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How do you evaluate UC applications for frontline workers?

UC offerings differ depending on business goals and intended users. When evaluating tools for frontline workers, consider factors based on communication, endpoints and workflows.

When evaluating unified communications offerings, employee needs vary depending on the nature of the business. UC's origins are based on PBX phone systems, so the core focus has traditionally been on office workers. While UC platforms serve office worker needs well, workers who aren't tied to desks or PCs have different requirements.

Frontline workers are a prime example of this. Frontline workers form the majority in verticals like healthcare, retail and manufacturing, while other verticals have subsectors of frontline employees. Their workstyles are different from office-based knowledge workers, and organizations must consider communication and collaboration, endpoint support and workflow integration factors when choosing UC offerings.

1. Communication vs. collaboration

The terms communication and collaboration are often used interchangeably, but they have different meanings. A sufficient UC foundation in place makes it easier to use communication applications for frontline workers and improves collaboration. But collaboration is a different activity from communication. While all forms of collaboration involve communication, not all forms of communication are collaborative.

Communication is still a vital part of frontline work, but frontline employees typically work in isolation and collaborate less often than office workers. Nevertheless, collaboration is a key focus for many UC offerings. Vendors whose products tout and prioritize collaboration over communication applications for frontline workers won't suit those needs.

2. Endpoint support

Desk phones, PCs and smartphones are tools of the trade for knowledge workers but much less so for frontline workers. By its nature, the starting point for UC tools is the strength of integrations with the desktop environment, along with mobility -- especially for supporting collaboration and team-based work. This is the foundation of UC's value proposition for most deployments.

Frontline workers, however, operate in a different environment, so the key is to determine how well UC supports the tools of the trade. Frontline workers may require some desktop support for end-of-shift administrative work, but most of their time is out in the field or on the factory floor, for example. Their communication endpoints are devices like mobile phones -- sometimes ruggedized -- tablets, digital enhanced cordless telecommunications phones, walkie-talkies and even pagers, making support for these a UC must-have.

3. Workflow integrations

Collaboration requirements for frontline workers may be less frequent or less complex compared to those of knowledge workers but are still important nonetheless. Frontline collaboration requires some forms of conferencing, including those with knowledge workers. But these needs are more likely ad hoc, such as when a hospital care team triages a patient.

Most UC tools provide general conferencing capabilities that can address these types of needs. But the more important factors to consider are workflow integrations and how well UC can support applications specific to a particular frontline job. Every vertical market has specific workflows -- often several of them -- and integration with these is a stronger value driver than horizontal capabilities, like meetings or file sharing.

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