Gone are the days when businesses relied on their phone systems to solely make and receive calls. Many phone system providers have expanded their services into unified communications systems, giving employees the ability to connect with those outside and inside the office in a multitude of ways, all from one place.
The concept of unified communications (UC) provides for a cloud-hosted business communications system that works across multiple channels and devices.
"Unlike a traditional business phone system that only offers the ability to make and receive calls, unified communications combines phone service, video conferencing, team messaging, SMS, fax and other communications tools on a single integrated platform," said Jose Pastor, senior vice president of product management at RingCentral.
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The growth of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and cloud-hosted services have made unified communications a reality. Before VoIP and the cloud, traditional phone systems relied on private branch exchange systems that were housed inside each business.
John Pope, senior vice president of Unified Communications and Collaboration at LogMeIn and former CEO of GoToConnect (which is now part of the LogMeIn brand), said the typical setup of a traditional phone system included a computer server, a manual control board and multiple lines that connected to the public system. Those lines then connected to an internal switching system that directed calls to everyone's individual phone lines.
"If that sounds complicated, it's because it is," Pope said.
Since all the communication tools in these systems rely on the internet to move data back and forth, Pope said, the only things UC requires are an internet connection and a computer or an IP phone. "This simplified and unified offering drives down costs while providing powerful features that extend beyond simple dial tone."
Benefits of unified communication systems
With today's increasingly mobile workforce, giving employees easy ways to communicate with both peers and customers, from anywhere, is driving the popularity of UC systems. Whether it's video conferencing with customers or instant messaging with co-workers, UC systems offer a wide selection of tools to keep the lines of communication flowing for workers. [Looking for a video conferencing service for your small business? Our best picks and reviews can help.]
Pope said that since the traditional 9-to-5 workday is a thing of the past, tools that allow communication from any device at any time are critical in today's fast-moving, tech-driven world.
"Between mobile and advanced collaboration technologies, now more than ever, people are working away from the office easily and successfully," he said. "It's allowing more flexibility, more globalization and, most importantly, better communication."
While having all these communication tools is highly beneficial to workers, offering them all in one package is what really makes UC systems appealing.
"Providing flexibility and choice in how workers communicate is important, but it's key to wrap these communications tools in a unified experience to provide today's digital workforce a seamless user experience," Pastor said.
Recent research from RingCentral revealed the level of "app overload" many employees experience. The study found that workers today regularly use four communication apps on average, with nearly 70 percent of workers wasting up to 60 minutes a day – the equivalent of 32 days per year – toggling between those apps.
The research found that workers realize just how valuable having access to all their communication tools from one platform is. Two-thirds of those surveyed want a single platform for all their communications, citing better workflow, increased productivity and reduction in chaos as the top benefits.
Pope believes having access to all these communication tools from one location has a positive impact on a company's innovation, productivity and efficiency.
"Some of the benefits that can overhaul your culture and communications and lead to hyper-growth for your business include streamlined communications, increased mobility, superior reliability, improved customer interactions, enhanced security, improved employee culture, advanced functionality, and access to important data and tools that will impact development," he said.
Cost savings is another advantage of UC systems. Instead of your company paying for each of these tools separately, UC providers bundle them together for a significantly lower cost.
"Businesses can save upwards of tens of thousands of dollars by investing in unified communications systems," Pastor said.
Did you know? Getting a business phone number is simple with a unified communications system. Most have an easy-to-use online portal that allows you quickly add new lines when additional employees join your company.
The future of unified communications
While UC systems offer a wide range of functionality, there is still a lot of room for growth.
One way Pastor sees these services evolving in the future is more built-in integrations with programs and apps businesses are already using. As an example, he points to a current RingCentral integration with Salesforce that allows the software's users to initiate calls with just one click, without ever leaving Salesforce.
"UC systems will continue to evolve to make business communications more seamless and tightly integrated into existing business workflows," he said.
Pope believes that the advent of technology such as the internet of things, artificial intelligence, information technology and mobile solutions will only expand how UC systems are being used
"Voice assistants will become smarter and will be powered by natural language processing and continuous machine learning," he said. "We'll also see instant transcription and more contextual information through artificial intelligence, as well as the continued integration of UC systems with office productivity software."
The expansion of these types of systems will also change the way businesses grow. Pope suggests that unified communications will lead to more global expansion.
"As the globalization of business escalates, UC will grow proportionately, creating opportunities for businesses to go global," he said. "And as the remote workforce continues to expand, we'll see the importance of video and web conferencing rise in popularity and necessity."