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Like many across the world, Gurugram-based Sumati Sharma, 26, a creative designer with The Man Company, a grooming startup, has been working from home for the past two weeks. Before self-isolating herself as a precaution against coronavirus, Sharma spent most of her workday in the office and later hung out with colleagues and friends. Now, she’s all alone at home.

Few days ago, during a daily conference call with her team, a colleague cried out, saying he wouldn’t take any leave for a month after the lockdown is lifted. Everyone laughed.

This banter and virtual swapping of woes with team members is the one thing Sharma looks forward to every day. “My morning conference call is like being in a co-working space. We empathize, share tips with each other, laugh, support and help each other to stay focussed. It feels like we are in it together," she says.

There is no dearth of technological tools for virtual workplaces. Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Zoho, Google Hangouts, Cisco WebEx, Trello, among others, offer features to chat, collaborate, track projects and be productive.

Since the 21-day nationwide lockdown in view of the covid-19 pandemic, these tools have become important also for dealing with loneliness and demotivation.

Sharma’s manager, Rumi Ambastha, who heads brand marketing at the startup, for example, has been video-calling her nine team members daily to ensure they are doing well. “Most of them are living alone. So it’s important for them to know I’m just a video call away," she says.

A recent study by Rice University in the US says stress, loneliness and lack of sleep can compromise the immune system, making people more susceptible to the virus if exposed. It is better to videoconference to reduce feelings of isolation, suggests Chris Fagundes, the author of the study, in a press release.

Purvi Sharma, 21, a creative designer at Mobile Premier League, an esports startup in Bengaluru, realized the importance of video calls after a day of working from home. Living away from her family in a PG accommodation, Sharma looks forward to her daily Google Hangouts video call with colleagues. “It gets a little depressing staying alone, but we’re all there for each other virtually and that is comforting," she says, adding that interacting on video chats also motivates her and gives her day a structure.

Bengaluru-based Vijay Mathpal, 29, a marketing specialist at Skillsoft, an online training company, looks forward to his Friday virtual hangout with his team through Cisco WebEx. “I keep my camera on, use GIFs, emoticons as we interact with each other," says Mathpal.

Collaborative online tools can help employees retain some of the continuity of the office experience, says Bhavin Turakhia, founder and chief executive of Flock, a communication and collaboration platform. “This is a transition period and it’s hard. Thankfully technology can bridge some of these gaps," he adds. In the past two weeks, Flock has seen a 2.6x increase in adoption, with videoconferencing going up by 3.2 times.

Other videoconferencing tools have similar spike in numbers. Zoho has seen an average of 500% growth in usage of its collaboration apps and 1,000% growth in daily new users of Zoho Meeting since the past one month.

To ensure that people who are working in isolation have some real-time interaction, Skillsoft has made camera-on and online collaboration a company-wide directive. This means everything from stand-ups, huddles, meetings, planning sessions daily and weekly are being done through video.

Like Skillsoft, other companies have made regular video chats mandatory to curb isolation. SugarBox Networks, an server infrastructure startup in Mumbai, does five-minute slots, where people swap ideas on their experience of working in the current situation. Tech Mahindra, the IT services company, has introduced a yoga bot who pops on to their screens and reminds employees to do breathing exercises.

Harbinger Systems, a software products and services company, has introduced a 30-minute programme they call VItaMIN (Virtual Mingling), where around 30 employees get together and share their thoughts at the end of the workday, at 4pm. The managers are also encouraged to do one-on-one interactions, encourage the team to write short stories for the company’s portal and do weekly training webinars. Randstad India, a HR services company, has daily huddles, weekly catch-up meetings through Google Hangouts. In addition, they are working on team building virtually through initiatives like selfies at home office, and celebrating successes and work anniversaries online through Hangouts. “A colleague is even calling colleagues to wake them up so they can be on time for virtual meetings," says Divya Manoj, vice-president, Randstad India.

An open line of communication can keep people motivated and cheerful, says Ambastha. “I have to take care of them professionally, personally and financially as these are tough times."

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