MILAN, March 13 (Reuters) - Donato Velardi's hotline has been ringing almost non-stop since Rome imposed draconian measures to combat its coronavirus crisis, forcing millions of Italians to embrace smartwork.
Italy's small businesses, which form the backbone of its economy, have been slow to switch to distance working. But the coronavirus has changed their approach almost overnight.
Velardi, the 43-year-old founder of Milan-based simultaneous translation services provider ConVerso, says his clients were turning digital after cancelling all live events booked until June with a traditional interpreting business he also runs.
"There is a lot of psychological support involved," he told Reuters by telephone.
"After the initial panic and all the cancellations we've been inundated with calls from clients asking us to organise events connecting virtually people here, there and everywhere," he said, adding that demand had "exploded".
Companies in Italy are allowed to remain open provided they comply with safety measures, but the government has urged employees to work remotely as much as possible.
Data from Eurostat showed that in 2018 only 2% of Italians working for companies or public institutions used smart working, against a European average of 11.6%.
Compare that to the United States where companies, already big users of video conferencing services like Microsoft's Teams and Zoom, are now being offered interaction with digitised, 3D versions of co-workers by firms like Rumii and Spatial.
Italy has some 4 million companies with less than 10 staff, accounting for 95% of total businesses, who are now having to find ways to operate through the country's lockdown.
For Emo Maracchia, an engineer at rival HDC Cloud Services, which provides conference call and video-streaming services to small- and medium-sized firms, that is proving a challenge.
"It's quite stressful. The phone won't stop ringing, demand for our services has more than quadrupled and we're close to full-capacity," Maracchia said.
A report on smart-working by Milan's Politecnico University in October showed that the share of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that said they were not interested in smart-working had risen to 51%, from 38% a year earlier.
The annual study said only 12% of SMEs had formal projects in place, against 58% of larger firms.
But the coronavirus crisis is reshaping habits fast and Maracchia said HDC's client base had widened to include businesses with 3-4 staff, such as small offices of lawyers, tax advisers and even a school for truck drivers.
"Italy is being forced to catch up all at once," he said.
Italy's biggest IT services group Engineering said it was supporting 250,000 workers remotely at 400 firms it supplies.
Rome has imposed progressively stricter measures, ordering a shutdown of bars, restaurants and beauty parlours to fight an outbreak that, as of Thursday, had infected at least 15,113 people and killed more than 1,000 in just three weeks.
The government had already closed down schools until April 3 and banned any public or sports events as well as all non-essential travel.
Italy's biggest phone group Telecom Italia (TIM) reported an increase of 70% in traffic on its fixed-line network in the past 7-10 days, mostly in the country's northern industrial heartland, from where coronavirus has been spreading.
Rome has long been pushing for an all-fibre optic network to be rolled out nationwide to boost productivity across a country with one of the lowest take-ups of fixed broadband in Europe.
Maracchia said saturated networks made it difficult to use common apps such as Skype and companies also generally preferred professional services to interact with clients.
The travel ban has disrupted commercial operations.
Lorenzo Simoncini, CEO of ATP, a Modena-based maker of gaskets and plastic parts, said one big problem was not being able to visit clients.
"We're working on smart ways to help the sales team function from home," he said.
ATP has all of its 80 employees working from home except those on the factory floor and one director in the office.
"It's all working really well," Simoncini said, adding staff would probably be working remotely for one or two months.
But not everyone is a convert.
Nicola Cosciani, who works at valves and pipe group EMER in Brescia, which is one of the most affected areas in Italy's north, said 90% of his employees were smart working, but only because of the coronavirus precautions.
"I can see the benefits in crisis times like this but in normal times I have my doubts. I think it can induce inefficiency since team work and being close to the production hub are important," he said. (Additional reporting by Elvira Pollina; Editing by Alexander Smith)