Unified communications features have evolved over time. Some are trendy but then fall out of favor, while other features are more timeless. The current cadre of most useful unified communications features includes a mix of the old and the new.
For instance, foundational features, such as voice and video communications, are vital and evergreen. At the same time, newer and emerging features, including transcription and virtual backgrounds, are proving their worth.
To complicate matters, just about every organization has different business needs. What one company requires for business communications, another company probably doesn't, especially when comparing small and large organizations. Moreover, IT and end users often prefer different features, which can make it complex to get a united experience for both groups.
The long-held knock on unified communications (UC) has been it's not that unified. Users would message in one app, make a call on a desk phone and use another tool for conferencing. That disunion is less evident today as UC products are, in fact, more unified.
In the past, a list of unified communications features for businesses might look like this:
- a phone system with extensive voice and calling features;
- video conferencing with audio and web conferencing;
- unified messaging and instant messaging; and
- presence, email and fax.
Yuck, a bit of a mess. These days, however, unified communications software has melded these once-siloed capabilities and wrapped multiple modes of communication into one service.
Remote collaboration takes off
UC products have been thrust into the spotlight over the past several months as the world grapples with a pandemic and stay-at-home orders. During this time, cloud and video conferencing adoption, for instance, have skyrocketed among remote employees.
Amid work-from-home policies, some UC features have become more important than they were in an office setting. Messaging-based polling, video calling and virtual backgrounds, for example, help create interactive business communications and remote collaboration.
Newcomers to the technology were forced to learn the ins and outs of products such as Cisco Webex, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Slack and Zoom. Now that users are more experienced with these products, the most important features are accentuated. Therefore, a more up-to-date list of useful UC features looks like this:
- high-quality audio and video;
- ease of use;
- meeting transcription;
- screen sharing;
- messaging and chat;
- virtual backgrounds and video layouts;
- noise suppression and muting; and
- language translation within meetings.
1. High-quality audio and video
In a recent Nemertes Research survey that explored organizations' most important features in meeting applications, high-quality audio and video topped the list.
Enterprises still covet dial-in voice service as a critical UC feature, according to Irwin Lazar, vice president and service director at Nemertes. Many users, he noted, still prefer to dial in to a meeting and not be seen on video. The dial-in preference is also true for users in remote locations with weak internet connections, Lazar said.
Globally, though, video adoption has soared in recent months as organizations established work-from-home policies amid the pandemic. About 90% of companies are now using video conferencing as part of their work-from-home strategies, according to Nemertes data.
Irwin LazarVice president and service director, Nemertes Research
"Predominately, we want to use a video experience," Lazar said. "The single biggest change in work from home is video is now critical; it's what people care about first. At the end of the day, if the audio and video don't work, everything else is meaningless."
Just a few years ago, people thought of voice and video as separate applications. Now, voice and video are converging into a single application.
2. Ease of use
Ease of use also topped the list of most important meeting features in the Nemertes survey. End users, especially newcomers to remote work, want technology that's easy to use. For instance, they want to start meetings on time and join meetings easily through a browser or a one-time installation of a client that maintains and updates itself after install, Lazar said.
The intuitive design of the interface is also critical. Users don't want to have to read a manual to figure out how to use an app. Part of the reason Zoom became popular was because it's video-centric and easy to join meetings, Lazar said. But maybe it was too easy to join meetings as the vendor also grappled with increased security scrutiny in the form of Zoombombing.
Ease of use, while important to end users, can conflict with one of IT's top concerns: security. And, as UC products are put in the spotlight in this age of remote collaboration, IT and other business leaders are paying more attention to video conferencing waiting rooms, security and encryption.
3. Meeting transcription
Many UC platforms are moving toward real-time meeting transcription, which eliminates the need for users to take notes during a meeting. By not taking notes, users can be more present in the meeting and moment, said Jon Arnold, principal of J Arnold & Associates.
Intelligent, AI-empowered transcription, an emerging UC feature, can detail who said what during the meeting, identify meeting highlights and outline assignments that emerged from the meeting. Additionally, when the transcription is done, analytics can create a word cloud to show users the most discussed topics of the meeting. Users then can click on a term in the word cloud to be taken to that topic in the transcription.
As evidence of the transcription trend, Arnold pointed out Cisco's acquisition of Voicea in 2019. Cisco is integrating Voicea's AI voice transcription engine into its Cisco Webex suite.
"Transcription is a feature that's becoming a little bit leading edge, but it will be very mainstream a year from now," Arnold said.
