Unified communication (UC) is defined as the integration of business communication technologies, such as phone systems, instant messaging, screen sharing, SMS, and more. Over the past twenty years, we've been overwhelmed by new devices and communication technology, and so unified communication exists to tie all these technologies together, to allow seamless communication and effective collaboration.
In UC, all these devices can be connected and controlled through a single user interface, which is accessible across devices. It allows you to reach individuals through the most suitable device at a given time, and you only need to have one number. If you want to switch devices, you can do so with just one click.
Why is unified communications so important in 2021?
Covid-19 and the rise of hybrid working means unified communications has become even more important to businesses. Some recent research shows:
- Customer interest in UCaaS (unified communications as a service) spiked 86% in the midst of the pandemic
- The UCaaS market was worth $23 billion in 2019, but is projected to reach $60 billion by 2027
- It's predicted that, of $1m to $10m companies, 69% will have transitioned to UCaaS by the end of 2021
- UCaaS' monthly recurring revenue increased 29% in the 12-month period beginning April 2019
- In the Asia Pacific region where the virus was first reported, UCaaS provider Voxbone recorded double the number of online conference minutes on its network
In 2020, an average of 37% of the UK workforce worked from home, up from 27% in 2019, and 24% of businesses said they intended to continue with homeworking going forward.
This shift to the digital workforce has led companies to think more carefully about how they can best communicate with employees whilst everyone is working from different locations. For example, there was a sudden need for IP voice telephony, which aided in accelerating the growth of UC.
Businesses are diverse and complex. They're made up of various teams using differing technologies, information systems, and devices. One employee may have multiple different ways of contacting customers or collaborating with colleagues, including VoIP phone systems, instant messaging, emails, project management software, and document sharing.
This makes tracking communication with customers and keeping track of various projects and information difficult. This can lead to repeat work, and the delivery of poor customer service. Unified communications exists to make communication a whole lot more streamlined and interconnected.
To put it simply, rather than having a patchwork quilt of various technologies, unified communications allows you to have an all-in-one solution.
We spoke to two businesses about how UC has helped them:
Will Ward, CEO of ecommerce company Translation HQ, commented:
“There is an add-on app called Glip included with RingCentral. It allows for easy remote collaboration and chats with the whole team. Because it works with our phone system, it is nicely integrated into the existing workflow.
“We have had more spare time during the lockdown and it has allowed us to push forward projects that were due to be released much later on. Simplified communication really makes a lot of difference. We have email, SMS, and phone calls already, these channels are often very busy with existing client communications. Glip is kept just for internal chats and it keeps it easy to manage.”
Unified communications as a service
Commonly referred to as UCaaS, unified communications as a service refers to unified communications software that's hosted by an external provider on the cloud. This means you don’t have to set up your own technology infrastructure – instead, it's installed by a specialist UCaaS provider. Many UCaaS providers also offer contact centre capabilities, including call routing, auto attendant, and CRM integrations.
There are two main types of UCaaS:
1. Single tenancy
With single tenancy software, each user has their own custom UC package. This makes it more flexible to each individual’s needs, however it's usually more expensive.
Multiple users still have their own secure login, but packages are the same across all users. This makes it a cheaper option, however it lacks the flexibility that single tenancy provides.
The benefits of unified communications
Rather than having multiple technologies to deal with, all with varying costs, UC provides an all-in-one service. Additionally, it allows your employees to easily work remotely, reducing the need for office space. UCaaS solutions also reduce operational costs and the manpower needed for maintenance.
Enhances collaboration and teamwork
UC allows teams to collaborate more easily, which breaks down silos. Employees have access to each other and the same software across the organisation, no matter where they're based. This makes sharing and staying in touch easier, and gives employees greater flexibility.
UC simplifies communication and streamlines processes, which allows teams to accomplish more than before within the same timeframe.
Improves customer engagement
With UC, businesses can solve customer problems faster, and in turn improve their business’s reputation.
Gives greater mobility
UC gives people more freedom to work as they choose, which increases business mobility.
Easy to set up
UCaaS setup can be done by a provider and so doesn’t require vast I.T. knowledge. It can simply be migrated to your existing infrastructure. This also reduces the need for maintenance staff.
Good for businesses of all sizes
UCaaS allows you to have bespoke features, so you can pay only for what you need – whether your company has a thousand employees or 50.
The features of unified communications technologies
UcaaS offers hundreds of different features, and the flexibility of the offerings means that you can get a bespoke package for your company. Here are just some of the most popular features:
One inbox for all
You can get your voice messages, fax, emails, and regular text messages sent to a single mailbox that can be accessed either with a telephone or a regular email.
Presence allows you to know the availability of other users, whether they're online, offline, or away.
Simply refers to calling someone at the click of a button or text. These connections can occur via landline phone call, SMS, or VoIP call.
Voicemail to email
Tried to call a client but they won’t pick up? Instead of leaving an awkward voicemail on their phone, voicemail to email converts the audio into text and gets sent via an email.
Find me, follow me
This refers to technology that enables incoming phone calls to be received at different locations, meaning you don’t need multiple numbers for different devices – instead using a one-number-for-all solution.
Call control simply refers to telecom networks monitoring and maintaining connections once they've been established.
