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Amid Coronavirus Crisis, Microsoft Plugs App To Stay Connected with Employees

To help organizations weather the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, Microsoft this week launched a new Crisis Communication App to help keep track of employees.

Employees can report their work status, such as whether they are working from home or not, through the app. Administrators can use the app to send news and updates. It also has space for RSS-based news feeds, including "information from reputable sources such as WHO, CDC, or a local authority," Microsoft's announcement indicated.

Power Apps Licensing Exception
The Crisis Communication App is characterized as a "template in Power Apps," Microsoft's ad hoc application-building solution for nonprofessional developers, though organizations mostly will need to have a SharePoint Online subscription to use it. Power Apps is used with the Crisis Communication App to send push notifications to employees. Microsoft temporarily dropped a licensing requirement to use push notifications specifically for this app.

In particular, Microsoft temporarily waived a Premium Power Apps licensing requirement to use push notifications with the Crisis Communication App. Here's how the announcement described it:

As part of this effort, we are also giving all Power Apps users temporary access to a premium feature, Power Apps Push Notifications, so you won't need any premium licenses to use Power Apps to push information to users. We have reclassified Push Notifications as a standard connector for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.

The Crisis Communication App consists of a number of parts, per Microsoft's GitHub page. It uses a Canvas-based application for the user interface. There's also a Canvas-based application for an administration app. The Power BI solution is used to support a dashboard for monitoring employee absences. SharePoint Online sites are used for storing the app's data, as described in Microsoft's "Set Up" document.

"The solution combines capabilities of Power Apps, Power Automate [formerly 'Microsoft Flow'], Teams, and SharePoint," Microsoft's announcement explained. "It can be used on the web, mobile or in Teams."

Microsoft completed the Crisis Communication App in two days, inspired by Schlumberger's Coronavirus Stay Safe App, which "was recognized by Microsoft as one of the fastest adopted Power Apps in the world," according to a November Microsoft Case Study post

Microsoft Employees Hunker Down
Microsoft's announcement described developing its Crisis Communication App in the context of the spreading coronavirus disease. The virus, for which there is no vaccine as yet, reportedly is responsible for killing 11 people in Washington state alone, where around 53,973 Microsoft employees are located. The World Health Organization estimated there have been 3,281 deaths worldwide from coronavirus.

Microsoft this week published a letter to its employees in King County, Wash., where its Redmond campus is sited, stating that if employees can work at home, then they should do that through March 25.

Microsoft Touts Free Teams Access
Where there's disaster, there's also opportunity, and so Microsoft has been promoting Teams as a means to have meetings online, instead of in person, to address the COVID-19 situation.

The coronavirus is thought to have originated in China per a summary description by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It turns out that Teams use has recently spiked in China, per a Microsoft announcement promoting Teams.

"Since January 31, we've seen a 500 percent increase in Teams meetings, calling, and conferences there [in China], and a 200 percent increase in Teams usage on mobile devices," stated Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365, in the announcement.

Earlier this month, Microsoft promoted six months' use of Teams for free via a Twitter post by Jean-Philippe Courtois, Microsoft's executive vice president and president of global sales, marketing and operations.

Spataro's announcement filled in some details about the free six months of Teams use. "If you work for a business that isn't currently licensed for Teams, we've got you covered with a free Office 365 E1 offer for six months," the announcement stated. "Contact your Microsoft partner or sales representative to get started today. (Note: the same offer is available in the Government Cloud, but not available in GCC High and the Department of Defense.)"

Educational institutions have access to a free version of Office 365, known as the Office 365 A1 license, which includes Teams use.

IT pros can get more disaster-response tips, given the coronavirus concerns, in this Redmond article by Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) Joey D'Antoni.

Microsoft recently switched its 2020 MVP Global Summit event, planned for Seattle, to be an online event due to COVID-19 fears. Other events have been cancelled outright, such as Facebook's F8 and Google's I/O. Various event cancellations, or switches to online events, are recounted in this ZDNet article.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.

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