In what has been an extremely challenging year for all, and a strong one for the many unified communications (UC) and collaboration services out there.
Services like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WebEx and other services have exploded in popularity due to the current circumstances. In April, Microsoft reported that there were 75 million daily active users on Teams, while Zoom revealed it had 300 million daily meeting participants.
In case it wasn’t clear, Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) is a huge business and with Transparency Market Research estimating that the industry will have a value of $79.3 billion by 2024, it will be a major part of working life for years to come.
Yet the big development in this area over the past few months has been flexibility, not just in terms of IT services and features, but also in the culture that it has allowed.
From the technology side alone, services like WebEx have built upon decades of infrastructure and experience to allow anyone to access their meetings no matter what device or operating system they’re using.
It’s easy to think that much of this was developed in the past few months, but for Keith Griffin, R&D site leader at Cisco Galway, all of this has been decades in the making.
“If you think about it, WebEx was developed in the mid to late ’90s, then Cisco acquired it and built it into its collaboration portfolio,” he said. “The tech isn’t new, but it’s new to many people because we’ve been forced to work from home.”
Even just dealing with the modern UC and collaboration platforms, there’s a significant degree of flexibility involved with how you approach even the basic setup.
For one, all the major services allow those who don’t have an account to receive calls through your browser, and alongside that you have features like screen sharing, whiteboards and recordings – to name just a few.
Those are the absolute basics people have come to expect from a UC service, and Griffin said that as far back as 2015, his team knew that video and messaging alone wasn’t going to be enough.
Intelligent experiences were going to be part and parcel of it, as were elements like name tags and smart bios – which draw from context-appropriate sources like LinkedIn. All of this is to create an experience that lets you get more out of video and voice calls than you would from a face-to-face meeting.
“The challenge we’re trying to solve, and it’s a bit of a lofty goal, is to make this digital collaboration 10 times better than being there in person,” said Griffin. “Before we would have said matching physical meetings was our goal, but now we’re focusing on the 10 times approach.”
The ability to build upon the foundation set by these services is now the overall goal, not just for providers but also for the companies using them. Starting video calls and such are intuitive actions thanks to the ease in which they’re designed, but there’s more to it than that.
Steve Joyner, Avaya’s Ireland and UK managing director, explained what kind of qualities you should be looking for in a service beyond the usual standard.
“First of all absolutely it needs to be self-intuitive, with an interface that is really powerful and easy to use. For corporations, it needs to be easy to adopt. They can’t have hang-ups around security, around compliance or GDPR. That has to be a given with the technologies and the underlying platforms, and then they also need to up the flexibility,” said Joyner.
To aid that, Avaya’s own service – Cloud Office by RingCentral – offers 20,000 open APIs so even if a feature isn’t available, companies have the flexibility to create them. On top of that are 250 built-in integrations that can be used to plug in with key business applications like CRMs, and billing.
The final and most important element of any platform like this is the flexibility of use. You pay only for what you use instead of what you signed up to.
“You don’t want to buy an Airbus A380 when all you want to do is drive around a car park,” he said. “That is another thing these types of platforms bring; you pay for what you consume. That really is the third-dimension that these collaboration tools today bring with them.”
Moving beyond the basics
Now that the initial integration of these services has passed, businesses and employees have new priorities to meet from both a physical and software perspective.
While a laptop is usually the only thing you need, businesses wanting to go a step further will furnish their employees with devices like noise-cancelling headphones, high-definition cameras, and large screens for both the home and office environment.
For vendors offering this it’s been a boom, yet there has been pressure to meet supply with the overwhelming demand experienced.
Videnda Distributions found that the vendors it supplies have been under pressure because of this. A good challenge to have, but one that has ripple effects throughout.
Terry Crowley, who runs business development for Videnda, said that in the first phase of the pandemic the focus for organisations was on speed instead of perfection. As the summer progressed, it saw clients wanting to support a hybrid solution of remote and office-based working for the future.
“What this means is that devices must be flexible enough to allow multi-connections and also various wearing styles and features, depending upon the environment,” said Crowley.
“They are deploying cloud services for desk and space bookings and managing the schedule of hybrid working and, more importantly, the reporting of this activity.”
From the technical side of things, some of the larger multinational companies are now looking at having two or more solutions instead of relying solely on one vendor.
