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Business Communications Will Never Be the Same

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As we move into the fourth week of shelter in place in California, my home state, the capability of the IP-based meeting software to enable a large portion of us to continue to work from home is saving huge parts of the economy. Imagine if this virus had emerged in 1990, or in 1980 when cell phones were in their infancy. While there are challenges and hiccups, cloud-based meetings and collaboration software are critical to maintaining economic velocity over the next three months. And once the shelter in place measures lift, we will step out into a new world — one with a very different future for business communications.
 
For years, unified communications (UC) experts have debated why the adoption and use of UC technologies were relatively low. Organizations provided these tools to groups of users, and adoption and use were spotty at best. Many workers preferred and stayed with the familiar of telephony and email.
 
All of that has changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the knowledge workers that were the prime potential users for meetings and collaboration tools, virtually all are now working remotely and using the tools their company provides, or open market alternatives, to do their job. Small organizations that were investing in and using meeting and collaboration tools are using them all day. And rapidly, we are extending the use of these tools outside of the knowledge workers to information and service workers (the frontline workers). Even among frontline workers, UC tools are seeing rapid adoption, for both enabling workflow processes while distancing and for team/company meetings.
 
Essentially, COVID-19 is forcing adoption by taking away access to almost everyone’s desktop business phones. All those organizations that have a PBX in their building are now forcing employees to use an alternative. As many PBX endpoints are in facilities that are closed (except for health care facilities), their phones sit unused, and they are no longer part of the fabric of that business. More importantly, access to the PSTN, representing five billion users, has always been a primary driver of telephony business purchases. Employees might use a meeting tool for internal meetings, but the phone is still old reliable for remote meetings. That has changed, as social distancing has forced us to use technology for those critical “sales” collaborations where visual feedback and empathy are critical. As users realize that the modern guest experience enables this experience to be used outside the organization for all communications, there will be a natural reduction in PSTN usage.
 
For many organizations, a key barrier has been that many critical roles were dependent on telephony features. For example, every new phone system or replacement always had to answer the “busy cover” question. This feature has been the staple of manger/assistant roles in business for many years and enables the assistant to monitor the phone line, take calls, and interact. After 20-30 years of learning and optimizing their roles, many CEO level assistants were resistant to changing this. The fact that presence and conferencing can provide similar capabilities meant learning new ways for the role, unlikely for someone with 30 years of working one way.
 
However, for the past three months, that role has been remote from the person they support. There is no longer a PBX phone with features, but there is a company meeting and collaboration platform. As managers and assistants use these tools, expectations will change. As workers use text to notify each other, they may find it is easier than the phone, and they might find it has even more uses. When they return, some may go back to the lights and buttons of the desk phone, but many will stay in the new paradigm, removing one more barrier for the IT team to moving from a telephony-based communications solution to a full IP/cloud meetings and collaboration solution with PSTN access.
 
Avaya indicates that over one million agents on their contact center solutions have moved virtually in the last month. Companies are now taking advantage of technologies that have been available for years but haven’t been adopted due to business or management needs and practices. But those “rules” that in some organizations, agents must be in the physical call center so they can be monitored and assisted goes away when the physical call center is no longer accessible. A remote agent is better than no agent at all.
 
The result of the pandemic is that we will forever be changed. The workers that had resisted moving from their telephone to using meetings or collaboration will have three to four months of remote experience. The organization that resisted remote agents will have four months of everybody working remotely. The old arguments and preferences will have been pushed aside, not by technology or adoption teams, but by a virus. Coronavirus gave us social distancing, which required using video meetings and collaboration tools for business continuity.
 
The final question that remains is whether the adoption of video meetings and collaboration will change how rapidly organizations move away from their existing PBX platforms. Perhaps they'll adopt a solution where the PSTN is just another audio channel in a meeting paradigm or maybe they'll relegate the PBX to the technology history trash heap. Clearly, this will not be universal, but the speed at which enterprises are moving away from traditional telephony and the PBX feature set is poised to accelerate because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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