Unified communications: The key to prospering in the new working reality of Covid-19

Covid-19 lockdowns are causing a collective rethink in the way companies operate, with unified communications transformed from a nice-to-have to a business essential as remote working becomes the new normal

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In the communications world, perhaps apart from China, up until the middle of February 2020, there seemed to be a consensus on how this year would pan out, with firms increasingly investigating how they could best take advantage of 5G networks, how access to full-fibre networks could improve the business and whether Wi-Fi6 was appropriate.

There were, of course, remote conferencing and collaboration tools available, but these really were – as they had been for a while – not that much of a priority. There was a need for them, but not a pressing one. Having a robust unified communications (UC) infrastructure, while bringing key essential business benefits such as the reduction of human latency, was essentially a nice-to-have.

How far way those days seem now, as the outbreak of Covid-19 has changed everything. It is no exaggeration to say that, as the vast majority of workers have been displaced to their homes because of government lockdowns, having a robust unified communications (UC) infrastructure is now a business essential and, in particular, the key planks of UC, such as remote conferencing and collaboration, are now business necessities.

They are essentials now and look likely to remain so well into the future, because even when a vaccine for Covid-19 becomes available, it seems certain that working practices and set-up will not return to what they were in February 2020 and vastly increased remote working will become the norm.

Indeed, according to April 2020 research from industry analyst Omdia, the coronavirus is changing everything about how people work, and will do so permanently. It said that even though the working world is experiencing unprecedented uncertainty, there are two things that should be borne in mind – the virus will pass, and at the other side of the pandemic, the world of work will look very different.

Each year, Omdia forecasts the collaboration market for equipment and services in its Enterprise telepresence and videoconferencing equipment market tracker. Its latest report, published early this year, predicted 7% growth from 2019 to 2020, and its equipment forecast for the likes of telepresence and videoconferencing predicted growth of 6% from 2019 to 2020. The web/videoconferencing services market was forecast to reach a value of $4.91bn in 2020, growing by 6.8% annually, which was described by Evan Kirchheimer, Omdia research vice-president, service provider and communications, as “tepid”.

Kirchheimer said that by the time Omdia had made its original calculations, the so-called “transformative” promise of collaboration tools rested mostly in the marketing messaging of suppliers, despite their best efforts to encourage widespread business uptake. But since March 2020, everything has changed, he said.

He noted Microsoft’s claims at the end of March that demand for its Teams collaboration product had surged to 44 million daily active users, with an additional 12 million regular users in the week to 26 March. This compared with an adoption rate of 20 million in November 2019.

Fundamental shift in dynamics

The good news for the collaboration industry, said Kirchheimer, was that once collaboration tools are embraced, they are rarely cast aside. And, as he told Computer Weekly in April 2020, even if it was too early to assess just how sticky this uptake was, a fundamental shift in dynamics could be on the cards.

“Even if we just look at the raw data and assume only a small percentage of these new users ‘stick with’ the technology, the implications are dramatic,” he said. “If just 20% of those new users continue to use Teams in the long term, that would be a 25% increase in Teams use – from 20 million to 24.4 million regular users.”

And in one of the earliest indications of just how much more important UC tools and services have become, consider that before March 2020, Zoom was a conferencing capability known by few outside the IT industry. Now it has become so ubiquitous that the company name is being used as a verb, like Hoover and Sellotape.

Kirchheimer described Zoom’s ascent as “dramatic”. He said: “On 31 January, we saw close to 110,000 downloads of Zoom across iOS and Android [devices]. This was Zoom’s busiest day in January. On 25 March, we saw 2.7 million downloads. That’s just under 25 times the download rate of its busiest day in January. Again, even if only 10% of those downloading Zoom use it longer-term, it’s a huge percentage growth in regular usage.”

The comms industry is already placing its bets on this future. Look at the recent takeover of BlueJeans Networks by Verizon. The comms giant has sold, and arguably been a leader in, UC systems since the middle of the 2000s when UC was formalised as a concept. BlueJeans’ capabilities, in particular its competence in secure meetings, will enhance this UC portfolio considerably.

But to get a fuller picture of how Covid-19 is going to affect the networking and communications industry, and its subsequent knock-on effect for networking professionals, it is necessary to know what was on professionals’ agendas as 2020 began.

Imminent death of UC overstated

What seems incredible now is that at the beginning of the year, UC was spoken of as an industry that may enter a phase of terminal decline. The 2020 Computer Weekly/TechTarget IT Priorities survey, taking the pulse of more than 3,500 IT professionals from around the world, had to note that the perceived “imminent death” of UC may have been be overstated.

