03/09/2015

By Gemma Maroney, Marketing Manager at Solution IP

Many business leaders will talk of the importance of a remote, mobile or flexible workforce but ask them to qualify what these terms actually mean and you’ll get a different response every time.

Regardless of the specifics though, the important thing to grasp here is that mobility and remoteness are strong indicators of a truly flexible workforce and that in an ever shifting business environment this could well prove to be the greatest attribute your business possesses.

Why is a Flexible Workforce Important?

Flexibility is defined in the British Dictionary as something that is ‘adaptable’ or ‘variable’. A truly flexible workforce can therefore adapt to various external and internal factors both quickly and efficiently. These factors could be anything from a changing business strategy, expansion into new markets, regions or territories, new technologies, seasonal or unpredictable purchasing trends, new laws or internal compliance rules or just fast business growth.

The ability for your workforce to move into different regions, communicate through email, voice and video across a global marketplace allows a young and relatively small business to grow in a way that wasn’t dreamed of twenty or even ten years ago. James West of Alamy has argued that this has allowed unknown startups to compete with the big players by democratising the marketplace and creating a level playing field. Whilst this might be a slightly rose tinted view (the market is arguably always tilted in favour of the players like Google and Facebook) it certainly highlights the importance of any technology that enables and engenders flexible workforces, working patterns and business models.

Changing Business Landscapes

The need for greater flexibility is indicative of an evolving business landscape, in which markets are becoming global as a result of new technology, globalisation and emerging markets. This has opened the door for small businesses to compete against bigger players by offering more bespoke or tailored products or services via the same ecommerce platforms. Key to enabling this rapid growth is the ability to expand and adapt your workforce and no other technological advancement has created more potential for this kind of adaptation than VoIP.

VoIP and Hosted Telephony

The ability for a business to communicate with its workers, clients and customers whenever and wherever they are in the world has always been essential to growing a business and VoIP has turbocharged this ability.

With VoIP, the considerations of geography become almost redundant, with the ability to relocate your entire workforce and handle geographic and non-geographic numbering and instant diverts with relative ease. By relinquishing the need to use fixed lines on a traditional public switched telephone network (PTSN), call costs can be cut significantly. Employing workers who hot desk, desk share, work from home or out in the field, no longer means those individual’s telephone numbers changing all the time, dependent on where they are located. With a VoIP network they can just log into the network and take their number with them wherever they go, via IP handset or mobile device.

The flexibility that a VoIP network can give small businesses is a clear competitive advantage over their rivals, with the ability to grow and shrink the number of lines needed and only paying for those you use, something that is impossible with traditional PTSNs. This can not only keep overheads down but allows managers to focus on catering to customer demand and business growth, without the logistical and technical worries of installing new lines.

Hosted telephony is a form of VoIP that has further levelled the playing field. By allowing the telephone system (PBX) itself to be situated offsite in the cloud companies with limited funds can effectively eliminate expensive startup costs associated with onsite PBX infrastructure. Some have argued however that the investment in an on-site VoIP network however, such as SIP trunks, could pay for itself in as little as three years when compared to a hosted network.

A truly flexible workforce can be brought about by embracing the model of Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) in which all communications, from emailing, instant messaging to voice and video conferencing, takes place over the same internet connection. Most modern VoIP platforms, such as Avaya’s IP Office or Mitel’s MiVoice, allow this, offering a whole range of additional mobility functionality, such as mobile twinning and BYOD. Although these kinds of VoIP telephony platforms have traditionally been popular with mid market companies they are increasingly being adopted by SMEs.

Managing a Remote Workforce

Of course there’s more to creating a successful flexible workforce than just having the right telephony infrastructure. Whilst technology has moved on in leaps and bounds, there is evidence that management techniques have yet to catch up with the realities of this brave new world.

Managing a flexible and remote workforce does require some considerations to be taken into account, other than what UC platform or model to opt for:

Equipment: A truly mobile workforce is a workforce that is equipped with the right tools. If you are rolling out a Mobility framework it’s important you make sure staff are given the right hardware and software- a properly configured IP handset, softphone application, a mobile device that has the right mobility apps enabled, or a laptop that is connected to the system via the correct channels. Security is also an issue and remote workers need to be privy to the same precautions that on-site workers are to protect their devices from any vulnerabilities.

Motivation: For some, it’s all too easy to become distracted when taken out of a professional working environment. It’s important therefore to check in regularly with home workers and if possible opt for a hybrid model where these workers have to come into the office at least a couple of days a week.

Team Building: Anyone who has worked in an office will know the importance of building relationships with your team and individuals within other departments in the company. This face to face interaction creates a sense of identity with other colleagues and the company itself. Adopting a Unified Communications system can quite literally bring remote workers back into the fold, by offering the possibility of regular ‘check ins’ and virtual team meetings, through various communication channels such as conference calling, IM and video.

Conclusion

Although the need for a flexible workforce is clearly more acute in some industries than others and comes with its own challenges, there is clearly a huge advantage to companies adopting a business model that can adapt and respond quickly to the pressures and rapid changes of the modern business environment and global marketplace. By costing and implementing technologies such as VoIP early on and getting the management of remote staff right from the offset, forward-thinking SMEs can put themselves at a distinct advantage over their rivals who have chosen to stick to more traditional technologies and working practices.

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