4. Screen sharing
Screen sharing is another older feature that is still useful, especially as employees work from home. In fact, screen sharing is a must-have critical feature, Lazar said. Without it, organizations wouldn't have a fully formed UC service.
Screen sharing, as the name implies, enables users to share the screens of their desktops and devices, including files, in real time during meetings. This feature is especially helpful when teams need to collaborate on visual files, such as architectural designs and engineering schematics.
5. Messaging and chat
Messaging is a feature that has undergone a transformation. Where it used to be separate from other UC features, messaging is now more dynamic and integrated with other workflows.
Before a meeting, for instance, messages and related documents could populate a virtual workspace. As the meeting starts, both the documents and messages remain in that workspace to provide background information and contextual content. As team members talk during the meeting, private messaging can serve as a helpful back channel for individuals to conduct one-on-one chats. Group messages can be saved within the context of the meeting and be linked to file storage.
Essentially, teams can "have a meeting that lives beyond the meeting," Lazar said. "A messaging-centric team collaboration workspace that integrates into meetings and file storage is pretty critical."
Polling, too, is a helpful messaging-related feature that gleans feedback from team members. GIFs, emojis and memes in a messaging stream are also a lighthearted way for remote teams to interact and reduce the stress of pandemic-related work-from-home orders.
Mobility is another must-have UC feature, Lazar said. Organizations and team members need the ability to use their UC system, join meetings and connect to meeting room systems from any device, regardless of OS.
"The ability to easily join meetings through a common interface -- whether I'm on a tablet, PC, laptop or whatever -- I think is critical," Lazar said.
According to Nemertes Research, 77% of organizations are using mobile apps for video meetings, and about 75% of companies have deployed a mobile UC client.
7. Virtual backgrounds and video layouts
Virtual backgrounds might seem like a cute, gimmicky feature. But end users like them, and they have become a differentiator among vendors.
For internal team meetings, for example, virtual backgrounds enable users to have some fun with the technology, which is a small but welcome reprieve for workers stuck at home. Whether users appear on a tropical island or a movie set, virtual backgrounds can ease some work-from-home anxiety and hide untidy rooms.
For external communications with, say, important customers, virtual backgrounds add a professional touch to working from home. Companies can even supply their employees with branded backgrounds with the company name or logo, Arnold said.
Additionally, video layouts that increase the number of people who can be seen on a call have become "a big differentiator" among vendors, Lazar said.
8. Noise suppression and muting
Video conferencing users are all too familiar with background noise -- someone's thumping a keyboard, dogs are barking, kids are screaming and so on.
Luckily, many UC platforms now have background noise suppression to varying degrees, Arnold said. Different vendors have taken different approaches to the technology, which is sometimes integrated into endpoints or embedded in the platform itself.
Jon ArnoldPrincipal, J Arnold & Associates
Some vendors might enable noise suppression better than others, which creates yet another differentiating and emerging feature to consider when shopping for a UC platform. Noise suppression is especially important for home-based workers, Arnold said, as they try to project a professional image on work-related calls.
"Transcription and noise suppression probably would not have been on this list a year ago," Arnold said.
Muting, too, is a useful feature to squelch unwanted noise. Individuals can mute their own feeds, and meeting hosts can mute participants. Otherwise, everyone talks over each other, ruining the dynamic of the meeting.
9. Language translation
Closed captioning and language translation are emerging features that Lazar expects vendors will use to gain a competitive advantage.
Closed captioning in users' native languages could help hearing-impaired attendees. Meanwhile, closed captioning translations could help users in a meeting who speak different languages. In near-real time, users could have a running transcript at the bottom of their video calls where they'd see the spoken words in their native language.
Language translation is an important feature for global companies that have employees around the world, Lazar said.
"As for emerging, really important features that folks care about, translation is a big one," Lazar said. "Whenever I talk with enterprises, especially global enterprises, they would pay for that tomorrow if they could."
Unified communications and collaboration software is loaded with features. Some are more useful than others. Although the following features didn't quite make the list of top nine capabilities, they're still worth noting:
- Call recording. While this feature seems important in some instances and industries, Lazar noted that many users record meetings but don't do anything with the recording.
- Process integration. UC products can be integrated with other business applications that people commonly use, such as calendaring and email. Developers can also use APIs to integrate other apps with UC products.
- Breakout rooms. This feature lets meeting hosts assign attendees to small groups, which meet separately and then return to the main conference.
Clearly, UC has evolved over the years, and the coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated that evolution as UC products become fully formed work hubs.