Editor’s Note: Dean Iacovelli is the director for collaboration solutions for Microsoft State and Local Government. He is the business unit’s former chief security adviser.
Ah, the pleasures of phone tag. We call a colleague and leave a voicemail. Then we miss the return call, listen to the voicemail and jot down a note. It can take days before we get the information we need, and it’s a horrible waste of time for everyone involved. Email is better, but still has its challenges. Everyone is dealing with overflowing inboxes, struggling to prioritize responses. It’s not uncommon for urgent messages to sit for hours within a bunch of unread emails. As more of what we do at work depends on input from other people, we’re still using tools that make the collaboration and information gathering processes incredibly inefficient.
There’s a simple way to test if your current methods are working: If you’re reaching for a piece of paper, your communications process is broken. We shouldn’t be jotting down voicemail notes and contact information in the 21st century. To avoid this, we need real-time insight into where our colleagues are, understanding their availability, and knowing how best to contact them at a particular time. Presence is understanding if a colleague is at his/her computer, in a meeting, on a conference call, or under a tight deadline, and using that information to make contact in the most efficient way.
Communications become truly unified when you combine this presence intelligence with a host of integrated workplace communications tools, including chat and video conferencing. So if your colleague is attending a conference call and can’t speak on the phone, maybe an instant message chat makes the most sense. If a colleague is on a plane, you won’t waste your time contacting them at all, saving time for both parties and ensuring your request reaches them at a time when they can respond. Presence technology includes notifications that automatically alert you when a colleague becomes available, eliminating those wasteful missed connections. Some may call it stalking, but I call it getting time back in my day. Workers also need the freedom to adjust communications methods on the fly, which is why integration is critically important to the idea of unified communications (UC). Modern technology tools enable users to transition easily between an IM, email, voice and conference calls to maximize efficiency. Maybe an email string with multiple parties has gotten too complex and requires a discussion. Integrated UC tools allow users to create a conference call or video conference involving those parties, with one click. Workers can turn an instant message into a phone call, or a voicemail into a text, depending on what’s most effective in a given circumstance. Escalating from one form to another is how real conversations happen, and this integration makes the tools work more like you actually communicate.
These capabilities become even more critical as remote work increases. From telework policies to geographically distributed teams, we all increasingly work with people who don’t work on our floor, in our building, or even in our state. Gartner believes that by 2015, 80 percent of work outcomes will depend on input from two or more people and that the work will rarely be done in-person. Remote work can lead to teams feeling disconnected, and can make collaboration more difficult. But tools like video conferencing and instant messaging can improve real-time collaboration. With UC, colleagues can have a conversation via video or IM while co-editing a spreadsheet or presentation — all in real time. And these more intimate forms of communication help to build relationships and help geographically dispersed teams build a great culture.
The rise of remote work also means that the era of expensive internal networks is quickly fading. Colleagues are regularly working across hotels, airports, coffee shops and their homes. We’re all getting online any way we can, from wherever we are, and that means work is being done across a variety of networks with varying bandwidth and capabilities. We can’t rely on tools that only work on the best networks. Workers need tools that allow them to be productive on any network. Networks are like roads — some are smooth, but others have potholes. Instead of trying to repave the world, it’s better to buy a car that can handle any situation. For example, if you initiate a video chat on a network with fluctuating bandwidth that might not be able to reliably handle it, new UC tools recognize the flaw and immediately downshift to an audio conference but preserve the connection. We now have the power to be productive from anywhere and adapt to varying network conditions.
Some government organizations are already on board. While some have realized the benefits collaboration tools can bring, we still have room to grow. Telework can bring enormous cost savings and productivity increases, but there must be a cultural and mental shift in government. The notion that being in an office means you’re working is no longer valid, because employees are more mobile now than ever before. In addition, the public and private sector must come together to develop regulations that are realistic. New policies on records management must evolve to accommodate these new methods of communication. People will continue to communicate as platforms shift and evolve, exploring new ways to use tools, and unified communications holds limitless possibilities for state and local governments. Organizations are moving in the right direction, but small changes can help us become even more efficient to best serve citizens.