Photo of four business professionals in a meeting analyzing statistics

Getting Real With Hosted Unified Communications

1 Sep 2015 by Sally Clasen

In business, getting coworkers to be on the same page about the task at hand is a bit like corralling kids at daycare. And that’s just when employees work in the same office at the same time. When the bulk of staff members, however, punch the clock remotely at all hours of the day, it becomes an even greater challenge to bridge a collaborative job environment.

Today, the idea of “going to work” looks dramatically different than a decade ago. What was once a 9-to-5 schedule with a permanent desk is now an unhinged, distributed workforce in which many do their jobs without traveling to a brick-and-mortar location. Instead, the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) trend where employees plug in and sign on to a corporate network from diverse devices, and share information via the cloud and other central data systems, is the new norm.

The reality of a virtual world

All companies, from startups to large corporations, have adopted some form of flexible work policies that allow employees to “phone it in” rather than do their jobs onsite. And it is a work habit that is here to stay. Telecommuting rose 79% between 2005 and 2012, and now makes up 2.6% of the American work force, or 3.2 million workers, based on statistics from the American Community Survey.

Close to 500,000 local, state and federal government employees telecommute as well, with the federal government leveraging its employee pool with the highest proportion of teleworkers at 3.3%, according to Global Workplace Statistics. The Teamwork Enhancement Act of 2010 clearly set the stage for a virtual government, but a 2014 memo from the White House encouraging federal agencies to promote flexible job opportunities for staffers reinforced the idea.

The choice to telecommute is one thing, but even the government wants employees to have the right tech tools to complete the job. In a 25-point plan developed by The Office of Management and Budget to reform federal information technology management, agencies are required to consider the cloud as a first option for accessing applications.

The bottom line is enterprises across the board have recognized that a workforce without bounds is a cost-effective strategy to trim the fat while improving operational efficiency and productivity. And technology such as the cloud and a BYOD mindset is driving the mobile momentum.

Tying the loose ends

The distributed workforce however, creates a new dynamic for CIOs and IT personnel, who must figure out how to secure all the loose ends and best manage the exchange of information as more and more employees opt to telecommute.

To maintain a united front among tele-employees, Unified Communications (UC) technologies, including IP telephony, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), Web conferencing, presence, instant messaging (IM) and unified messages, are playing an important role in enabling virtual workers to connect and interact 24/7.

The goal of UC is to simplify business and unify communications, but it’s easier said than done due to the complexity of managing and integrating the technologies. Plus, cloud computing and shared mobile interfaces require special knowledge to administer, which some companies and agencies don’t have. UC hosting is one way CIOs can develop a practical, business-aligned virtual platform that strikes a balance between control, security, function and freedom.

The advantage of UC hosting is it’s a cost-saving service that offers minimal IT intervention and a quick transition to an integrated and seamless communications plan where cloud apps, multiple devices and users collaborate and exist in harmony.

While it’s common to get blindsided by the bells and whistles available for a remote work setup, it’s wise to assess your users’ needs and expectations before making sweeping changes to current technologies and processes.

A like for a like

Keep in mind that due to an “instaculture” of connection created by SMS applications and IM features, and cultivated by messaging behavior on social media sites such as Facebook Twitter and Instagram, remote employees demand quick and rich responses from colleagues. Plus, they want to use their smartphones and other devices to launch business tasks and applications without hassle.

Enabling data tools and mobile apps that satisfy the need for instant gratification and allow workers to get the job done in a virtual reality are essential to building an effective UC hosting strategy. Many companies start by integrating presence and VoIP technologies, which can deliver the corporate directory to any mobile device, mimicking the four-digit, PBX model.

With such technologies, an employee can contact a coworker with one click via their mobile or PC screen without having to go through the receptionist to transfer the call. Add-ons such as auto attendant, ring groups, three-way calling and enhanced call forwarding also elevate the remote user experience.

Hello out there

The next step is typically integrating Web conferencing capabilities, followed by call center, call recording and Internet fax features to the UC hosting platform. Workers who use smartphones, laptops and tablets equipped with video and audio features are able to create a virtual space on a moment’s notice for ad-hoc meetings and last-minute decision making in real time, regardless of location.

An unscheduled meeting organized in a few clicks and messages is just one of the many benefits of Web conferencing technologies. The ability to instantly bring distributed workers together, and share documents, files and opinions not only supports an inclusive work environment where collaboration happens intuitively but reduces operational costs including business travel expenses. For those involved in decision processes that traditionally are painstakingly slow and redundant, like legislation and policy-making, UC can be the innovative grease that makes the wheels of commerce — and government — turn faster.

Making a useful connection

The advantages of UC tools and access to cloud software from any Web-connected device are endless, and their power to touch every aspect of business is remarkable, particularly in customer service and administrative functions. For example, a virtual call center that is integrated with a hosted VoIP system can replicate a physical call center, without the expense. By embedding communication functions into mobile applications it’s possible for a tax-paying citizen calling the IRS support line to reach a staffer working from home who is wearing a headset and pajamas while connected to cloud via an Internet browser. Imagine that.

The new, mobile workforce is evolving at rapid speed and technology is a critical factor in the race outcome. It’s up to CIOs to harness the virtual communications edge with cloud and mobile developments. Hosted UC platforms can help IT be the architects of an efficient and integrated infrastructure with highly automated tools and services that allow employees to put in a day’s work without ever showing up at the office.