Weaving the fabric of pandemic communication

January 21, 2021 — by Tara Natarajan
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Zoom COO Aparna Bawa, on being a part of one of the most essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For many people, the coronavirus pandemic has been a period of turmoil. As entire cities locked down, cases ran rampant and unemployment rates climbed. Collective mental health deteriorated due to increased stress and isolation.

One of the only threads holding society together during this pandemic has been Zoom, a teleconferencing app originally designed to be a workplace substitute. Now a far more versatile entity, everyone from teachers to funeral directors to pastors uses it regularly.

For Aparna Bawa, the chief operations officer at Zoom, the pandemic has proven to be both a complex challenge and an opportunity to give back to the world. 

Bawa, who lives in Saratoga, manages numerous teams responsible for different company operations. Throughout the pandemic, she has worked long hours from home, handling immense company growth while keeping her own stress under control. 

According to Bawa, before COVID-19, the number of daily participants on the platform hovered around 10 million, most of whom used the app for workplace collaboration.

Then the pandemic hit. By the end of April, there were around 300 million daily meeting participants. 

At that point, Bawa had been with the company for over two years. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 2002, she began her career working at the prestigious law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati as a corporate and securities attorney and then worked at Lehman Brothers and Deutsche Bank as an investment banker. 

After six years in the investment banking world, she joined Inphi, the first of three companies she worked for before arriving at Zoom. Following two years as the head of Legal and Corporate development, during which she led Inphi’s initial public offering, she spent four and a half years at Nimble Storage, where she played a significant part in their initial public offering as well. 

Bawa then moved on to the e-commerce company Magento, facilitating its billion-dollar acquisition by Adobe after only a year in the company. In late 2018, she joined and led Zoom’s legal team and was an instrumental part of the company going public in 2019. In May, she was promoted to COO, and has held that position since.

“I make sure all the trains run on time,” Bawa said. “My job is to make sure that company strategies are successfully carried out.”

Bawa manages the security, privacy, legal and trust and safety teams; human resources and government relations. When management proposes new business strategies, Bawa ensures they are implemented and carried out timely and efficiently.

The exponential growth in usage was completely unexpected. In the past nine months, Zoom reached its highest level of activity, over 300 million daily participants. 

To handle this growth, the company began hiring more people; about 40 percent of the employees, Bawa estimated, will have never been to a Zoom office because they were hired during the pandemic.

To Bawa, Zoom’s role in the pandemic, and consequently her role in the company, has become an important way to give back to society. 

“To be able to provide some sense of continuity is a real privilege,” Bawa said. “Quite frankly, it is an obligation, because we have this service that can be used to benefit lives during a time of crisis. Obviously, business has done well because more people are using Zoom, but the first priority is to use this to help society and humanity as much as we can.”

A typical workday for Bawa begins at around 8 a.m. She works until 4 p.m., taking calls and brainstorming new ways to streamline operations and work more efficiently, before walking her dog as an opportunity to get some exercise and fresh air. 

She resumes work until her dinner at 6 p.m., after which she continues working till 10 p.m., when she unwinds for an hour before going to bed. And that “pretty much repeats, every single day,” she said.

“I do miss talking to people; working from home feels a little cooped up and there’s no socialization like there would normally be,” Bawa said. “Sometimes I find myself working from 8 in the morning to 10 p.m. and I haven’t even left the house all day. Your kids are at home, you’re working, just trying to juggle all these important responsibilities can be so stressful.”

The experience for Bawa is easier because she is already acquainted with her colleagues. There is a “sense of familiarity” that makes it easier to communicate and work with her colleagues. 

Still, Bawa’s workload has grown. In order to handle this, she uses “work-life prioritization,” a vision of time management that she prefers over the typical “work-life balance.”

“I think the word ‘balance’ assumes that these two things are equal when they really aren’t,” she said. “At some points in your life, work is important, and at some points, there are other things that are important and work takes a backseat.”

Bawa said the pandemic is a clear example of when work that is so crucial to millions of people needs to take priority. Whether that means longer workdays or more difficult projects to tackle, her time and energy are spent on her work. 

“Zoom has such a huge privilege to provide this essential service to so many people who are in need, so right now, I need to spend more time on work, and I don’t mind that,” Bawa said. “I have an opportunity to serve a greater cause, and I want to make sure I put in enough time and effort making it worthwhile.”

Firsthand experiences have fueled Bawa’s devotion to her work. When the pandemic began, she paused sessions with her personal fitness trainer. 

But like many other business owners, her trainer began offering sessions over Zoom, allowing Bawa to resume her workouts while giving her trainer a livelihood. Bawa’s two sons, aged 11 and 8, also take piano lessons and attend school through the platform.

“If I could use one word to describe this whole thing, it would be chaotic,” Bawa said. 

There have always been challenges, especially in the early months of lockdowns. Security breaches, technical glitches, Zoom bombing and network issues were overwhelming, but working from home and using the platform themselves gave Zoom employees a new perspective on how to optimize the service.

“All of a sudden, we were the ones using Zoom for work and school and social gatherings, and that has been such a valuable asset,” Bawa explained. “We got to experience the platform the way our users did, for work, and now we could make improvements and fix any errors. We became our own clients.” 

When she graduated from law school, Bawa said she knew early on that she “liked the business side of things.” Now, Bawa is able to live out that vision in a company that is transforming entire industries.

Zoom has aided a cultural shift that is going to change the way that society views communication, Bawa said. Working from home will continue after the pandemic; companies will no longer feel the need to hire regionally or spend huge amounts on in-person campuses if employees can work over Zoom. Telehealth will become the new norm. Colleges and schools may become more accessible over video conferencing. 

Despite the chaos and stress, Bawa has remained resilient and found ways to take control of the immense changes that have taken place. She feels optimistic about what the future holds both for herself and for the company. 

“I’m fortunate,” Bawa said. “I’m gainfully employed, healthy, with a safe family and I’m not facing challenges most Americans are right now. The world is changing fast for so many people and I’m fortunate enough to be a part of that.”


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