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The past decade has seen a dramatic shift from desktop computers towards notebooks and more recently smartphones and tablets. At the same time, the cost of computing has dropped so much that consumers, not just enterprises, can afford to be early adopters, changing the dynamics of the market.

Coupled with the increasing ubiquity of network connectivity, this is influencing how and where people want to work.

Working at a dedicated desk in the office is going to become less important for many employees. It won’t happen overnight as there is too much already in place for companies to just throw everything out and start again.

But employees whose role is mainly outward facing will increasingly work at home or out in the field, rarely heading into the office.

A flexible and distributed workforce tends to boost company morale and productivity, but without some forward planning to get people and teams working together across a virtual divide, it can also lead to a lot of frustration and overhead, dragging down potential gains.

Where’s Wally?

One example of difficulty is trying to locate the appropriate people for a particular task or project. In the office, this can often be solved in a matter of minutes by chatting to their colleagues.

The various conversations along the way can also lead to closer relationships and a spreading of business information, along with the latest office gossip.

In a distributed workforce people don’t know names and faces quite as well and the important task of assembling the right team can become a nightmare of guesswork and voicemail tag.

It can take a long time to get things moving when people are remote from each other unless some thought and effort is put into applications or services that allow virtual teams to work together effectively.

Communications and collaboration tools can have a massive impact on how well your company is able to adapt, and can bring tangible results even for those employees who do not work remotely.

A wide range of offerings goes from email, shared calendaring and contacts through to document sharing and newer services such as instant messaging and video conferencing.

While it may be tempting to continue making improvements to established technologies such as email, this needs to be balanced against the need to invest in emerging areas of collaboration.

Instant messaging, team portals, business intelligence sharing, document management, unified communications and video conferencing can all facilitate distributed working.

Many of these collaborative functions have traditionally been available as separate, often quite expensive, products from various vendors, with a fair amount of integration effort needed to get them all working together. This frequently causes companies to focus on other activities, leaving investment in these sorely needed capabilities on the back burner.

Collaboration portfolios are starting to work more easily together

Things have changed in the past few years and there are now quite a few vendors that can claim to deliver most, if not all, of these functions.

The result is that the collaboration portfolios are starting to work more easily and reliably together. But they often still need to be bought individually and then set up and run as separate services, which can be a daunting prospect.

There is also the option of using communications and collaboration services from managed service providers and cloud providers, with the different functions already integrated, requiring little or no upfront cost to turn on. The ability to test the functionality before committing removes one of the big barriers to adoption.

Right for the role

Such a range of services has the potential to become expensive very quickly if you take a one-size-fits-all approach. However, most organisations usually contain a wide variety of job roles with different requirements for communications and collaboration services.

Business management may require fast and reliable email and business intelligence. Project managers may need voice and video conferencing with good document sharing.

Field service engineers may rely more on email or calendaring to do their job. Call-centre workers could get by with basic email, access to a knowledge base and IP telephony.

Getting the balance right with on-premises systems can entail high upfront costs of purchase and integration.

However, a number of third-party and cloud service providers that offer integrated solutions critically also provide granular licensing that enables you to pick and choose the features, service levels and price points appropriate for each segment of the workforce. This flexibility allows a much closer control of costs in the longer term.

On site, managed services or a combination: you now have a wider range of options to fulfil the demands of your business.

If you are thinking of investing in collaboration facilities, or have recently done so, let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comment area below.

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