offering global virtual coworking communities, and competing based on the perks they offer and their ability to nurture an online community. Emberfuel, for example, uses the Donut integration on Slack to pair people randomly for virtual coffee, allowing them to get to know each other.
It also offers Swivel, a voice chat tool that mimics the acoustics of shared spaces. So while chatting with your teammates, you can hear muted conversations in the background, and hopefully feel less isolated.
Meanwhile, physical coworking spaces are seeing more interest from an unlikely market: enterprises. With social distancing measures and, in some cities, limited public transportation due to Covid-19, enterprises are looking to spread out small teams across different locations instead of gathering them all in one office.
In Singapore, for example, large firms like L’Oreal and Riot Games have found temporary homes for their teams in coworking spaces. WeWork Singapore has seen a 17% increase in enterprise customers compared to last year. And the future looks promising for coworking spaces—almost 5 million people are expected to work from shared spaces by 2024.
Wellness for remote employees
In a global survey, remote managers identified “defining and cultivating a unique team culture remotely” as the most difficult among all their responsibilities.
Puzzle Break CEO Nate Martin also observed: “While a lot of companies had the tools and technology to make remote work a success, they were left scrambling when it came to building culture and community among a virtual workforce. With people experiencing Zoom fatigue and having their work lives bleed into their personal lives, Zoom happy hours just weren’t cutting it.”
Meanwhile, loneliness and isolation are commonly reported struggles among remote individuals.
It’s gotten worse, with 78% of employees reporting the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health, according to a global Oracle study. A different study by Qualtrics found that employees who have just been thrust into remote work are 30% more likely to suffer a decline in mental health.
Yet another study found that the pandemic has increased feelings of burnout at work for nearly a third of remote workers in Asia Pacific. The top two reasons cited were a lack of separation between work and life, and a feeling of disconnection from co-workers.
Together, these issues help explain the rise of culture-building apps and wellness programs targeting remote teams.
Sabah-based Asia Ability has adapted its team-building programs to the virtual world. It has provided virtual team-building services for teams ranging from eight to 180, with sessions lasting from 30 minutes to three hours. Asia Ability believes hybrid sessions will become more popular in the future, where some group members convene physically while the rest join in from remote locations.
In Singapore, there’s Jambar Virtual, which uses Zoom or Microsoft Teams to run team-building sessions for groups of up to 200 people. The company claims to have run over 200 virtual events in the past six months.
But here’s the thing: according to app intelligence firm Apptopia, the use of mental wellness apps hasn’t really spiked during Covid-19. While popular apps like Calm and Headspace saw more engagement, the increase is in line with trends in recent years. There hasn’t been a surge in use.
HRTech founder Sriram Iyer believes this is partly due to a lack of adoption by enterprises. “Only enterprise adoption can drive volumes in a segment like mental wellness,” he writes.
And this makes sense—as burnout is largely a work-related issue, companies need to play a bigger role in helping employees cope.
That’s the premise behind Joye.ai, a mental fitness app launched in Singapore this year. Joye aims to “shape workplace culture in the new normal”. It allows users to speak into the app, and uses AI-powered “contextual nudges” to help improve the person’s mental wellbeing.
Joye was made specifically for employees’ and companies’ use. The app offers anonymized sentiment analytics to HR managers based on employees’ input. It can be integrated with employee engagement platforms, such as video conferencing tools and rewards and recognition apps.
In the Philippines, startup Arooga Health teams up with companies to match employees with appropriate therapists and mental healthcare providers through its online platform. Intellect, another Singapore-based app launched amid the pandemic, provides self-guided exercises based on cognitive behavioral therapy to individual users, startups, and corporations.
Remote hiring and employment
Some companies began offering remote hiring services just in time for the outbreak.
Workona founder Tomas O’Farrell moved his startup from Argentina to Malaysia last year. Now, it’s helping companies hire remote gig workers across Southeast Asia. Its pool of freelancers also grew from 100,000 in March to more than 150,000 in September.
Last year, Singapore-based recruitment platform Glints decided to make a “major push” into remote and cross-border hiring. A section of its platform is now dedicated to remote jobs.
But finding talent isn’t the only hurdle in building remote teams. Companies, especially enterprises, also need to learn about employment laws and taxes in different countries.
UK-based Omnipresent is trying to tackle this problem through a combination of an automation-enabled platform and a global network of legal entities. It promises to simplify the complexities of international employment for companies and assure them that their practices are legally compliant with every jurisdiction where they hire.
Meet the elephants in the room
As a fully remote company, we at With Content are happy to see more companies embracing remote work. Still, we know it’s a difficult transition, so we run an interview series to learn how people make it work.
But we can’t end this edition of Deeper without acknowledging the elephants in the room. While there’s no space to delve deeper into them here, it’s not healthy to ignore them, either.
Remote work is often hailed as an equalizer because it gives people a shot at jobs regardless of where they live. But that’s a utopian view.
Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom argues that some factors are making remote work a “time bomb for inequality”. These red flags are:
- The fact that not everyone can work from home at an efficiency rate of 80% and higher
- Around half of the workforce not being able to work remotely due to the nature of their jobs (e.g, healthcare, retail, transport)
- The lack of sufficient equipment, facilities, and internet connectivity to work effectively from home.
He adds that “educated, higher-earning employees are far more likely to work from home”.
While he’s talking about America, the same picture is true for much of Southeast Asia, where Internet speeds are dismal and dicey in many rural areas—not to mention expensive.
Teachers in poor farming communities in Indonesia, for example, have been forced to visit students in person to teach them amid the pandemic due to the lack of an Internet connection. While this allows them to continue doing their work, they do so at great risk.
Bloom also argues that the spread of remote work could erode city centers, as fewer people will commute to work and spend time outside their homes.
But at the same time, suburban and rural areas will thrive as people can choose to live in more affordable and laid-back areas. Office density will also decrease, leading to a preference for low-rise buildings rather than skyscrapers.
Companies also need to think more seriously about how they can improve cybersecurity and data privacy as more employees work remotely. This means educating employees on things like detecting phishing scams, as well as implementing access controls, using private networks, and more.
These are serious issues to think about (and maybe discuss in another edition of Deeper). While tech companies can help solve some of these problems, economic and governance policies need to be put in place to truly resolve these systemic problems.
Meanwhile, we’re glad to live in a connected, agile world where startups can quickly pivot in a crisis to serve the emerging needs of workers. We hope to see more solutions that support remote teams in the near future.
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