Your business has more communication channels than ever to choose from. Stalwarts like email and desk phones are joined by a range of options including video conferencing, instant messaging, collaboration tools and more. You’d think this would make it easier to keep in touch with customers and colleagues. But, paradoxically, having so many channels can complicate things.
In the good old days, you might just have picked up the phone. Now, would an email be more appropriate? How about an instant message? When is a video call a good idea? (Is a video call ever a good idea?)
What’s more, managing this range of choices can be tricky. How do you keep up in an ever-changing communications market?
What is unified communications?
Enter unified communications — UC for short.
UC combines all your communication channels into a single package. A unified comms system is controlled through a single interface and can include:
- Voice and telephony – to make and receive phone calls.
- Instant messaging – for online chat sessions.
- Presence - so you can see when contacts are available.
- Desktop sharing – so you can view someone else’s screen.
- Video conferencing – for face-to-face discussions at a distance.
Usually, UC systems allow you to combine different elements (or ‘modules’) as you choose. They aim to make communication easy and efficient. For instance:
- A conversation that begins as an instant message can be turned into a phone call — in a single step.
- You can check if someone is available — then decide whether to call now or later.
- Voicemails, text messages and emails all arrive in a single inbox — so you only have to check one place for messages.
- When someone calls, you can answer via your desk phone, mobile phone, or an app on your laptop.
Unified communications is growing
Unified comms has been promising to spark a communications revolution for some time. And these technologies are proving popular.
Research conducted by PwC earlier this year found that 55% of small and medium-sized businesses have adopted UC in some way. However, only 21% of businesses have a fully-integrated solution, which allows employees to access all communications services from one place.
So, with UC adoption happening in a piecemeal fashion, how is the UK market doing? And what are the big opportunities for businesses over the months ahead?
The cloud is starting to dominate
Like many other aspects of business IT, unified comms is moving to the cloud. According to the Enterprise Technology Benchmark from Nemertes Research, 63% of surveyed companies had at least one UC app in the cloud.
Using a cloud-based UC service can make things much simpler for your organisation. You don’t need to invest in complex equipment, nor buy expensive software upfront.
All your communications services are hosted elsewhere and delivered through a secure connection. You usually pay a monthly subscription, which means there’s little or no capital expenditure.
Most cloud UC services grow with your business. This means you can start simple, only adding users and features as you need to. Typically, new capabilities are available automatically, without requiring hardware or software upgrades.
UC works for smaller businesses
At first, UC systems were the preserve of big businesses. Only enterprise-level organisations had necessary technical knowledge and funds.
However, as cloud UC services become more common, smaller companies are discovering the benefits, too.
The cost savings alone can present a compelling argument. But cloud systems are also easier to manage. For instance, businesses can hold videoconferences without investing in expensive, dedicated equipment.
Communications is no longer about equipment
As cloud-based UC becomes more common, organisations are spending less on communications equipment. Next to a modern unified comms system, digital switchboards look expensive and inflexible.
And it doesn’t stop there. Some companies are even abolishing desk phones.
Well, why not? A simple app on your computer can perform all the functions of a desk phone. Similar apps on your smart phone and tablet can ensure you’re contactable almost anywhere.
By 2020, PwC expects smart phones to be the main communication devices in most businesses. Although eliminating the desk phone altogether will take a shift in mindset, we’ll see fewer of them in the future.
Staff expectations are driving adoption
Talking of changing mindsets, members of the millenial generation continue to enter the workforce. These people grew up with the internet’s integrated communications tools at their disposal.
They’re used to switching between laptop, smart phone and tablet. They’re accustomed to using Facebook to see if contacts are online, mobile or unavailable. And they expect similar levels of flexibility at work.
These demands are challenging for employers. Ignore them and employees will simply start finding unofficial channels with the flexibility they desire.
As a result, staff expectations are forcing businesses to reevaluate outdated communications systems. Many arrive at the same conclusion: a unified comms system will not only save money, but can also keep employees happy.
These expectations are driving new UC features, too. For instance, some services now offer a ‘timeline’, providing similar functionality to timelines in Facebook and Twitter.
The engine driving flexible working?
As well as helping meet changing user expectations, UC is playing an important role in flexible working.
For a long time, many companies have subscribed to the idea that employees should be able to work from anywhere.
But in practice, poorly-integrated communications tend to mess things up. You have too many phone calls asking ‘did you get my email?’, and spend too much time trying to arrange conference calls.
By combining communications channels, UC eliminates many of the issues caused by having team members in different places. Getting in touch with each other can be as easy as clicking your mouse or typing a message.
However, UC really pays off when combined with a strong bring your own device (BYOD) policy.
BYOD means allowing your employees to use their own devices for work. An increasing number of UK companies allow staff to use their own tablets and smart phones for business.
It can make teams more flexible while keeping costs down. And, pragmatically, many companies find that if they don’t allow BYOD, employees do it anyway.
Back in 2012, a study from Infonetics Research found 71% of organisations viewed mobile device integration as ‘very important’ to unified comms. And although that survey is a few years old, nothing has really changed.
If UC is to deliver on that promise of flexibility, most communication will take place via mobile devices. After all, you can count on an employee having their smart phone on hand — no matter whether they’re working from home, heading to a meeting, or in the office at their desk.