How to achieve unified communications during lockdown

As options for cross-company communications have increased over the past few years, encompassing email, conferencing and instant messaging among others, it’s no wonder that these methods are becoming more unified in order to maintain task progress, as well as general collaboration, during lockdown.

Unified communications are becoming more vital to the success of operations as companies work remotely, and employees plan to do so even after lockdown. As well as streamlining discussions within the organisation, having this in place increases efficiency by saving the time needed to open and switch between various platforms.

But, how can companies best go about achieving unified communications? Let’s explore the steps needed to ensure a seamless process.

Focus on phased cloud migration

For unified communications to truly work, cloud infrastructure is a must. Not only does Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS), as it’s known, allow for the storage of scalable data generated by masses of messages in various forms, but also keeps data secure.

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“The key is to find a provider with experience in a phased migration, moving sites gradually onto a single, secure cloud platform with consistent IP endpoints and soft clients that can be remotely managed from end to end with a robust set of tools,” said John Macario, senior vice-president, channel marketing at Ribbon Communications.

“Managing all of this activity through one streamlined system is far more efficient and cost-effective than dealing with multiple bespoke applications.

“The transition to a unified communications service is now relatively seamless. The process can vary in length depending on the number of sites and users but once the new systems are in place and employees are fully trained, the legacy systems can simply be gradually switched off.”

Be independent of devices and networks

Another aspect that should be considered is the devices that are in use across the organisation.

According to Justin Hamilton-Martin, director at Centile and Swyx, as part of Enreach, unified communications must be as flexible as possible in regards to devices and networks, whether they were being used before lockdown, or provided by the company at the start of it.

“Achieving successful unified communications must start with looking at the bigger picture, and not focusing around just voice, which should be just one of many services enabled by a UC platform,” he said.

“Also, true unified communications should allow users to work how they want, where they want, based on their situation at any given time, rather than being dictated by devices, networks or apps.

“There should be the ability to seamlessly transition communications and workflows across networks, laptops and computers, mobiles. Users should have the flexibility to, for instance, instantly launch a video call with a team from the last email or chat stream with them, or, based on their ‘presence’ setting, have calls automatically diverted to a colleague.”

Focus on user needs

In addition, companies should focus on the needs of users when implementing unified communications, taking into account the technology that is already at the disposal of the workforce.

Sukamal Banerjee, corporate vice-president and head of IoT WoRKS at HCL Technologies, explained: “Businesses that want to implement UCaaS should start by assessing user needs and evaluating their current platform. For example, ask yourself: can employees use their own personal devices? How important is video conferencing for the organisation?

“Also, with large scale remote working, a significant number of employees are now working in an informal setting, meaning it’s vital that security and business continuity are your top priorities. Make sure you understand the security risks before implementing a UCaaS solution, to pre-empt any teething problems that could arise.

“Having a realistic plan is also essential. Set a realistic expectation about your ROI, and accept that there will be a learning curve as employees and the organisation adjust to the new system.

“Choosing a reliable partner can help with this. Many managed service providers specialise in UCaaS, cloud and other emerging technologies, and can bring extensive experience in UCaaS implementation through best practices and tested frameworks.”

Maintain discipline

Managing so many methods of communication and integrating them together can be easier said than done if the system isn’t regularly monitored.

“Unified comms is an ongoing dream for many organisations, and has to be balanced with differing team needs,” said Chris Preston, co-founder of The Culture Builders. “The best solutions work on a ‘Main Line/Local Line’ approach – putting in place central core tools that keep everyone together, but also allowing local tools where there’s a real need.

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“Unified communications need to go hand-in-hand with quality communication. The reason most organisations have many comms tools is because the existing ones get ‘full’ and people migrate to the next one that is currently empty, e.g. Email, Slack, WhatsApp.

“It’s important that central tools are kept moving smoothly, so strong discipline is needed around the quantity and quality of what they are used for.

“Impending redundancy of solution is another challenge – we are all constantly migrating from one platform to another. We are never fully on one comms system for long. Again, think about Email versus Slack – decades apart, but both in use.”

Consider a SIP service

As well as leveraging the cloud and ensuring flexibility during lockdown, an extra boost can be provided to unified communications — and finances — by installing Session Initiation Protocol (SIP).

“Today’s businesses are reliant on using multiple types of communication, such as video, voice and chat, as part of everyday operations,” said James McCall, senior product manager for voice at GTT. “Using a SIP trunking service for your business premises means organisations can integrate these communication mediums over a single IP connection, offering improved collaboration without the high price tag.

“Organisations can potentially save on costs by consolidating data and voice with a single provider. For those with sites around the world, a centralised SIP trunking approach can support all offices via centralised equipment, simplifying IT management and providing a flexible, scalable infrastructure that ensures new business locations can easily be integrated.

“Migrating to a SIP trunking service does, however, require some key considerations: Firstly, determine whether your partner can ensure that flexibility, quality, resiliency and security is maintained in the services delivered to your business premises. For some businesses, it will also be necessary to ensure that sensitive data is encrypted.

“Next, think about the reach that the SIP trunking provider can offer and whether it can allow your business to achieve a global presence, with the ability to easily scale as needed.

“Finally, remember that SIP trunking needs to be tailored to diverse enterprise IT environments and must interoperate with your key unified communication platforms or legacy infrastructures.”

Implement APIs

A final element for consideration when trying to achieve effective unified communications is the installation of application programming interfaces (APIs).

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“APIs can serve as the building blocks for building simple yet effective communications,” said David Parry-Jones, vice-president EMEA at Twilio. “Having these means you don’t need to reinvent the wheel – instead you can plug them in to your existing infrastructure and customise the look and feel to your specific needs.

“The ease and flexibility of APIs mean you can give your developers more creative space to build, iterate and tweak more tailored, personalised solutions, instead of grappling with the ins and outs of the communications infrastructure itself.

“What’s more, APIs are proving their value even more in the current situation, where a distributed, remote-working workforce would make it difficult or even impossible to build a physical infrastructure for this type of need.”

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.