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By Troy Sempsrott, Director of Architecture – Collaboration at Logicalis US

If there’s one business takeaway that we’ve all learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that we were moving too slowly toward serious adoption of the collaboration tools that make it possible to operate in a work-from-anywhere world. And while your community – whether business, government or educational – may have been thrust into fast-forward mode when COVID struck, perhaps the single most important thing we have all discovered is this: Remote work is here to stay.

While there are no shortage of opinions on the matter, most pundits predict that, post-COVID, somewhere between 20% and 30% of all positions that were formerly in an office will never go back – they will remain remote forever. The idea of “remote forever” brings up a number of challenges, however, as well as some creative and, in many cases, money-saving solutions.

On-Prem vs. Cloud
Like many companies, your all-remote journey likely began with your phone systems, which then led you to look for better and more permanent decisions about unified communications in general. After your business made the very fast COVID move to all-remote working, you probably realized you now had significant numbers of fairly expensive phones just sitting on desks in empty offices. So if you were looking for cost-cutting measures, you naturally began to question how you could simplify your calling systems and reduce costs in the process. The answer? Moving all your telephony needs to a cloud-based solution where you won’t have to worry about on-premise servers, patches, upgrades or maintenance contracts. Additionally, by making the move to the cloud, those existing phones can often travel with your employees to be easily connected from wherever they are working.

If this makes sense to you, you’re in good company. Based on the robust features, functions, portals, analytics and dashboards available in software solutions operated and managed in the cloud, by next year, experts say up to 90% of IT leaders will forego the purchase of new premises-based unified communications infrastructures – 40% more than previous estimates.1 In fact, more than half of enterprise organizations have already moved part or all of their telephony solutions to the cloud, and another 31% are expected to do so over the next couple of years.1

If your goal as an enterprise organization is to create a truly collaborative work-from-anywhere telephony environment while still providing a secure, private connection, then an integrated Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) solution is likely to be your top choice. A Frost & Sullivan study found this to be true, with 43% of primary IT/telecom decision makers saying UCaaS is easier to manage, 39% saying it is more secure than other telephony choices, and 36% saying it will enable them to reduce costs, all opinions from people in-the-know which make a cloud-based solution the most attractive option on the table.1 And when moving your telephony to the cloud, a natural next step to consider is a cloud-based all-in-one communication and collaboration solution like Cisco’s UCM Cloud, Webex Calling or Microsoft Teams Voice.

User Access and Adoption
As COVID struck and entire workforces just like yours became remote nearly overnight, businesses that didn’t have the right collaboration tools in place began scrambling to add them at lightning speed. And when lightning speed wasn’t fast enough, remote workers began piecing together consumer-grade apps that allowed them to do their jobs from home and continue capturing what otherwise would have been lost wages – an effective band-aid approach, but a nightmare shadow IT scenario for everyone on your technology team tasked with creating a secure, business-grade collaborative environment essentially on the fly.

Once businesses tackled the telephony part of the equation, however, the rest of the collaboration solution quickly came into focus. With Cisco and Microsoft Teams Voice solutions capable of actually replacing their corporate phone system, what remote workers needed next was a secure, reliable way to access web-based meetings, participate in video-based conference calls and video break-out sessions, and store and share collaborative files.  They also needed to know that, no matter which solution their company chose, they would have seamless integration capabilities with the thousands of third-party apps on the market – including must-haves like SalesForce and OneDrive.

Giving users access to the significant number of tools these platforms have to offer brings together business calling, chat, meetings, calendar, email, video endpoint support, and shareable files all in a single solution that you can easily scale up or down simply by adding or removing seats. Now, with users in the cloud, and with these tools accessible from any location with an internet connection, people can truly be ready to work. Still, as the rush to remote got underway, not everyone that had access to these solutions used them.

That wasn’t due to a lack of popularity, though: WebEx, for example, registered a record 324 million meeting attendees in just the month of March alone, just as the pandemic was causing people to work from home.2 And people spent 5.5 billion meeting minutes on WebEx in the first 11 days of March alone.3 Yet, according to a PwC survey, the No. 1 reason employees say they go into the office is to collaborate with other team members. So, conversely, as the world’s “new normal” came to pass, difficulty collaborating was also the top reason people gave for being unproductive as they sheltered in place, second only to balancing work with home duties such as childcare.4

Having a regular routine can certainly help with the latter, but to be truly productive, your remote workers need to actually use the collaboration tools you provide them. It’s important to remember that collaborative teams are becoming very diverse; for the first time ever, five generations coexist in the workplace – Traditionalist, Baby Boomer, Gen X, Millennial, and Gen Y – and each have very different communication preferences, a fact which makes collaboration challenging.5 Some were simply reluctant to use video while at home to collaborate with colleagues even though experts say video may be the single most effective way to stay engaged. Others simply needed training; in the rush to remote, many organizations focused on obtaining and launching the necessary toolsets to stay connected, but all too often forgot to train users who may not be tech-savvy to properly use them.

