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Top 10 must-have unified communications features in business

Unified communications systems have evolved to reflect changing business processes. As a result, enterprises need to prioritize their must-have UC features.

Unified communications features have evolved over time. Some are trendy but then fall out of favor, while other features are more timeless. The current roster of most useful UC features includes a mix of tried and true and brand new.

For instance, foundational features, such as voice and video communications, are vital and evergreen. At the same time, newer features, including transcription and virtual whiteboards, have become important and interactive functionalities.

To complicate matters, just about every organization has different business needs. What one company requires for business communications, another company probably doesn't, especially when comparing small businesses and large enterprises. Moreover, IT and end users often prefer different collaboration tools, which can complicate the unified experience for both groups.

Historically, UC featured on-premises telephony. Users made voice calls, had voicemail, and had an office-based business phone and phone number. Eventually, software made inroads, particularly with VoIP softphones.

As more capabilities were introduced, communication services were still not exactly unified. Users would message in one app, make phone calls from a desk phone and use another tool for conference calling. This disunion of communication channels is less evident today as UC products are, in fact, more unified.

In the past, a list of unified communications features for businesses might have looked like this:

  • A phone system with extensive voice and calling features.
  • Audio conferencing and web conferencing.
  • Unified messaging, IM and text messaging.
  • Presence, email, fax and file sharing.

That's a bit of a mess. These days, service providers have melded these once-siloed capabilities and wrapped multiple modes of communication into one service to streamline collaboration.

Features and components of unified communications

As the world grappled with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders, UC products were thrust into the spotlight. During this time, the adoption of cloud-based communication tools, especially video conferencing, skyrocketed among remote employees.

With remote work and hybrid workplace strategies, some UC features have become more important than they were in an office setting. Messaging-based polling, video calling and virtual backgrounds, for example, help remote collaboration.

New users of the technology had to learn the ins and outs of UC products, such as Webex by Cisco, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Slack and Zoom. Now that users are more experienced with these platforms, the most important features are accentuated. Therefore, a more up-to-date and integrated list of useful UC features looks like this:

  • High-quality audio and video.
  • Video conferencing.
  • Ease of use.
  • Meeting transcription.
  • Screen sharing.
  • Messaging and chat.
  • Mobile apps.
  • Virtual backgrounds and video layouts.
  • Noise suppression and muting.
  • Language translation.
list of most useful unified communications features
Determine which UC features are must-have or nice-to-have in your organization.

1. High-quality audio and video

In a Metrigy survey that explored organizations' most important features in meeting applications, high-quality audio and video topped the list.

Enterprises still covet dial-in voice service as a critical UC feature, according to Irwin Lazar, president and principal analyst at Metrigy. Many users, he noted, still prefer to dial in to a meeting and not be seen on video. The dial-in preference is also true for users in remote locations with weak internet connections, Lazar said.

At the end of the day, if the audio and video don't work, everything else is meaningless.
Irwin LazarPresident and principal analyst, Metrigy

2. Video conferencing

Globally, video adoption has soared in recent years as organizations established work-from-home policies. About 82% of companies use video for all or most meetings, while 87% of companies said video is a critical technology for business operations, according to a Metrigy workplace collaboration study.

"Predominately, we want to use a video experience," Lazar said. "The single biggest change in work from home is video, [which] is now critical; it's what people care about first. At the end of the day, if the audio and video don't work, everything else is meaningless."

Several years ago, people thought of voice and video as separate applications. Now, voice and video have converged into a single application.

3. Ease of use

Ease of use also topped the list of most important meeting features in the Metrigy survey. End users, especially newcomers to remote work, want technology that's easy to use. For instance, they want to start meetings on time and join meetings easily through a browser or a one-time installation of a client that maintains and updates itself after install, Lazar said.

The intuitive design of the interface is also critical. Users don't want to have to read a manual to figure out how to use an app. Part of the reason Zoom became popular was because it's video-centric and easy to join meetings, Lazar said. Too many meetings, however, could lead to Zoom fatigue.

Ease of use, while important to end users, can conflict with one of IT's top concerns: security. And, as organizations adopted UC products in this age of remote collaboration, IT and other business leaders focused on video conferencing waiting rooms, security and encryption.

4. Meeting transcription

Many communications platforms are moving toward real-time meeting transcription, which eliminates the need for users to take notes during a meeting. By not taking notes, users can be more present in the meeting and moment, said Jon Arnold, principal of J Arnold & Associates.

Intelligent, AI-empowered transcription can detail who said what during a meeting, identify meeting highlights and outline assignments that emerged from the meeting. Additionally, when the transcription is done, analytics can be used to generate a word cloud of the meeting's most discussed topics. Users then can click on a term in the word cloud to be taken to that topic in the transcription.

By now, many UC vendors have integrated AI voice transcription into their meeting platforms.

