|By Calum MacKinnon||
|June 7, 2013 02:00 PM EDT||
Telecommuting at one time meant little more than working from one's kitchen table, saving files onto a floppy disk, and possibly sending them into the office via dial-up modem. There was no videoconference, no softphones to move your office extension to wherever you were sitting at the moment, and no Google Hangouts, Chatters, or virtual meetings with colleagues.
Under such circumstances, telecommuting was relegated to second-tier employees that were cut out of the water-cooler loop. Because that early telecommuting lacked any semblance of true collaboration, and also because there was no oversight mechanisms built in, companies were reluctant to embrace it in any meaningful way.
Since Yahoo!'s Marissa Mayer made her pronouncement against telecommuting, issues of telepresence, telecommuting and teleworking have been in the news. Mayer is not alone in assuming that a remote worker environment is not conducive to productivity, or that it leaves those remote workers out of the inner circle. The informal and spontaneous discussions that happen in the office halls and break room are indeed vital to the health of the enterprise. The question at hand then is whether VoIP and telepresence technologies have advanced sufficiently to bridge that gap, and bring those home-bound workers back into the informal, more social element of the workplace. The answer is unequivocally "yes."
Something as simple as Salesforce Chatter allows for instant, ad hoc discussions throughout the day. It doesn't stop there. Today's telecommuting environment has succeeded in erasing those physical boundaries, and isn't just "the next best thing to being there," it is the same thing as being there.
When Did This Shift Happen?
We saw a shift from telecommuting being a largely disconnected function meant for production work done in isolation and with little oversight, to part of an ecosystem where individuals and groups collaborate in earnest from multiple remote locations. What happened to make this change? There are two main factors: the enabling technology, and the emergence of a different business model. Both components were necessary.
The enabling technology started with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which allowed for phone conversations to take place using a computer in any location, rather than a standard phone line. While the first VoIP implementations suffered from jitter and packet loss, advances in the technology and more prevalent availability of broadband soon rendered VoIP equivalent in quality to standard telephony. What's more important is that the digital nature of VoIP allowed many more features to be offered along with the phone service, and at low cost. Additional services came to be built on top of VoIP, such as videoconferencing, data sharing, and the like.
At the same time the enabling technology was evolving, business models were changing as well. The "lean" movement has been applied to a wide variety of practices, from software development, to business management. Today's businesses, initially out of economic necessity and then enabled by cloud and VoIP technology, have moved away from vertical structures into a new model of utilizing business process outsourcing, freelancers, teleworkers, and even crowdsourcing to not only accomplish routine day-to-day tasks, but also to manage, make decisions, and accomplish the creative side of the business.
The lean model took hold during the Great Recession. Typically during an economic downturn, companies look for ways to scale back, then when a recovery hits, they revert to their previous practices. Not so with the last Recession. Because of the length of the downturn and the slow recovery, companies were able to look at their refined practices, enabled by new technology, and make "lean" the new status quo.
Modern businesses rely more on external providers, connected via VoIP and other telepresence technologies.
The evolution of VoIP and the evolution of the lean business model were symbiotic. Businesses embraced the lean model precisely when the enabling technology made doing so practical.
From Fuzzy Conversations to "Being There"
It wasn't just widespread availability of broadband that took the jitter out of VoIP and made it practical for business, it was the evolution of VoIP to include more than just simple voice calling. These additions are what made telecommuting practical, and brought those remote workers back into the water cooler gang.
The first and second waves of technologies that enabled telecommuting were indeed limited, and criticisms of the practice would be valid when issued against the yardstick of yesterday's technology. The first generation of telecommuters was enabled by basic technologies that allowed for a functional, but not social experience, and that did lead to isolation. Home-based workers were cut off from the herd and unable to participate in the social and group dynamics that make up a business. More recent generations of VoIP, telepresence, private social media, videoconferencing, and other telecommute-enabling technologies bring those workers back into the corporate family.
