COVID-19 has profoundly redefined the way we work, driving nearly half the U.S. workforce — roughly 80 million people — into work-from-home arrangements, according to Stanford University researchers. As a result, a robust unified communications (UC) infrastructure that enables remote communication, conferencing and collaboration has become a business essential.
Because remote work will almost certainly become a permanent feature once the pandemic has subsided, organizations must develop a strategy for the long-term remote communication and collaboration needs of their workforce. Even organizations that have been using on-premises UC or cloud-based UC-as-a-Service (UCaaS) for several years must rethink their approach.
In the pre-pandemic world, UC tools provided nice-to-have enhancements for office-based employees working with a fast, reliable corporate network. Now, UC must provide foundational technologies for remote workers who are more likely to have speed, latency and security issues with home networks.
Following are two of the critical factors organizations must consider when developing a long-term UC strategy to support a remote workforce:
How should Unified Communications (UC) be deployed?
One of the first things to decide is whether to deploy UC on-premises or in the cloud. On-premises solutions typically allow greater customization and more direct control. Depending on your preferences, owning the UC infrastructure can offer certain cost benefits by enabling year-over-year asset depreciation against tax liabilities.
A chief advantage of cloud UC has always been that the pay-as-you-go model shifts costs to an operating expense, eliminating hefty upfront capital investments. Perhaps more important, cloud-based solutions require far less hands-on management than on-premises solutions, they are easy to access, deploy and scale, and they are continually updated with new features.
There are three basic approaches to cloud UC — hosted UC, hybrid cloud UC and UCaaS. In hosted UC, a provider owns and maintains all the necessary hardware and delivers subscription service in a single-tenant model. In this model, the customer retains administrative duties, including control over moves, adds and changes. This is generally the preferred model for large organizations that have administrative staff and their own phone hardware in place.
UCaaS is a more “hands-off” approach in which hardware, software and administration is all part of the service. UCaaS solutions are usually delivered in a multitenant model, with a single software instance serving multiple customers. This is an attractive option for smaller organizations or startups that have no existing UC investments and lack in-house administrative expertise.
A hybrid model involves a mixture of on-premises and cloud-based features. For example, an organization might use an on-premises IP phone system at headquarters while deploying cloud-based solutions at smaller remote offices.
What can your network handle?
It is important to remember that deploying UC isn’t a matter of rolling out a single application or technology — it involves an ecosystem of highly dependent systems, including voice, video, text, email, conferencing and team collaboration. Whether UC is deployed on-premises or in the cloud, your underlying network infrastructure must be able to support these real-time communication features with negligible latency.
Voice and video traffic are particularly sensitive to network delays, which is a major consideration for remote workers. Video transmission can require 10 times more bandwidth than when transferring data files or emails. Call volume can also dramatically influence bandwidth requirements, as can voice-encoding schemes and compression techniques.
High-quality connectivity is essential for supporting cloud UC solutions. All internal cabling must be compliant with the latest standards, in good condition and properly terminated. Redundant network links are also part of best-practice design. Multiple active links support the traffic shaping and prioritization tools that minimize the effect of network slowdowns.
Many other factors must be considered when developing a long-range strategy for providing employees with the communication, conferencing and collaboration tools they need to work remotely. We’ll take a closer look at some of those in part 2 of our post.