Online communication tools are being repurposed during the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 is sweeping the globe. Social distancing and isolation have largely made face-to-face meetings impossible. After the extended Chinese New Year holiday in February, many Chinese companies implemented remote working policies, and meetings requiring only audio functions are being conducted on chat apps. Most conferences, however, require audio, video, and file sharing functions which most chat apps do not provide. 

I work on a project that requires communication across offices in different countries and with external partners. Skype for Business, an app with which everyone is familiar, was the first tool we used. Skype was acquired by Microsoft in 2011 and connects to both Microsoft Outlook and Calendar, and such interoperability is its biggest advantage. Before the COVID-19 crisis, we joined Skype meetings via our company’s super-fast network without too much trouble. When the coronavirus spread in China, however, part of the team encountered connectivity issues while working from home. We decided to switch to other, more stable tools. 

The IT team soon introduced Microsoft Teams, which was launched in 2017. Microsoft will be phasing out Skype and replacing it with Teams by July 31, 2021, making the latter the app of the future. Like Skype, Teams can easily connect to Microsoft Office tools and provides more reliable service than Skype. However, Skype and Teams share the disadvantage that users can only join meetings using their software or app. While software connections can be shaky, audio dial-ins provide uninterrupted communication. Unfortunately, Skype and Teams meeting hosts have to set up a separate dial-in conference call number to ensure smooth communication.

The evolving pandemic eventually necessitated the entire project team stay home, and delayed responses to conference call requests drove people crazy. We then switched over to Zoom, a video conference app headquartered in San Jose, as well as Tencent Meeting. It is worth mentioning that large corporations usually have strict IT policies for communication tools due to cyber security concerns. This time, however, the IT team allowed us to use Zoom or Tencent Meeting apps on both company laptops and personal phones. Both tools are stable and easy to use. Furthermore, we are able to connect to meetings through dial-in numbers provided by Zoom and Tencent. Zoom works relatively well with cross-country communication, while Tencent Meeting is better for meetings with China-based colleagues who can connect to the app through WeChat Mini Programs.

Later on, I discovered more creative uses for Zoom. As the coronavirus epidemic continued, I received dozens of emails notifying me of various yoga studio closures. Most of the classes would still be offered via Zoom, however, and I tried two classes with my former teacher. Physical distancing made taking in-person classes impossible for his students. Despite that the students were spread all over the world, Zoom allowed them to bridge the physical gap. I connected to the class and could see the teacher and other students on screen. The teacher provided essential verbal instructions or typed private messages in the chat box to address specific issues that I could then review after class. The teacher could not physically adjust students’ poses, but the typed messages allowed us to make our own improvements.

My friend Shan, an experienced yoga teacher, is also busy holding classes on Zoom these days. She teaches offline in China and occasionally films videos for YogaLemon, an app that offers filmed yoga sessions. She partnered with YogaLemon and completed an online yoga video program during the COVID-19 crisis in China. Shan told me that before the outbreak, senior Chinese yoga instructors looked down on  live streamed classes. However, the crisis has made everyone rethink online teaching. In the traditional studio setting, teachers and students are unlikely to exchange contact information and limit their extracurricular communication. Now Shan spends less time commuting and takes more time to answer students’ questions online. She believes working with YogaLemon is a win-win situation. Shan brought her offline students to YogaLemon, and the app offered her a paid Zoom service and potential new students from its existing pool. She is launching a new session in April and plans to spend more time on online classes after the crisis.

Photo provided by Shan

The use of telecommunications tools has exploded during the COVID-19 outbreak.  While more and more businesses are holding their meetings online, many other industries and individuals are finding new uses for video conference tools. People are turning to these apps for school classes, musical instrument instruction and parties, among other activities. It seems many people are enjoying these virtual gatherings at a time when face-to-face meetings are unfeasible. Many events are also going online this year. The Shanghai Fashion Week, which will be held online, will give the general public a chance to see and buy the Fall 2020 collections on Alibaba Tmall. Furthermore, online conferences and seminars eliminate the costs of venues and catering, making tickets less expensive and attracting more people. Young people are discovering many creative ways to use telecommunications tools and say they will continue to hang out online if the tools gain more social functions.

(Top photo by StockSnap from Pixabay)

Fang Yuan

Fang Yuan is our columnist. She used to live in New York and is originally from Shanghai. She is a Certified Passive House Consultant and works on sustainable building consulting. She believes that technology helps people and the environment if it is being used mindfully.

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