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So how are your remote working tools shaping up?

Breaking free from the office – without breaking the office

Comment By now you’ve got this working-at-home business covered. Even if you find you’re occasionally eating your own weight in biscuits, you’ve bought a lighting kit to look professional on video calls, and you’ve won the fight for bandwidth by bribing the kids to stay off Houseparty.

It’s just as well, because it looks like remote working will become a permanent fixture for many more of us once the Covid19 crisis has passed.

There’s long been plenty of evidence that people want to work from home for some of their working week. But the success of remote working during the pandemic has reduced business fears about the need to rely on the internet or any lack of productivity that might come with staff working from home. Employers will rethink the where and how of work.

For instance, Gartner finds that 41 per cent of employees want to continue working remotely after the Covid19 crisis has passed - up from 30 per cent who worked remotely before the pandemic. In addition, nearly three-quarters of CFOs aim to move at least some staff to permanently remote positions after the pandemic. Plus, many CFOs will also look to cut their on-premises IT costs – 62 per cent will look to cut expenses this year due to COVID-19 related disruptions.

The upshot is that business and IT leaders are likely to look more closely at adopting unified communications services. These services underpin the greater online collaboration that goes with remote working and can also support productivity and customer service once some semblance of normality returns.

Businesses have been moving towards implementing unified communications (UC) solutions in the last few years - Grand View Research last year estimated the market has a GAGR of 16.8 per cent and would be worth $167.1bn globally by the end of 2025. The growth comes from ongoing digital transformation and the rise of the digital workforce, with people expecting to access the tools they need to perform, wherever they are, and whatever device they use.

Combine that with the continuing enterprise trend to put IT infrastructure in the cloud and the uptake of agile methodologies to develop products and services, and you have an environment that can fully utilise remote working and the benefits of UC once the paralysis caused by covid 19 is over.

PBX in the cloud

An IP-based PBX in the cloud provides an easily managed PBX that is built with teleworking in mind and underlines the business case for replacing the patchwork on on-premises and legacy systems that frequently pervade an enterprise. By using a UC phone system, a business can unify phone calls, video conferencing, SMS, email, live chat and so on, and users can share and access data all from one central location. They can collaborate in real time and hold audio and video conferences with a number of people.

Many workplace scenarios can benefit from installing an IP-based PBX in the cloud to enable remote working both during and after the Covid19 pandemic. Call centres can be virtual, with employees or agents spread around a number of locations. They can use a cloud-based call centre platform that combines all their communication tools in one place and work easily from wherever they are based. Staff working remotely can call each other and collaborate from any device, anywhere, and meetings can also be virtual, with the use of cloud-based meetings platforms that encompass voice, chat and video.

Productivity gains

While enabling remote working is the current most obvious benefit, there are plenty of other advantages to replacing an on-premise or legacy system with a cloud-based IP PBX that can deliver UC. Productivity certainly increases, because teams can connect with each other in whatever way is easiest, from anywhere, using any device. And it’s definitely cheaper - a move into the cloud means companies can also move from a capex model to an opex model, and according to industry estimates, an IP-based system can cut business telecoms costs by up to 80 per cent.

A cloud-based PBX that delivers UC will enable stronger performance, because the business can deal with customers faster, solve their problems more quickly, and generally be more responsive to any issues. So the business strengthens its reputation, customers have a better experience and become more loyal, while staff feel they have more freedom to work as they want and so become less likely to churn.

What about other benefits? Traditional phone systems can be far from straightforward to scale and you can quickly run into problems like additional licensing costs or underpowered hardware when you try to add extensions, all problems that disappear with an IP-based PBX.

Working with IP-based telephony and UC that adheres to open standards rather than a proprietary system also delivers greater flexibility. It frees a business from vendor lock-in and a potentially heavy maintenance burden, and integration with other business systems becomes easier to manage.

Even a complex scenario like a call centre, which is difficult and expensive to set up with proprietary telephony systems, becomes more straightforward even for sophisticated call centre functions. You should make sure your IP-based PBX allows contact-centre team members to work from various remote locations and includes features like monitoring of call queues in real time, reporting on call wait times and abandoned calls, access to a range of tools to train and monitor contact centre agents, call back, integration with a range of CRM, ERP and accounting systems, to name a few.

It’s not all child’s play though - you need to consider bandwidth, security, and remote team management when moving from on-premise to an IP-based UC system that allows staff to work remotely. And of course, not everyone’s internet access is the same, so you need to ensure you choose products that can handle lower bandwidth connections on video call.

Remote control

Security must be of paramount importance when people aren’t co-located and are working together across the public internet. While we’ve all seen the popularity of videoconferencing applications like Zoom skyrocket during the pandemic, we’ve also seen how it’s fallen short on security issues by sending user data to Facebook and allowing meeting hosts to track attendees.

Some of us may even have witnessed the phenomenon of “zoombombing”, when uninvited guests join video conferences to hurl abuse at participants or share pornography. Using UC products that detect and automatically blacklist SIP attack tools and that guarantee end-to-end encryption will allay any fears that such products are somehow less secure.

Also, the management of a remote team brings a host of new considerations. Remote workers can easily feel isolated or feel that they lack the information they need to do their jobs properly. And it’s easy for managers to worry that their teams are being unproductive or not being adequately supervised. These issues need to be addressed robustly for remote working to succeed.

There’s been lots of advice published recently on this subject, but at the core of much of it is a commitment to communicate regularly. Consider daily interaction, set task-oriented goals and deliver clear expectations for communication. But also, be sure to offer emotional support. Ask employees how they are coping with working remotely. If they are struggling, listen to their concerns and help them put a plan in place to feel more in control.

Same as it ever was

The covid 19 pandemic led Brighton, UK-based call centre Call The Market to go fully remote in mid-March, as call centre director Michael Skillman explains: “We haven’t furloughed anyone, all our 50-odd agents are now working remotely. The only thing that’s different is that we can’t look our agents in the eyes.”

Call The Market was already a cloud-based contact centre, says Skillman, so it was relatively straightforward to set everyone up for remote working. They handed out laptops to all the agents who didn’t already have one, sent everyone links to the various pieces software they would need, including a soft phone, so that they can run everything from a PC at home.

“We gave them all the infrastructure they needed, VPN access, access to CRM and all of that. There’s nothing that agents used to do on a call cycle that they’re not able to do now. Everything is exactly as if they were sitting at their desk in the office,” says Skillman. Internet speeds haven’t been an issue, he says, and Call The Market is working three shifts around the clock, just as it has always done.

The experience has changed Skillman’s attitude to remote working. “Previously it wasn’t anything I ever wanted to do,” he says, “I like to have everyone in the office and run it that way. But I'm very happy with the results that we're achieving with remote working, and it’s shown me that I'm not limited by office seats and office space.” The business is still able to monitor call rates, monitor calls, live-listen to calls, listen to recordings, effectively nothing is different. He adds: “We can still manage everyone very well from home. Staff safety has to be paramount, so I'm not going to rush back into the office.” ®

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