Part of the reason for this is that the difference between vendors like Zoom, Teams, and WebEx is no longer as big as it used to be, said John McCabe, executive vice-president and managing director for Damovo Global Services, as it simplifies its services to cater for a wide audience.
Potential clients will have a preference so accommodating that is a factor, and so too is not being reliant on just one service
“We’re seeing that some of the multinationals don’t want to have all their eggs in one basket,” he said. “They want to have two technologies so they look for a combination, be it Zoom, Teams, or WebEx, which I’m a bit surprised about but that’s what we’re seeing purely because they don’t want dependency on one vendor.”
Another reason ties back to how accessible these services now are. As mentioned before, guests can take calls through their browser, but the likelihood they’re using at least one of these products is high. In that scenario, meeting them where they’re comfortable is the better option.
“With clients and customers, they’re all using different types of video endpoints and technologies so that’s important as well,” said McCabe.
“How do they want to communicate with the tech they use because there’s a lot of them out there, when you’re selling something? What’s the best way to speak to them, what do they want, and what is the customer comfortable with?”
With all things considered, there are two big winners throughout all of this, said Ronán McCarthy, networking solutions principal at Arkphire: IT and human resources.
While it’s obvious why IT has benefited, what can be overlooked is how it can help mental and emotional wellbeing. “They’ve become the two big successes within enterprises and businesses during the pandemic,” he said.
That better mental health element has been reflected in how companies have helped their staff. One such company offering UC and telephony services is Blueface, which is in a unique position as it owns its technology and builds it in-house.
That requires significant work on its part to ensure services are always on and consistent, but it’s also made a great effort to prioritise wellbeing too.
Navid Talebzadeh, its head of direct, said that since remote working became the norm, daily meetings and also social events have followed.
That has its benefits with regards to improving productivity and happiness.
“I’ve seen people also having coffee sessions with colleagues every week,” he said. “It’s not just about work, it could be a quiz or watching a stand-up show, but it’s great for mental health, both external and internal.”
While some businesses might have been apprehensive about whether its employees would continue the same standard at home, Talebzadeh said that the level of trust shown to them saw their key performance indicators and overall productivity increase.
He said that result was driven from the top down, with the bosses making staff health and safety their top priority. When such measures come from the top down, the chances of success are much higher.
“If they didn’t facilitate that, that would have failed immediately,” he said. “It’s a credit to what they have done, but [highlights how important] it comes from top to bottom.”
That ultimate productivity is what needs to be thought about now that restrictions will be commonplace for the next few months.
To have UC tools alone isn’t enough, but how it facilitates both collaboration and personal interactions. Even removing the need to be in the office – while not by choice – has offered a degree of freedom and choice.
The main element these services are powering isn’t productivity or collaboration but trust, and that should always be kept in mind.
“People felt the need to be in an office from certain times to show they were physically present. I think we’ve seen a sea change in that no longer do people need to be physically present, the digital transformation journey there has happened,” said Damien McCann, director of sales and marketing at Viatel.
“The trust barriers have all been achieved. In our case, we see our business become more productive now than ever before, not only from a numbers perspective but in projects, team collaboration, and communication across the business. We see that up in every measure that we check.”
Just around the corner
Considering how much time has passed, reflecting on people’s attitudes towards video before the pandemic and after it started has been one of the biggest culture changes work has faced.
What used to be a reluctance to adopt has become second nature, and many are now comfortable with showing themselves in their home environment.
Yet while that is all good, vendors are working towards building more inclusive and considered features that will account for all types of working environment.
During his call, Keith Griffin, R&D site leader at Cisco Galway, demoed some new features for WebEx that are in development.
Some features like background noise removal are straightforward, where the background noise from elements like typing on a keyboard is muffled out but the user’s voice is clear, but others are more interesting.
One was a smart capture where the camera can zoom in a little so it’s focused solely on the user, cropping the image so that objects or people on the periphery can’t be seen.
There is also camera tracking to follow the user if they start moving, background blurring, and person tracking – so in a conference room setting, cleaners can know if a call is finished and be alerted, instead of having to check the rooms every so often.
All of which are coming down the line and will likely bring with them both added flexibility and possibilities that weren’t imagined before.