Unified Communications platforms are seen as the next wave of communications products. But are they right for small businesses?
Unified Communications (UC) is a concept where a business uses one seamless system for working collaboration and communication. This usually includes everything from calls, to messages, video conferencing, file sharing and internal social networking. Many companies use limited and outdated technology to communicate internally and externally. A common example might be entirely separate systems for email, messaging, storage, task management and conferencing. This can cause all kinds of problems, from a lack of organisation to loss of data and vulnerability, and significant extra cost.
There are two essential types of business communication tools. Those that are used for real-time communication (for example video calling) are defined as synchronous communication. Other tools allow communication on-demand (e.g. email) and are classed as asynchronous. Traditionally, there was a divide between these two types that would often cause friction in businesses. UC software focuses on combining synchronous and asynchronous activity into one platform.
In short, the fewer (but more powerful) systems in place, the more smoothly UC can be achieved.
There are now communications-enabled business programmes allowing you to communicate with both customers and employees from the same business application (for example, calling a customer from a support system). These seemingly simple extra features can lead to significant efficiency savings, particularly when combined with integrated reporting and administration. By using a single platform, UC also allows companies to roll out a Bring Your Own Device policy, increasing mobility, reducing hardware and maintenance costs.
UC greatly encourages remote working. As fewer employees need to be in the same location, less physical space is needed, which in turn cuts down on overheads, office space and energy usage. Companies with remote working and soft-phones often implement hot-desking policies. It’s not just for show, either. According to a recent study, 60% of employees are likely to work overtime if they are allowed to do so from home, and 61% of those implementing flexible working saw an increase in their business’s bottom line.
Just like PBX systems, Unified Communications tools can be hosted in the cloud or can be managed on-premise, with the correct hardware. On-premise UC often requires expensive hardware and needs ongoing maintenance, support and training, including troubleshooting and upgrades. Cloud-based systems leave the management and maintenance to the provider.
According to Gartner, telephony (essentially, the ability to make calls), is the core of UC, accompanied by IM with Presence, messaging (including email and voicemail) and meeting solutions (with video and audio options) as major features. Other sought-after elements consist of fax, file sharing and conferencing.
There are a variety of tools that appear to tread on the edges of this functionality. Slack’s rise to prominence has been meteoric, and their recent IPO has pulled them firmly into wider business awareness than their core start-up demographic. Slack offers video meetings, collaboration, instant messaging and file sharing, but not wider telephony. Facebook Workplace, though an excellent tool for business, does not offer a “true” UC package. Microsoft Teams, however, is much closer, offering a huge variety of collaboration tools, and combined with direct routing, becoming a genuine unified communications tool.
UC popularity is increasing rapidly and – as you would expect – the number of businesses looking to take advantage of this growing adoption is rising too. Many SMEs start by looking at systems they are already using, and what best integrates with them. Microsoft has the huge advantage of combining their vast range of products, including Office 365, SharePoint, OneDrive and others, with a more “disruptive” solution like Teams. But in reality, many solutions are built to work in tandem. Smaller businesses with Google’s G-Suite may find using Slack for collaboration and Google for everything else works well. The one thing missing is telephony. What Teams provides these businesses is true unification of communications software – but this may not be right for every business.
There is little doubt that UC will become the standard for most businesses of any size. But with a fiercely competitive market, the only question is which solution will come out on top. You can find out more about Gradwell and our award-winning solutions here.