5. Screen sharing

Screen sharing is another older but still useful feature, especially as employees work from home. In fact, screen sharing is a must-have, according to Lazar. Without it, organizations don't have a fully formed UC service.

Screen sharing, as the name implies, enables users to share the screens of their desktops and devices, including files, in real time during meetings. This feature is especially helpful when teams need to collaborate on visual files, such as architectural designs and engineering schematics.

Over the years, screen sharing has seen some innovation, including wireless screen share and remote, two-way annotation on files.

6. Messaging and chat

Messaging is a feature that has undergone a transformation. Where it used to be separate from other UC features, team messaging is now more dynamic and integrated with other workflows.

Before a meeting, for instance, messages and related documents could populate a virtual workspace. As the meeting starts, both the documents and messages remain in that workspace to provide background information and contextual content. As team members talk during the meeting, private messaging can serve as a helpful back channel for individuals to conduct one-on-one chats. Group messages can be saved within the context of the meeting and be linked to file storage.

Essentially, teams can "have a meeting that lives beyond the meeting," Lazar said. "A messaging-centric team collaboration workspace that integrates into meetings and file storage is pretty critical."

Polling, too, is a helpful messaging-related feature that gleans feedback from team members. GIFs, emojis and memes in a messaging stream are also a lighthearted way for remote teams to interact.

7. Mobile apps

Mobility is another essential UC feature. Organizations and team members need the ability to use their UC system, join meetings and connect to meeting room systems from any mobile device, regardless of OS.

"The ability to easily join meetings through a common interface -- whether on a tablet, PC, laptop or whatever -- I think is critical," Lazar said.

According to Metrigy, 77% of organizations are using mobile apps for video meetings, and about 75% of companies have deployed a mobile UC client.

8. Virtual backgrounds and video layouts

Virtual backgrounds might seem like a gimmicky feature, but end users like them. And, at one point, virtual backgrounds were a differentiator among vendors.

For internal team meetings, for example, virtual backgrounds enable users to have some fun with the technology, which is a small but welcome reprieve during remote collaboration. Whether users appear on a tropical island or a movie set, virtual backgrounds can provide comic relief and hide untidy rooms.

For external communications with, say, important customers, virtual backgrounds add a professional touch to working from home. Companies can even supply their employees with branded backgrounds with the company name or logo.

Additionally, video layouts that increase the number of people who can be seen on a call enable users to customize their video call displays and see more meeting participants when necessary.

9. Noise suppression and muting

Video conferencing users are all too familiar with background noise -- someone's thumping a keyboard, dogs are barking, kids are screaming and so on.

Many UC platforms now have background noise suppression to varying degrees, Arnold said. Different vendors have taken different approaches to the technology, which is sometimes integrated into endpoints or embedded in the platform itself.

Some vendors might enable noise suppression better than others, which creates yet another differentiating feature to consider when shopping for a UC platform. Noise suppression is especially important for home-based workers, Arnold said, as they try to project a professional image on work-related calls.

A few years ago, transcription and noise suppression were not fully formed features and thus would not have appeared on a list of must-have UC features for businesses. But features and platforms evolve, reflecting customer needs and vendor innovation.

Muting, too, is a useful feature to squelch unwanted noise. Individuals can mute their own feeds, and meeting hosts can mute participants. Otherwise, everyone talks over each other, ruining the dynamic of the meeting.

10. Language translation

Closed captioning and language translation are emerging features that Lazar expects vendors will use to gain a competitive advantage.

Closed captioning in users' native languages could help attendees with hearing loss. Meanwhile, closed captioning translations could help users in a meeting who speak different languages. In near-real time, users could have a running transcript at the bottom of their video calls where they'd see the spoken words in their native language.

Language translation is an important feature for global companies that have employees around the world, Lazar said.

"As for really important features that folks care about, translation is a big one," Lazar said. "Whenever I talk with enterprises, especially global enterprises, they would pay for that tomorrow."

Honorable mentions

Unified communications and collaboration software is loaded with features. Some are more useful than others. Although the following features didn't quite make the list of top 10 capabilities, they're still worth noting:

  • Call recording. While this feature seems important in some instances and industries, Lazar noted that many users record meetings but don't do anything with the recording.
  • Process integration. UC products can be integrated with other business applications that people commonly use, such as calendaring and email. Developers can also use APIs to integrate other apps with UC products.
  • Breakout rooms. This feature lets meeting hosts assign attendees to small groups, which meet separately and then return to the main conference.

Clearly, unified communications platforms and their features have evolved over the years, and remote work has accelerated that evolution as UC products have become fully formed work hubs.

Editor's note: This article was updated to reflect changes in unified communications platforms and features.

Luke O'Neill is executive editor of TechTarget's Unified Communications, Content Management and Customer Experience websites.

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