How unified communications could energise your business

Unified communications used to be a buzzword reserved for enterprises and huge budgets – but not anymore

"The way people are communicating has fundamentally changed," says Sahil Rekhi, MD of RingCentral EMEA (ringcentral.co.uk). "People are mobile and online, and while the smartphone is their preferred communications device, they're multi-modal. They can switch between the tablet and the desktop they just want all of their data available everywhere, and social has become a big component of that."

Mention "social" and it's easy to reach for Facebook and Twitter, but business social goes beyond that. Platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Google Cloud and Slack are building a new kind of social: one designed around fundamental business concepts, including collaboration and sharing. It's an environment in which every form of communication, from landline calling and persistent messaging to presence, can live within one window, alongside directories, databases and files. It's called unified communications (UC), or unified communications as a service (UCaaS).

As Martin Old, senior product marketing manager for Cisco products at Arkadin said, rather than staff necessarily going to work, "work is where they are". A standalone PBX doesn't cut it anymore.

"The way we communicate on a personal level has crossed over into business communications," said Bianca Allery, CMO of 3CX. "It's more about convenience and efficiency. Getting hold of the right person when we need them, knowing when they are available, using chat instead of a phone call. Rather than call my colleague, waiting for them to answer, calling them again... I can send a chat and go back to working on something else until they are able to respond."

The consumerisation of UC

"Whichever device I'm using, I've got the same experience, whether it's a video call, landline call or instant messaging," Old explains. "I can do everything from my desktop, tablet or mobile phone and that's the experience that Generation Z expects. The experiences we've all had with consumer apps have helped accelerate their uptake in business."

The average employee splits their time between four communication apps, and switches between business tools ten times an hour. "That wastes 32 days a year," claims Rekhi. "If you could remove that complexity then, as a CIO or head of HR, you could give employees an extra five days paid holiday every year. What kind of impact is that going to have on motivation and employee loyalty?"This could be UC's trump card. By reclaiming lost time, staff don't need to work longer hours to increase output and could be rewarded for buying into an enterprise-wide rollout. Staff buy-in is essential to any large-scale change, after all particularly one that will impact them every minute of every working day.

"When you're introducing a communication technology, there's a high chance it will be touched by every single person in the business," said Mat Godolphin of Exponential-e (exponential-e.com), a cloud infrastructure provider. "It has to be up 100% of the time because they'll always know if there's a fault on the platform." Contrast that to email, where a few hours' delay is rarely critical.

Godolphin, who heads up Exponential-e's UC and collaboration team, sees the always-on, ever-active network as a way of attracting talent. "When I'm hiring for my team, I'm asked about the flexibility we offer and whether the new hire is expected to be in the office five days a week all of these work-life balance questions. If that flexibility isn't an in-built part of the culture of the business, it causes problems."

Reclaiming lost time

How much of your employees' time is spent in meetings? UC tools could recover much of it, particularly if the meetings would be held off-site.

While Arkadin's Old is based in Newport, Wales, his peers sit at desks in Argentina, Singapore and France. "We used to live with email, which did the job, but it's a bit long in the tooth now and laborious when a short message is all that's required. Organisations developing a modern workplace are looking beyond the desktop experience and the individual and looking at how their meeting rooms are set up, [as well as] the additional engagements they're having outside of individual spaces."

Inexpensive videoconferencing on tablets, phones and desktops is increasingly replacing in-person meetings and helping to reduce friction. A 2017 Polycom global survey (pcpro.link/300poly) suggested that 35% of business professionals made decisions much quicker when on video than via email, IM or phone.

"[UC] makes business communications much more efficient," said 3CX's Allery. "With videoconferencing, webinars, presentation sharing and so on, it's no longer necessary to travel to clients or partners. Imagine travelling all the way from Newcastle to London for a two-hour meeting; it would take up the whole day plus various expenses. Now imagine wrapping up that same task in the same time it takes to hold the meeting."

So, what should CIOs focus on? "Mobility is key," Rekhi said. "It's not only the biggest driver of change, but also a big driver of how you can deliver flexible working and the future workplace. Cloud is key. It's the only place that's going to be able to deliver this technology. Big Data and platform analytics continue to be an area of focus and technology players have a responsibility to capture this data. They can use it to make rational decisions based on what they're saying and understand behavioural aspects of an organisation so it can build the future of work."

The changing workplace

In many cases, businesses are buying in this expertise rather than developing it in-house, whether contracting third parties to integrate services or by headhunting. Job titles such as head of digital transformation are becoming increasingly common.

Specialists with expertise in UC adoption and no history in a firm may be best-placed to implement the change. "Very often, when we look at which technology is going to drive change, we only look at part of an organisation a subset or department where the impact might not be a net positive," Rekhi warned. "But if you stand back and think about where the organisation is heading over the next five years and what the company's trying to achieve, you can see that it has a net positive impact. The person driving that change needs to understand the impact and relay the [longer-term] message to staff before they start implementing that change."

Old's advice is similar. "Look at where your business wants to be, what the shape of your organisation is, how you want it to operate and the experience your users will have" and, where there's historical tech already in use, manage that transition.

Done right, it can transform both the workplace and the workspace. "That's the key idea of UC," said Godolphin, who quotes Cisco's "work is something you do, rather than somewhere you go". UC allows staff to work anywhere, on any device, in the way they would if they were collaborating in a fixed location, Godolphin reminded us, picturing an environment of smaller break-out spaces and low-end video devices.

And it goes beyond your company's staff. "UC can really take the customer experience up to the next level. Not only can customer inquiries be dealt with more efficiently, but it also offers new ways for customers to communicate," said Allery. "Previously, customers mainly had to rely on calling customer service hotlines and the occasional email that would go unanswered for days. Now they are able to utilise methods of communication such as website live chat, which puts them instantly in contact with an agent and is often more convenient and preferred by customers."

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