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Reassessing unified communications tools in work-from-home era

COVID-19 is ushering in a new normal for companies and their workspaces. UC managers must consider three factors when evaluating unified communications tools to support operations.

As the new normal shaped by COVID-19 takes root, the value chain of almost every ecosystem is being turned upside down by the impact of working from home, social distancing and other mandated behaviors. With each passing day, the virus seems to transform yet another element of everyday life.

Indeed, in just a few short weeks, what we took for granted in the pre-pandemic world seems unthinkable today. We're already getting to the point where it's not a stretch to wonder if we'll ever go back to working in crowded offices, meeting in huddle rooms or cramming into packed train cars to get to work.

Of course, collaboration is just one consideration of a crisis that has touched almost every line of work or facet of our personal life. But there are specific implications to consider for the people who develop, implement or manage unified communications (UC) tools and services.

A redefined workspace that may be permanent

Among the most significant changes is how COVID-19 has redefined the workplace itself. For those workspaces that have remained open, most are operating with a skeletal staff, and wherever possible, those still in their jobs are now working from home. WFH has become the acronym du jour, and while the practice isn't for everyone, desperate times call for desperate measures.

As best we can, business still goes on, and the fundamental need to communicate and collaborate doesn't change. If anything, these necessities have become even more vital as the workforce becomes distributed, forcing any form of teamwork to become almost 100% virtual. This is not the scenario developers and architects had in mind with UC.

Given the flexible nature of the technology used for UC platforms, these new challenges will need to be addressed. To better understand what needs to be done, here are three examples where COVID-19 is reshaping UC.

Supporting workers in a home-based setting. In most workplaces, IT plays a key role to ensure everyone has business-grade connectivity, applications and endpoints. Not only does that presence provide the basics to keep productivity high, but it also means IT expertise is available on-site for additional support, training and upgrades.

This all goes away with WFH, leaving workers to fend for themselves and self-organize amid the day-to-day distractions of home life. Instead of everyone having company-issued phones and PCs, UC platforms must now operate in a more variable environment. That means a mix of workstations and laptops, a variety of OSes and even a homemade system or two.

Many endpoints will be older, meaning slower speeds, and perhaps unable to support real-time applications, especially video. Connectivity will be a similar story, and even from these basic examples, it should be clear that UC platforms will need to adapt to a lower standard of technical capability.

Focusing more on cloud. Premises-based UC remains common for a variety of reasons, including the fact that most phone systems still adhere to that model as well. While cloud-based UC is gaining momentum, to date, many UC offerings cling to their legacy underpinnings. COVID-19 will likely change that dynamic. Thanks in part to WFH, cloud-based UC will become more dominant and will, at some point, emerge as the standard.

WFH isn't going away anytime soon, and it appears companies are seriously considering keeping WFH as a fundamental part of their strategies once the pandemic passes. Serving the needs of the WFH market is where UC developers and architects need to be working, enabling UC platforms to be easier than ever before to provision and use from home-based settings. Cloud is the ideal deployment model to support this, and that's going to be a key value driver for businesses considering how they will deploy UC in a WFH environment.

Becoming more voice-centric. It's easy to take voice for granted with today's technologies, but WFH presents some specific challenges. For businesses with premises-based phone systems, it's difficult to extend PBX-style functionality to home-based settings.

For companies with plans to shift a large number of workers to WFH, it's not economically viable to set everyone up with IP phones, not to mention trunking. Many people have given up their landlines, leaving mobile phones and consumer-grade web clients as the only options for voice. That's not going to be acceptable for most businesses. Again, cloud is the correct answer to address this, especially when WFH is happening quickly and at a large scale.

For anyone in the UC ecosystem, the call to action will be to recognize this fundamental challenge and to ensure unified communications tools are as voice-centric as possible. In many cases, this will mean providing intuitive softphone clients that will be easy for workers to use. These clients can tie in directly to the company's telephony system and thus provide workers with the same functionality as a desk phone. Voice can easily be overlooked when architecting UC, but when the primary use case is WFH, the platform will have limited utility if voice isn't front and center.

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