Whew – we made it to 2021! Now that 2020 is in hindsight, we can appreciate the lessons learned and find ways to improve our communication, collaboration, and customer experience (CX) capabilities. While 2020 isn’t a year any of us would like to revisit, at least we learned a lot about the importance and role of business communications. These lessons will help both vendors and customers moving forward and inform our expectations for the new year.
The Cloud’s Silver Lining
Perhaps the biggest takeaway of 2020 was the role of the cloud. Organizations that had already deployed unified communications as a service (UCaaS) and contact center as a service (CCaaS) solutions were a huge step ahead when it came time to send workers home to work remotely. Most organizations using cloud-based services didn’t miss a beat and could continue communicating and collaborating internally and externally while continuing their contact center operations.
Looking ahead, expect to see the move to the cloud continue at an even faster pace. Companies that might have previously been reluctant to replace their premises-based solutions with cloud services are now revisiting their decisions and are moving parts, if not all, of their communications to the cloud. Cloud services have proved their value, and there’s no turning back at this point. Whether for disaster recovery, business continuity, enabling a remote workforce, expect companies from the largest Fortune 500 to the smallest mom and pop shops to deploy cloud services, notably UCaaS and CCaaS.
Video and Visual Interactions Will Rule
2020 was the year Zoom became a verb, and video was ubiquitous. Replacing in-person meetings and gatherings, video conferencing became the mode of choice for both personal and business interactions.
We can expect the use of video to continue even after people can congregate and workers return to the office. Despite complaints about video fatigue and the negative impact of non-stop video meetings, most workers are now comfortable meeting over video and continue to connect with customers, partners, colleagues, and others using video tools.
To overcome video fatigue, we’ll see continued enhancements to the user experience in the coming months. Whether it’s more eye-pleasing layouts, easier ways to join a meeting, or adding more intelligence and automation to video meetings, vendors will develop creative ways to make meetings less tiring and more productive.
The video tsunami won’t be limited to meetings and conferences, as video or visual capabilities will expand to customer service, contact center, and CX use cases. While I don’t expect 2021 to be the year of customer service where agents and customers interact over video, visual tools will play a larger role. For example, visual interactive voice response (IVR) from vendors like Radish Systems
, in addition to visual engagement technologies from companies like Glance Networks
, will gain more traction as businesses recognize the value of customers seeing and sharing information to enhance customer relationships.
The Rush to Artificial Intelligence (AI)
2020 introduced early uses of AI to improve the meeting experience. For example, based on its BabbleLabs acquisition, Cisco applies AI capabilities to intelligently remove background noise to reduce distractions during meetings that improve the overall experience. Zoom uses AI for its Zoom Rooms Smart Gallery to create a gallery-view of in-room participants, while Microsoft uses AI for its Together Mode and custom meeting layouts. Most recently, RingCentral acquired DeepAffects, which uses AI to analyze business conversations and extract meaningful insights and will be used to deliver enhanced pre-meeting, in-meeting, and post-meeting experiences.
AI will play an even bigger role in 2021, providing meeting assistants, noise detection and reduction, transcription services, translation services, meeting room scheduling, participant identification, and more. These AI capabilities will be developed either in-house or from acquisitions.
Subsequently, 2021 will also bring a slew of AI-related acquisitions. AI vendors that add value to communications, collaboration, or contact center technologies will get gobbled up as unified communications and contact center vendors quickly try to add AI capabilities to their offerings.
Voice is Back
As employees gradually return to the office, we’ll be hearing more about the “touchless” or “hands-free” workplace. While the risks are relatively low and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) now claims it unlikely for someone to catch the coronavirus by touching surfaces or objects, organizations will take necessary precautions to limit possible exposure. As organizations prepare to bring workers back, businesses will be evaluating hands-free or touchless tools and technologies to make it safer to return to the office.
We know that office configurations and conference rooms will look different, with added precautions to ensure social distancing. Employees will use smart personal voice assistants like Siri, Alexa for Business, and Microsoft Cortana to manage devices, control conferencing systems, check room availability, book rooms, make calls, send chat messages, share files, and more. Voice control will become a key mode for initiating tasks, which will be both a blessing and a curse (“No Alexa, don’t book a flight for me - I’m talking to Alex about his vacation.”)
The Need for Collaboration
Ask anyone who has worked from home for the past few months what they miss most about the workplace, and they’ll most likely say that it’s seeing and collaborating in person with colleagues. While most people don’t miss the daily commute, they miss interacting with colleagues, and spontaneous conversations and opportunities to effectively collaborate.
Most industry watchers agree that a hybrid workplace with some people working in-office and others working remotely, or with rotating schedules of days in and out is the future. For example, Google will be trialing a flexible workweek where employees would be expected to spend three “collaboration days” in the office and work from home the rest of the time. Other organizations also plan on implementing collaboration or creativity days where alternating departments or teams will be in the workplace on certain days. This concept will provide not only the in-person social interactions we all crave but can lead to better collaboration and spontaneous out-of-the-box thinking.
Collaboration tools will need to ensure consistency and follow-through for ideas, tasks, assignments, etc., for when workers are in and out of the workplace. Again, AI will be used to assign and follow up on tasks, create searchable meeting transcripts, analyze potential project success rates, measure productivity, and more.
In With the New
Whether it’s cloud services, unified communications and collaboration technologies, or visual tools, those that many of us have hyped-up for years have proven their value in 2020. The genie is out of the bottle (or the toothpaste is out of the tube), and we won’t go back to the old ways of working. 2021 will continue to bring new ways of working, meeting, and serving customers while ensuring employee health and safety.
This post is written on behalf of BCStrategies, an industry resource for enterprises, vendors, system integrators, and anyone interested in the growing business communications arena. A supplier of objective information on business communications, BCStrategies is supported by an alliance of leading communication industry advisors, analysts, and consultants who have worked in the various segments of the dynamic business communications market.