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Technology to help companies encourage flexible working and working from home

(Image credit: Image Credit: Gpointstudio / Shutterstock)

As more rail and tube strikes loom, now is a good time to consider alternatives that help us avoid the misery they bring. We could go all out and take the day, or days, off, but is that really how we should spend our precious leave? It wouldn’t be my choice and I’m sure it’s not yours. So that beggars the question ‘what can be done’, what technology is available that will allow us to work from home and be as productive as usual? 

Before we begin, let’s tick a few boxes and assume you have the Internet at home and, unless you live in the middle of nowhere, you’ll have good speeds and 3G/4G coverage too. Consequently, we have access to our personal files, shared files, and email at home. We can also go a little further here and talk about the apps we use to do our job, most of which today are delivered via a cloud, and so these tools will be available morning, noon and night. Not only that, we have a variety of social networks we can tap into, that offer free stuff like video calling, chat and messaging. The list is growing, and it is clear to me that we are pretty much equipped with all the tools we need to work from home. Yet there’s a problem, because we are still held to ransom by these strikes and we still have to endure the misery of travelling to a physical place of work.

Could it be that our bosses, business owners, and co-workers just want to see us hard at work? Is it that we need to meet with colleagues, customers, and partners and that these meetings absolutely must be face-to-face, and that’s why we make the journey despite the stress? Okay then, let’s talk about the tools you need for team collaboration and meetings, because free stuff like video chat is very basic, often poor quality, insecure and generally unsatisfactory. What will work however, is business-grade technology.

Web conferencing

Let’s start with the poor man’s answer to collaboration – web conferencing. Not that it’s a cheap solution when deployed on a corporate basis, the reason it’s a poor form of collaboration is it doesn’t satisfy fully the need for face-to-face contact. If web conferencing has a video component, it is subservient to audio, chat and content sharing. It does however, provide a great way for sharing and presenting material to a group of people. The most common solution here is Cisco’s Webex, and it’s available on a freemium basis. While web services offer a variety of features, what they do not offer is an ad hoc approach to collaboration and can’t really address the need for face-to-face contact in any meaningful way.

For the best virtual meeting experience it’s impossible to beat business quality video. In the face of restricted travel policies, globalisation and flexible working strategies, many forward thinking companies have started to introduce video collaboration as part of their unified communications (UC) deployment i.e. Skype for Business. In doing so, video becomes part and parcel of how people communicate from their desktop, but this is still an island as Skype for Business doesn’t ‘easily’ connect with any other video systems. This is a limiting factor if you want a business-to-business meeting, or you need to join a meeting being held in a traditional conferencing suite, where there maybe a Polycom or Cisco system in play. However, all of this is immaterial if you do not have access to any form of business video in the first place and you find yourself at the mercy of transport strikes or bad weather.

There is a need breed of video technology, delivered via the cloud which makes it accessible as long as you can jump onto the Internet. First, let’s look at video conferencing. There are many options from organisations such as BlueJeans or Zoom. These offer meet-me services, like audio conferencing, but for video. The upside is that everyone can call into a pre-arranged conference and usually they can call in on any type of business video. The downside is that you have to pre-arrange and schedule each and every time you want to see someone. Some services also ask you to download a plug-in first. However, if you want real flexibility and the best of both worlds, you’ll need a service that provides both scheduled and direct calling, with the following attributes:

  • Choice of download software or browser dialling
  • Direct calling – like a telephone but video that reaches anyone, even colleagues on Skype for Business
  • Capability to invite anyone via their email address, with them joining you via their browser
  • Scheduled conferencing for all people, no matter what system they are on
  • Privacy guaranteed with industry standard encryption
  • Call quality and reliability so that you can hear and see the other end and your call doesn’t randomly drop
  • Screen sharing – so that you can collaborate
  • Ability to join a meeting being held in a conference room

By its very nature, the only way this will work is if it is offered as a cloud service and of course it needs to be immediately available, because who knows when the next strike will strike! A good starting point to try out cloud business video is StarLeaf, a company that also has a freemium offer for team collaboration, with a twist, since it offers all of the above and is completely interoperable with everything else – including the good old phone. 

Jon Tracy, Director of Services, Star Leaf
Image Credit: Gpointstudio / Shutterstock

Jon Tracy
Jon Tracy is the Director of Services at Star Leaf, as well as heading up strategic accounts and managing operations in Asia. Star Leaf offers a solution for home and flexible workers.