The proliferation of unified communications solutions, such as Microsoft Lync, Cisco Jabber and IBM Sametime, has extended collaboration to employees around the world. These solutions offer many advantages, including ease of use and enhanced mobility; however, they also present a few key challenges including moving the UC experience from the desktop into the conference room.

Trying to connect a team of local participants with remote participants can be difficult using a desktop video solution. Crowding around a colleague’s PC gets extremely uncomfortable, not to mention it deteriorates the audio and visual quality of the meeting. On the other hand, having each participant join individually can become overwhelming and push the limits of cloud video bridging solutions.

After hearing these issues, our engineering team created a unique solution to easily bring unified communications to the conference room. UC Group systems are configurable, PC-based solutions that allow an organization to extend their desktop video client into a conference room setting. Anything from screen sharing to video conferencing can be accomplished with the click of a button.

Video is obtained through a PC card located in the display or from a local laptop or PC connection and displayed on the screen. Essentially, end users would connect to a video call in the same way and with the same application they would use on their computer. Then participants partake in a video conference with audio and visual quality similar to that of a traditional video conference room.

Enhanced mobility features allow end-users to connect their laptop and wheel the cart between rooms. As a result, any conference room can become a video-enabled room! Plus, with easy content display options, UC Group systems can double as presentation rooms when video is not in use. Additional features include:

  • Power management capabilities that automatically turn the display on and off
  • Fixed or pan/tilt/zoom camera to accommodate smaller or larger groups
  • Table or ceiling microphones for enhanced audio
  • Cisco WebEx integration for webinars or other web conferences
  • Connect up to 25 software or hardware video systems with Multipoint Experience

The UC Room and UC Mobile are platform agnostic and can run on any software video client including Microsoft Lync, Cisco Jabber, Polycom CMA/m100, Skype and Google Video Chat. These solutions enhance an organization’s UC platform or consumer video solution by accommodating larger groups and allowing participants to reap the benefits of a traditional video conferencing room without significant upfront investments.

Video conferencing has made it easier for managers to lead remote employees as well as enhance team cohesion among remote members. However, simply holding video calls will not guarantee a successful remote team. It requires additional time and effort to develop relationships and motivate team members who are scattered around the globe. One of the biggest challenges remote leaders face is overcoming a lack of visibility.

Managers of remote teams can’t take a walk around the office to see how their team is doing nor can team members pop by for a quick chat or clarification. For example, consider a scenario where an employee is hung up on one aspect of the project. It’s nothing major, the numbers just aren’t adding up correctly or everything seems to be in place but the program just isn’t running properly.

A local team member might signal his boss when she walks by and ask for a second set of eyes. They can take a look together, quickly spot the issue and the employee can move along on the project. Unfortunately, remote team members and managers do not have this luxury. A fully deployed UC platform can help by allowing a team member to ping his boss over instant messaging and then shift to a video conference to resolve the issue. However, if their manager does not seem available or team members do not feel comfortable with their boss they might continue to work on the problem themselves.

Developing relationships through face-to-face interactions is absolutely critical for remote leaders. Managers should proactively reach out to their remote teams to check in, ask how things are going or if there is anything they have questions about. These informal interactions not only help put team members at ease but develop a sense of trust by increasing a manager’s viability. When an employee has a question or needs a second set of eyes on a project they feel comfortable quickly reaching out to the manager.

Additionally, due to limited visibility, it is critical for remote leaders to not only have a clear vision in place but ensure each team member fully understands and supports the vision. The vision is what gives employees direction when their managers are not around and can help them make decisions without constantly checking in for approval.

For example, when developing the product packaging and promotional messaging for a new product a team member might have a choice between a cost-effective option and a higher-quality option. If the manager has clearly articulated the vision for the product is high quality the team member can make the decision on their own by selecting the higher-quality packaging material.

When setting the vision it is important to engage all remote team members. Allowing them to be part of the vision creation helps develop team spirit and cohesion, as well as, inspire team members individually.

Why Unify Your Communications - What's In The Box

With all the buzz around unified communications including new product releases, features, acquisitions and more, it’s easy to forget the why of UC and how it can benefit an organization. In this series of posts we will examine some of the key areas of UC and what the business benefit can be.

To understand what UC solutions can do for an organization it is important to understand what features and functions are included in the solutions available today. Some may think of UC as just video conferencing or web conferencing; however, it is a collection of many different technologies that are seamlessly integrated together.

Presence
Presence is a feature that is at the heart of a unified communications solution. It allows a user to communicate their availability (on the phone, away, in a meeting) while also allowing the system to provide location information (in the office, working from home, etc). How many times have you tried to reach a colleague only to learn that they are working remotely and only available on their mobile phone? Presence can provide the information need to connect to someone in the fastest manner possible.

Instant Messaging
Instant messaging makes communicating with a colleague as simple as a point and click. Clicking on a user can initiate a text conversation, similar to a text on your mobile phone that can allow for quick catch ups on key items and to also check availability for meetings down the road.

Audio Conferencing
With UC solutions it is incredibly easily to upgrade an instant messaging discussion to an audio conversation. Simply click on the users name, select the call feature and the application will dial the number stored. These calls can be a point-to-point audio discussion or include multiple audio participants in a session (similar to an audio bridge).  The connection can occur over standard phones or via the UC application directly on the user’s desktop.