Employee Communication and Productivity
Some remote-working employees report their productivity while working from home has improved because they have fewer interruptions and distractions throughout the day. According to Global Workplace Analytics, a research and consulting firm that helps employers understand and prepare for the future of work, 97% of the U.S. workers who responded to a recent survey the firm conducted said they worked from home during the pandemic. 6 Clearly, with all of those remote workers spending 85% of their time collaborating via meetings, email, conference calls and instant messaging5, productivity is critically important, but it can be hindered by the use of multiple and disparate applications. In fact, 68% say they spend at least 30 minutes a day switching between apps, and 56% report that switching between apps makes it harder to get essential work done.5

In other cases, employees who were unaccustomed to working from home struggled to create and live by a new self-imposed routine, which left some feeling disconnected from the workplace. When in the office, these same employees may have been superstars, moving swiftly from one office or cubicle to another with printed documents in tow to confer and collaborate on with co-workers. In an online setting, those employees can be equally productive when they take full advantage of WebEx or Teams capabilities that give them structure and a normal workflow. The right collaboration solution can help you to keep your workers fully engaged, while allowing them to share files with one another as easily as walking them from office to office and archiving them for safekeeping and future collaborative efforts.

The solution you select must have both the ease-of-use and the delivery of a natural workflow that are critical to making “remote forever” the mantra as your business decides what to do about remote workers in a soon-to-be post-COVID world. With so many employees asking for more permanent work-from-home positions, and with the cost-savings attributable to those arrangements, the way you did business before COVID may be about to change.

As a result, if your company is still on the remote working fencepost, it has become more critical than ever before to choose a side, adopting a platform that will give your remote employees the flexibility to work from anywhere, and the structure to be successful when doing so. There are several good choices for collaborative platforms available today, but ultimately, it comes down to selecting one that is simple enough for even your most non-technical employees to understand and embrace. While you and your technology department may be impressed with the capabilities and possibilities offered by new collaboration tools, you must also think like the employees who will use this technology to avoid purchasing something too complex to be widely adopted.

Security: Built In or Add-On?
Choosing the right solution to allow a truly team-based collaborative effort while outside the office is only half the battle, though. If you are like most SMB and enterprise businesses, you have been comparing Cisco’s WebEx, Microsoft Teams and Zoom. While Zoom’s popularity soared at the start of the COVID work-from-home crisis, it quickly became clear that Zoom had numerous shortcomings in both business and educational settings, including a serious lack of security, something people seemed all-too-ready to accept at the start.

Workers can do their jobs with collaboration tools that don’t include security, so security became an afterthought at best. Cybercriminals know this, and they will be all too happy to exploit these vulnerabilities as time marches on. So, when choosing a collaboration solution for your organization, be sure security is top of mind.

With Cisco’s WebEx and Microsoft Teams, security is provided in the cloud, and every file shared in these collaborative environments is encrypted, while still searchable. When evaluating which platform to purchase – whether it’s WebEx, Teams, Zoom or something entirely different – it’s also crucial to determine if security features like file encryption, content filtering and more are built in or if they are add-ons that also add to the price and manageability of the system.

Before the rush to remote happened, your people were content with their secure on-premises office networks. But now that they are working from home and your IT teams have no idea what security measures – if any – each worker has in place, security has to be managed at the enterprise edge to foster safe collaboration in today’s, and tomorrow’s, remote world. We will take a deeper look at remote worker security solutions in our next article.

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1Logicalis: Cisco UCM Cloud
2Reuters: Cisco’s Webex Draws Record 324 Million Users in March
3CNBC: Cisco Says Webex Video-Calling Service is Seeing Record Usage Too, Even as Competitor Zoom Draws All the Attention
4PwC: When Everyone Can Work from Home, What’s the Office For?
5Logicalis: “Is Your Organization Ready for a Teaming Collaboration Application?”
6Global Workplace Analytics: Survey Reveals 76% of Global Office Workers Want to Continue Working from Home post-COVID-19