In what was good news for the US industry, the survey found that at some point in 2020, 35% planned to implement UC, including team collaboration software and then VoIP (27%), videoconferencing in general (14%) and webconferencing (6%). It would not be highly speculative to assume that the 35% mark for collaboration was probably hit around the third week in March, if not some time before, and will end up maybe twice as high, if not higher, by December 2020.

Despite there being plenty of opportunity for managed service providers (MSPs) and inter-cloud connectivity providers at the time the survey was conducted, the study found that 57% of surveyed firms were considering MSPs for any services. VoIP (21% of respondents) was found to be the most popular area for a managed service, and 17% considered UC an ideal candidate for such a service delivery, the same as for managed network services. Videoconferencing as a service was considered by just 5% of the sample.

As businesses, governments and society in general have all already been forced to adopt new ways of working and communicating because of the Covid-19 pandemic, to overcome the challenges of the new way or working, collaboration and networking, technology providers indicate that they have seen clients continue to accelerate the adoption of digital technologies globally and open up hitherto unconsidered messaging channels.

Jay Patel, CEO of digital, mobile and social customer service channels consolidator IMImobile, believes Covid-19 has forced a collective rethink of the way we work, even if many of the tools being used are not new. And the way that effectiveness is measured may be due for a welcome change.

Patel told Computer Weekly: “Covid-19 has accelerated the shift towards remote working. The tools needed to work remotely were widely available before the outbreak, but outside of certain sectors – including IT – not a lot of companies used remote working as a primary operating model. That has all changed now, with an increasing number of businesses coming to realise they can gain efficiencies by moving away from the office.

“If businesses change the way they work in reaction to Covid-19, they may end up, unintentionally, chipping away at the outdated concept of ‘presenteeism’. Pre-pandemic, presenteeism was all too often seen as a measure of staff performance in its own right. Now, organisations are having to explore alternative methods of measuring productivity, such as the ‘objectives and key results’ [OKR] method favoured by some Silicon Valley tech companies. Here, employee performance is measured against a small number of key objectives aligned to the organisation’s overall goals.”

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Patel accepted the premise that we will not truly go back to pre-Covid times as far as working practices are concerned. He noted that before the outbreak, organisations were beginning to think about the office’s role, with hot-desking and flexible working being experimented with. Covid-19 will accelerate this shift.

“The office’s main advantage was that it was the place where all the technology was kept, and where the management team was available,” he said. “If this technology is at home, and the management team can speak on video calls, it’s difficult to argue that the office is crucial for staff productivity.

“This has huge implications – even for areas such as urban planning and managing transport infrastructure. For individual organisations, the sooner they start to plan for this shift, the better. This is something we’re now putting into place as part of our drive sustainability at IMImobile, in the expectation that the office will be seen as more of a meeting and collaboration hub, rather than the only place staff should be working.”

The outbreak has also encouraged IMImobile to explore ways it can help customers to manage transitions. This has seen the launch of UC services to help with emergency communications and to set up remote working contact centres, and also working with the UK government and mobile operators to send out critical SMS communications.

One example has been to enable Walsall NHS Trust to make virtual appointments available to patients through an e-clinic, making it possible for dermatology services to continue. It is also investigating how firms could embrace technologies such as rich communications services (RCS), digital messaging channels and chatbots to allow then to communicate more effectively and efficiently with customers. The firm added that features such as rich cards, carousels and suggested replies allow for better customer navigation and quicker responses.

Post-coronavirus future

Such things are shaping the post-coronavirus future that Patel sees as being more video-centric, supporting capabilities in areas such as click-to-connect, file sharing, screen sharing, annotations, snapshots, integrated chat, remote zoom, flashlight and geotagging. “Agents can remotely troubleshoot customer problems by seeing what the customer’s issue is in real time,” he said. “We expect that we will soon be in a world where human contact-centre agents don’t need to be assembled in one location together as the tools exist for them to support customers remotely, and the changes that Covid-19 has brought are what could allow this to happen.”

And that is the new reality. As Omdia noted, it is important to recognise that the virus will pass, but that when this happens, the world of work will look very different from what it does now. A Gartner survey of 229 human resources managers on 2 April revealed that while 30% of their employees worked remotely at least part of the time before the coronavirus pandemic, 81% or more are currently working remotely and 41% are likely to do so at least some of the time once a return to normal working is permitted.

This may well be a conservative estimate. If UC tools’ usage is anywhere as sticky as people believe, then no less than a transformational shift in work, and the technology to support this brave new world, is on the cards.

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