Screen and Document Sharing
During an audio or IM conversation it might be necessary for parties involved to share a document or participate in a white boarding session. A UC application can upgrade the interaction by providing a visual content sharing session. Users can view each other’s screen and collaborate on a key document or deliverable together.

Video Conferencing
UC solutions offer the ability for users to meet face to face via video conferencing. All of the UC applications available offer some form of video conferencing. In some cases it may be calls limited to two participants, in other cases it can be large scale multi-party calls. In either case, the power of visual communication is enhanced as each participant can see each other while collaboration.

Mobility
The final major functionality of most UC applications is the ability to access some or all of the functions listed above via a mobile device. This could be a smartphone or a tablet such as the iPad. Either way the goal is to provide a seamless experience whether the user is on their computer or traveling with their mobile device.

It is clear that UC applications offer a robust feature set that can help organizations collaborate in new and exciting ways. Not all UC applications are created equal, so make sure to understand the entire breadth of feature set before moving forward with an implementation.

This post is part of a series on unified communications solutions.

Part Two: What’s Out There?

Unified communications and visual collaboration solutions have made it easier than ever to work from home.  Remote employees can connect with their boss, collaborate and brainstorm with peers, and drive innovation from the comfort of their couch. However, a recent Forbes article raised and important question.

Can working at home hurt your career?

It’s a possibility, according to a recent issue of MIT Sloan Management Review which notes that remote employees may receive lower performance reviews, smaller raises and fewer promotions than colleagues who go to the office each day; even if they work just as hard, if not harder.  

This is a result of what Kimberly Elsbach and Daniel Cable call “passive face time” or, simply being observed at work. It doesn’t matter what task an employee is completing, he could be writing an email to his wife or friend, and still get credit for being present in the office. What’s more important for career success though is the “extracurricular face time” which involves being seen at work outside of normal business hours or going above and beyond expectations. 

Even though remote workers typically log hours of “extracurricular time” it can go unnoticed by supervisors or peers.  Additionally, remote workers miss the crucial “water cooler chat” bonding time with the management team and other colleagues. Employees in the office are able to say hello and discuss weekend plans with upper management when passing them in the hall while remote employees rarely come in contact them.

So, how can remote employees overcome these barriers?

Elsbach and Cable suggest being immediately available at home, getting peers to talk you up and regular status reports.  However, UC and video solutions can significantly enable and enhance remote employees’ abilities for “virtual” face time. Instead of making regular phone calls and email reports, use instant messaging for quick updates and video calls for more lengthy status updates. 

Instant messaging allows for real-time, casual interactions that show an employee is hard at work.  However, remote workers must be cognizant of presence information that is available on these applications. Frequent or long periods of an idle status could give the impression that you are not around.  If you need to step away from your computer for lunch, a meeting, or any other reason make sure to change your status to “out to lunch,” “in a meeting” or “busy.”

Use video whenever possible to establish face time with managers and colleagues. Video helps build a relationship as face-to-face communication helps establish trust and can increase the likelihood of others putting in a good word to the management team.  

To help achieve extracurricular time, try emailing your boss early in the morning or late in the day noting that you have a few things to discuss when she arrives in the office.  Just make sure you are available when she is ready to touch base.  

Remote employees certainly have their work cut out for them; but, with a conscious effort they can overcome potential barriers that could affect their career.  While they may have to work a little harder to get recognition; the rest of us have to work a little harder getting ready and commuting into the office so it evens out!

The past week I had the pleasure of living down the street from the golf course where the Barclays tournament is being hosted. It was a traffic nightmare as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and about 250 other players embarked on my town. Streets were blocked off and I was barricaded in to a so-called “gated community” complete with police checkpoints that required a valid form of ID to enter.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I truly appreciate their concern for our safety and preventing our neighborhood from turning into a parking lot; but this made my commute to work a little difficult to say the least.  Not only did I have to drive 15 minutes out of the way because my normal route was closed; I had to deal with the increased traffic, mass confusion of people and pedestrians everywhere.

After dealing with same madness as I made my way home, the thought of getting up and doing it all over again was nauseating. Then I realized how stupid I was to venture out to the office in the first place as I would work the rest of the week from home because I had the technology.

One of the most frustrating parts of working remotely is not being able to tell if people are available for a quick chat. When you’re in the office, you can peek your head around the corner to see if they’re free; but at home, you’re out of luck.  Or maybe not. Thanks to presence information in our nifty instant messaging application, I can tell if my boss is busy, stepped away for a few minutes or is at his desk anxiously awaiting my call. I was able to quickly touch base on certain projects and have brainstorming sessions on blog topics just as easily as if I was in the office.  It was great!

Later in the week I had a meeting with a couple people from our team. We usually meet in one of the conference rooms but I asked if we could switch to video so I wouldn’t have to trek into the office.  After they agreed, I set up a video meeting straight from Microsoft Outlook which, I would like to add, was easier than trying to reserve a conference room.  The meeting went perfectly, everyone was able to connect and we finished in record time; probably because it’s not as easy to get off topic.

As I went for a jog this morning, much easier since my commute consists of walking down the hall to my office, I realized just how awesome, amazing and lifesaving unified communications solutions are. It’s Friday already and the weekend is almost here.  Over the past three days, I haven’t even felt like I was working from home because I was able to do everything I was able to do at the office.  If I missed human interaction, all I had to do was video one of my coworkers or walk down the street and say hello to the state troopers, park police and code enforcement.  Needless to say, I’ll be happy when this is all over; but, it hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be.