Can implementing unified communications cause behaviour problems?

Implementing unified communications (UC) isn’t as much a technical challenge as it is a cultural problem. Will IT teams find themselves teaching employees how not to be a distraction to each other?

Implementing unified communications technology is not the hassle it once was, but there’s still a ways to go in overcoming the cultural challenges that arise in implementing collaboration tools. Experts in the field warn that some users may need coaxing before they use the applications, while others might be too eager, creating distractions for their colleagues.

Used properly, unified communications (UC) should mean that you no longer find yourself playing phone tag -- your message should reach the other person via the route that lets them read it and reply fastest and most easily. And often you can manage all of these communications -- email, instant messaging and voice -- through one application.

Is collaboration a distraction? Not with unified communications training

But all of this instant communication can also become distracting if users aren’t properly trained.

Research into the psychology of interruption started over a century ago when it was discovered that telegraph operators were more likely to make errors if they were spoken to while keying a message. More recently, researchers from the University of California at Irvine discovered that when office workers were interrupted, it took them on average 25 minutes to return to their original task -- if indeed they ever managed it.

Of course, some interruptions are valuable, such as the phone call that solves the problem you’re wrestling with, or the fire alarm. The challenge is to ensure that they arrive with the appropriate level of attention-getting distraction.

This is where training is vital, said Des Lekerman, managing director of business consultancy and systems integrator Eurodata Systems.

“The user has to decide the right medium to use, which means they have to understand their presence status and what it means, and how they can set different modes for different people. You could have one mode for members of your project team and another for other colleagues,” Lekerman said.

While it’s difficult to force an initiator to use a specific communication medium, it is possible to alter this communication through technical settings. Tweets, for example, can be converted to emails. And though social media within UC can be incredibly distracting, technology can help control that problem too. “In the call centre you can have a device listening for mentions of particular words, so it’s able to spot patterns and bring them to your attention -- it shields the user from [constant] social media distractions,” said Chris Barrow, advanced technologies marketing manager at Avaya.

When it comes to social media, it’s also important to train users to avoid inappropriate language or content and to remember the differences in using these tools for business versus personal communication.

“People are more open online because of the perceived anonymity. What we’re always told is never put anything on Facebook or Twitter that you wouldn’t say to a customer face-to-face,” Barrow said.

Is age an issue in implementing unified communications?

It’s also important to note how various demographics will respond to collaboration technologies, noted Lekerman of Eurodata Systems.

“The older generation in business usually doesn’t understand unified communications,” he said. “Younger people are used to communicating with the people they want, and not with those they don’t. Older people don’t have the patience for it, but are often the ones holding the purse-strings.”

Lekerman added, “Some people will abuse these tools, just as they do today with the phone system and personal calls to Australia or wherever. You can put in control and monitoring software to curb abuse, but you're trying to give people control of their environment, so I guess to some extent it’s a leap of faith.”

But generational differences don’t always fit stereotypes, especially when it comes to using UC to enable flexible working or teleworking, Barrow points out.

“The perception is it’s young people that adapt to flexible working most easily, but the reality is almost the opposite,” he explained. “Young people crave social interaction and are the ones most likely to use Facebook and so on inappropriately if not trained. Older employees are more of a blank canvas.” 

 “There’s only three forms of communication: voice, video and text,” he concluded. “The question is how people will spend their time [among those], and that’s cultural, not technological, so you’re more likely to need trainers than technologists.”

Read more on Unified communications