In this article, Prashant Gupta, head of Solutions, India of Verizon Enterprise Solutions, discusses challenges associated with implementing a UC&C environment that supports virtual teams and best practices for addressing those challenges. The paper also demonstrates how organizations need to develop an effective and productive UC&C environment for their virtual teams to realize tangible business benefits.
In today’s highly competitive business environment, organizations that successfully employ new technologies can become more agile and responsive. But those that don’t often find themselves struggling just to keep up. Unified Communications is giving businesses today that kind of advantage.
Companies are already moving to Voice over IP (VoIP) telecommunications, presence-enabled applications, and converged fixed-mobile communications, making it possible to find people in virtually any location, on almost any device. Businesses are also using team collaborative tools such as online whiteboarding, shared applications, and team workspaces, enabling dispersed employees to work together more effectively. Forward-looking companies are adopting blogs, podcasts, wikis, tweets, and other similar technology into the work environment. These tools, arising from popular culture, are intermingling with corporate tools as teams naturally select what works best for them. The result is a powerful convergence of technology known as Unified Communications and Collaboration (UC&C).
Role of the CIO in UC&C Adoption
Understandably, the chief information officer (CIO) will play a pivotal role in helping a business capitalize on UC&C investments. It’s the CIO who has the most direct hand in creating the virtual teaming infrastructure that will enable and support evolving, collaborative modes of work. To be successful, a CIO needs to understand that designing fundamentally human processes is substantially different from mapping the impersonal, routine business processes that are so familiar in today’s IT departments. IT departments, in turn, will need fresh approaches to designing and implementing UC&C systems and measuring their effectiveness and value.
The Potential Benefits of UC&C-Enabled Virtual Teams
According to a new market report published by Transparency Market Research the unified communications market was valued at USD 22.8 billion in 2011 and is expected to reach USD 61.9 billion in 2018, growing at a CAGR of 15.7 percent from 2012 to 2018 indicates that collaboration is a key driver of business performance.
However, some organizations are reluctant to experiment with virtual teams, largely due to an assumption that they are not as productive as collocated teams. But, with the new form of communication and project management technologies, the disadvantages of working in a virtual environment seem to be fading. Often, implementation of collaborative technologies cost organizations a very small fraction of the cost of travel budget if the employees are flown in from different geographical locations. Virtual meetings can be planned and completed before one has even had time for booking a ticket.
Beyond this, UC&C and virtual teaming, by their very nature, open the door to additional benefits including:
• Ability to find the best global talent. Tapping into a worldwide talent pool enables companies to build teams to suit experience, specialization, value, and so on.
• A just-in-time workforce. With easily accessible online tools, employers can bring can outsource a workforce to handle peak workloads, short-term job assignments, and so on, reducing human resource commitments.
• Reduced costs of business travel. UC&C tools create environments where detached teams can work effectively, inherently reducing travel expenses, time away from the office, and carbon footprint.
• Decreased relocation expenses. For multinational corporations, the time and cost associated with relocating knowledge workers can be significant. With UC&C-enabled virtual teams, the disruption and delay of moving can be eliminated and employees can become productive much faster and without any relocation costs.
• Faster product development and delivery. With virtual teams strategically located around the world, businesses can implement a “follow-the-sun” strategy that engages product development teams round the clock. Globally distributed development also gives companies relevant local experience and insight.
• Better employee work/life balance. Valuable employees seeking to balance career and family life can be accommodated through telecommuting.
Many organizations are already realizing these benefits. Companies that are in the process of defining their own UC&C objectives should understand the full potential of both direct and coincidental benefits and factor that into their planning.
The Challenges of Implementing a Successful UC&C Environment
While virtual teams can deliver incremental value to companies, implementation of effective UC&C technologies presents unique challenges that are as much about business processes as they are about technology implementation. Both are inextricably linked. If not designed and built correctly from the onset with full support from the IT department, virtual teams can cost the company time and resources, as well as create frustration among team members.
To be supportive, a UC&C implementation must help virtual teams adequately address several challenges:
• Overcoming distance and time. Communicating at a distance can be difficult. A colleague explaining a complex concept over the phone, for example, can’t simply walk down the hall for a face-to-face discussion. Additionally, spontaneous conversations are reduced or often eliminated when people work virtually; making it difficult to generate the creative sparks that arise from impromptu brainstorming sessions.
Time can also be an issue. When one team member’s midday is another team member’s midnight, real-time communication becomes unfeasible. UC&C tools must be good enough to bridge distance and time and provide the communication that can accelerate the work of teams.
• Establishing culture, trust, and leadership. Cultural differences can present challenges when team members come from countries with varying social behaviors. For instance, in Western cultures people challenge each other to improve upon ideas. Eastern cultures tend to value conformity and harmony over confrontation. Bridging these differences will require training to create awareness and model new behaviors. Additionally, issues such as age, work styles, and personal comfort with technology often create work barriers that can be as formidable as cultural barriers.
Although it may seem unproductive, team members should be encouraged to engage in casual non-work related discussions. Informal interaction often builds the close-knit relationships that are necessary for establishing trust, cooperation, team cohesion, initiative, and efficiency. As team members come to know each other, confidence in individual competency and ability will continue to grow.
Virtual workers are more likely to feel disconnected than their traditional counterparts, leaders should periodically engage teammates via video conferencing to establish and maintain the type of trusting relationships that face-to-face communication best promotes. Also, to keep team productivity from drifting, leaders need to establish clear goals and milestones, monitor completed progress, and communicate how each team member’s individual work fits into group and company objectives.
• Using technology and communications effectively. In a virtual world, nothing can be assumed to be known until it has been explicitly communicated via a UC&C communication tool. Ideal UC&C tools should be easy to use and readily accessible so that team members turn to them first to communicate. This will minimize the potential for impromptu conversations between local team members that might exclude off-site team members.
Deciding where to implement new technologies can be difficult. A good place to start is by assessing a team’s strategic importance to the company’s overall success. The closer a virtual team is to the core business, the greater its impact on producing or sustaining revenue and the more critical it is to support the team’s work. Therefore, providing UC&C tools to these teams can produce meaningful return on investment.