Speech recognition can be used as an effective way of gaining customer requirements and complete identification and verification before being automatically routed. It can also aid in caller sentiment analysis. Although speech recognition is never 100% accurate, it continually learns from callers to improve its success rate of automatic recognition. If the caller is not understood, the call can be sent to a person without the caller knowing.
A screen pop is simply a window or dialogue box that automatically displays all relevant caller and account information on your screen during a call.
Calls can be re-routed to other locations to make sure no call is missed, and data can still be accessed so opportunities aren't lost.
Call reporting and analytics
Some unified communication systems include analytics solutions, allowing you to gain insights into call duration, call conversion rate, and more.
Mobile twinning involves connecting your mobile to your business desk extension, meaning any call to the desk extension will result in both phones ringing.
Allows callers to be automatically transferred to an extension without the intervention of an operator or receptionist.
Ensures the call goes to the most appropriate person through pre-established criteria.
Having the right CRM alongside, or integrated into, your UC system is essential. Integrating the two means you don’t have to look up the same customer separately in both your CRM and billing software. This reduces the time spent looking for customer information.
This allows you to see when your colleagues or clients are available, so you don’t double book them into any calls.
Often, unified communication technologies will include the ability to share documents and work on them simultaneously. These can be annotated on by those they're shared with.
Virtual meeting room
A virtual meeting room is a collaborative space that's hosted on the cloud. It's always open, so you don’t need to set anything up. Virtual meeting rooms are perfect for spontaneous calls with three or more participants, weekly team meetings, or customer meetings.
Video conferencing is available across devices, allowing you to share presentations with remote teams.
Challenges in unified communications
Persuading people to change the way they work and adopt more technologies can be a challenge. Companies using UC will need to give training to ensure that uptake is high, and employees properly understand the benefits of this new approach and that it will actually allow for more flexibility. Thankfully, UC is easy to use and adapt to.
When you move your UC to external controls, you're no longer responsible for protecting the sensitive data contained within. However, UCaaS providers understand these risks, and so are ensuring best security measures that utilise session border controllers (SBC), an imperative aspect of UCaaS protection.
SBCs can perform encryption and are needed for UC cloud services where firewalls are ineffective, as they don’t understand caller IDs and temporary sessions. All service providers should have an SBC, but it's worth asking to make sure, and to be sure it's compatible with your own.
All data that passes through your UC provider's network should be encrypted – not just in storage, but also in transit. Voice traffic needs to be encrypted to prevent hacking during the flow of data.
Secure data centre
A UC provider should have its own technology infrastructure with strong protections, redundant power and cooling, remote backups, disaster recovery, and secured entry, and its security should be backed by independent certifications. Find out whether the platform is kept continuously secure through frequent updates.
The risk of using personal devices
There are risks associated with employees using their personal devices for work, such as data leakage. Furthermore, it's difficult to apply updates on personal devices in a centralised way, as different devices require different data encryption.
The reliability of the connection
A key consideration is network connection. UC depends heavily on reliable internet connections, and therefore a local ISP won’t be efficient. It may result in a low quality phone line and slow connections, rendering the purpose of UCaaS ineffective. Ensure your UCaaS provider offers fibre-optic internet connectivity.
Customer renewal rate
Looking at (or asking for) a provider’s customer renewal rate can give a clearer indication of how satisfied customers are with the service.
What will the ‘future office’ look like?
Remote working: If this year has demonstrated anything, it’s that most office-based companies can do just fine with a remote workforce. With employees getting a good taste for home working, it’s likely many more will request it when returning to the office. It’s predicted that 30% of people will continue to work from home multiple days per week even when Covid is no longer a concern.
The physical office: The office space will have to adapt to limited physical interaction. Furthermore, more companies are looking for smaller or more flexible office spaces, ditching the permanent office – 73% of business leaders predict downsizing their office. Other likely trends include staggered working hours, one-way systems, compulsory mask usage, sanitisation points, increased cleaning, and fewer large gatherings.
Technology: Zoom’s revenue increased by 169% last year, and other communications platforms like Slack, Teams, and Skype have seen similar increases. Consumer interest in UC spiked 86%, leading to a growth of virtual office and contact centres.
The home office: 2020 saw a vast increase in the purchasing of home office equipment. More than seven million people (41%) have bought new office equipment during lockdown, forking out £233 on average to make their home suitable for work. And it seems that home offices are here to stay.
Virtual offices and contact centres: Nowadays, you could call a company as a customer and be speaking to someone who's sitting at home in their living room. The call is simply allocated across a network of remote employees, based on who's available at the time and who's best suited to take the call. This has largely reduced the need for physical contact offices.
But will we lose the office completely?
Remote spaces certainly do have downfalls – you may be reliant on your personal internet connection, working in unsuitable or busy work spaces, and facing a lack of instant support and collaboration with colleagues. For this reason, it seems unlikely we will see the total death of the office, but greater flexibility and choice of where to work from is sure to continue.
Overall, unified communications can provide a more seamless and collaborative way of working that allows your employees to work from anywhere, and remain as productive as before. As remote working becomes more common worldwide, the shift to making communication and collaboration easy will become more and more key going forward.