Meaningful telecommuting requires more than the ability to log onto a computer from home and send files. Real-time collaboration is essential, as are enhanced technologies such as unified communication, private instant messaging and social media platforms, and video collaboration, which are all typically based around Internet Protocol rather than the public switched telephone network.
Opening the Door for SMBs
Smaller businesses and startups have always struggled when it comes to implementing the latest technologies and embracing emerging trends. A small business with 10 or 20 people may have struggled financially to implement an on premise PBX. Doing so carries a significant capital expenditure, as well as ongoing operating expenses, and once implemented, the sunk costs prohibit the company from rapidly switching or upgrading to take advantage of new services as they become available. The result in the past has always been that smaller businesses simply did without advanced telephony features. Because cloud-enabled telephony today offers a more scalable service menu, it is much easier for a business of any size to add on capacity or additional services on an as-needed basis.
Most VoIP providers today offer affordable service packages with high-end features that were once available only to richer companies, and typically these services are implemented through a virtual PBX rather than a more costly on-premise one, and delivered via broadband connection from the cloud. Some of these services include:
- Availability of an additional softphone, so an office extension can be accessed from any computer in any location
- Call recording and voice transcription
- Paperless VoIP fax to replace old-style office fax machines
- Conferencing services
- "Call pass" for transferring calls between your mobile and desk phone
- Convenient "Click to call" button for your website
More sophisticated services include the ability to integrate with desktop CRM apps, to provide call recipients with immediate access to detailed caller information.
Taking VoIP to School
Use of VoIP in an educational setting illustrates well the power and evolution of the technology. Out-of-classroom learning, once limited to paper-based "correspondence courses," has evolved right along with corporate telecommuting, breaking down classroom barriers to allow more people to participate, and to participate in a meaningful way.
E-learning, like corporate telecommuting, has nurtured an environment in which the physical boundaries of the classroom become irrelevant, and students can interact and participate in real time. In the case of third world or emerging nations with vast rural areas, it has become a major factor in public education. In rural Thailand, for example, the Distance Learning Foundation, led by HM the King's right-hand man and Grand Chamberlain Khun Khwankeo Vajarodaya, links Wang Klaikangwon School in Hua Hin, founded as a school for noblemen's children and still seen as one of the best in the country, via satellite broadcast to remote schools all over the country. The goal - which has been enormously successful - is to bring first-rate education to rural children.
The program is more than just a one-way satellite hookup. Rural students hundreds of miles away participate directly in the session. Each rural classroom has Internet access courtesy of the Telephone Organization of Thailand, so that the remote students can ask and answer questions.
VoIP is bringing education to emerging nations. The technology is certainly not lost on modern universities throughout the world. Unlike the paper-based snail mail correspondence courses of days gone by, modern e-learning, enabled by VoIP technologies, brings several new characteristics to the table:
- E-learning enhances access for those who are unable to come to a physical classroom. The disabled, those with small children at home, or people in underserved rural areas can attend courses.
- E-learning today is highly interactive and visual. It's not just e-books. E-learning brings in components such as videoconferencing and live interaction, live text and voice chat, information sharing platforms, and shared screens to enhance the learning experience.
- E-learning provides for instant feedback and metrics. Because it is inherently linked to the computer, teachers can take advantage of features like instant polls and compilation of responses, to provide for immediate feedback and monitoring.
Office Space Is Expensive. Launch a Virtual Company Instead.
VoIP and other IP-enabled, cloud-based collaboration tools have played a major role in today's emerging wave of small business innovation. By lowering the cost of entry to high-end telephony and collaboration, small, unfunded startups can gain access to these high-end services. More important, they can launch their startups using a new "virtual company" model in which the company has no physical office. Rather, the company is seen as being made up of the people that run it, rather than by its physical presence. The success of the virtual company model takes advantage of low-cost, VoIP-based telephony and collaboration, making it possible to replace high-cost real estate with affordable technology. This technology not only allows for the same type of collaboration, communication, and meetings as a startup would normally have in their trendy, expensive downtown office, but it allows for it to take place on a greatly enhanced basis that is even better than face-to-face.