Unified communications (UC) has come a long way since the idea first emerged in the digitisation of analogue networks in the 1980s. The term refers to the integration of a range of communication systems to optimise business processes, and covers a wide range of tools, including enterprise collaboration, video, mobile software, messaging services, telephony, and video, audio and web conferencing.

The potential benefits of UC are vast. It can streamline communications and enhance mobility, and cut costs by reducing travel expenses and phone bills and replacing legacy hardware.

UC offers greater flexibility as you can scale the service down or up at different times of the year, experiment with new ideas, and boost interoperability by keeping communications in the same place and enhancing the user experience.

Moving to UC is a strategic opportunity to improve efficiency and productivity, but the best choice of the options available depends on your individual needs.

Cloud-based unified communications

A UC system can be a pricey investment if it entails an infrastructure overhaul and the set-up of a customised system. The adaptation time needed for a fundamental change in working practices could also amount to a high cost.

Those costs can be cut by the growing prominence of cloud computing, one of a number of wider technological innovations that are altering the UC landscape. 

Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) is gradually replacing on-premises hardware to take advantage of the advanced communication capabilities. Both of the two dominant products in UC — Cisco Spark and Microsoft’s Office 365 Enterprise — are beginning to push their users towards cloud-hosted solutions.

Cloud-hosted UC is more easily deployed and updated with new features and services than on-premise options, and has lower hardware and installation costs. The full extent of the savings depends on how efficiently the cloud providers manage their systems in comparison with employees on-premise.

There are some issues with cloud systems that can limit its value. They might not provide as rapid a response to individual issues as can be found on-premises, where IT support is provided by the customer instead of the vendor. They also aren’t tailored to the specific needs of individual organisations and users.

A gradual user migration from an on-premises setup to a cloud system could be a sensible approach to phasing out old systems and replacing them with new ones. A cautious strategy is to add separate UC components individually rather than a full roll-out.

A premises-based option might be more useful for larger offices, but smaller branches or remote workers may prefer a cloud alternative. Another option is a hybrid system. This can combine on-premises equipment, such as in-house telephone communications, with cloud services, such as videoconferencing.

Hybrid strategies have a number of strengths, but interoperability can be a weakness. A company that offers a service that works in the same way both on-premises and in the cloud offers a way can diminish this problem.

Mobile unified communications

Cloud computing is just one of the technological trends altering the UC landscape. Offices and conference rooms are the traditional realm of UC, but a mobile presence is becoming crucial for UC uptake due the proliferation of devices with advanced functions and cultural shifts in both the professional and private lives of users.

The flexibility added to communications through smartphones and tablets is of growing importance in an age of mobile working, flexible hours and user-focused technology that requires instant business communication that is constantly available wherever you are.

Remote communications have traditionally been enabled through company-issued device. That is no longer always the case. Connected to the mobile focus is a growing support for “bring your own device” (BYOD), which provides a user-friendly method to merge mobile devices with a corporate UC platform.

Integrating communication tools and embracing mobile devices and BYOD can boost productivity and collaboration, and lead to happier users and efficient remote working.

Cultural differences

Social networking has transformed many aspects of our lives, and UC is no different. Contemporary UC integrates social media functionality in a secure and controlled way that retains similar features and interfaces to those used outside the workplace.

Connected to the changing methods of communication are the varied needs of different ages. Millennials interact across numerous platforms, but older workers may prefer traditional tools such as conferencing or messaging. An inclusive approach to all their needs can bridge the generation gap and create a unified network that combines various communications tools across multiple platforms.

Security is another area that merits attention. Cloud services can provide strong data security, but regulations may require on-site storage of data. UC brings risks by combining disparate technologies, but information transferred across networks can be encrypted. Effective user authentication systems and encrypting the data that is transferred can lead to better protection than is provided by separate communication systems. 

Like any system, UC is only as effective as the users make it. Comprehensive training, user testing and feedback, a pilot phases and an initial small scale roll-out to are all ways to improve uptake. But the best way to boost adoption rates is the same as for introducing any other system: provide the tools that users want.

Many companies in the UK still don’t use UC, but that looks set to change. By 2020 there will be nearly 100 percent penetration of UC in companies, according to a survey conducted by PwC in 2015. UC is becoming a must-have for businesses, whichever option they choose.