Pandemic Stokes Unified Communications Space

Remote work brings growth and excitement to UK market

The global Covid-19 pandemic has materially changed the business communications market in the UK, turning it into an excitingly growing segment of telecom services.

In this article we explore some of the recent trends in unified communications in the wider sense of the term. This can be any solution that provides management of fixed or mobile telephony lines to enterprises, ranging from simple products with features such as SIP trunking for delivering telephone services over IP networks instead of fixed lines, to advanced solutions featuring virtual private branch exchange, voice call management (routing, forwarding and more), conference calls, messaging, presence, hunt groups, video communication, collaboration, file sharing and others.

After Openreach announced it was going to turn off PSTN and ISDN networks by the end of 2025, businesses and other organizations in the UK knew they would soon have to assess their telecommunications set-up and switch from legacy fixed-line infrastructure to a new, preferably cloud-based, alternative. But the pandemic sped up the need for this transition by creating an immediate business need to enable employees to work from different locations.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, only 5% of UK employees worked mainly at home; by April 2020, 47% did some work at home, according to the UK Office for National Statistics. Business leaders expect remote working to be a sustained trend. In our recently published Senior Leadership IT Investment Survey, 2020, 70% of IT decision-makers in UK organizations with 50 or more employees told us they expect to have at least 25% and up to their entire workforce working from home at least partially, even after the end of the pandemic.

The need to support remote working not just as an emergency solution, but for the long term, has kindled strong demand for a variety of unified communications services provided in the UK by suppliers like 8×8, BT, Cisco, Gamma, O2, RingCentral, Virgin Media, Vodafone and myriad small players. The market has seen a solid rise in 2020, and we expect growth to continue to be strong in 2021 and all the way to 2025.

Three major trends emerged in the business telecommunications market in 2020.

1. The rise of collaboration tools, thanks to the swift shift to remote working. As the workforce conforms to this new way of working, standalone unified communications tools are no longer enough on their own. They were always expected to be integrated with collaboration platforms and other services, but the pandemic has fast-tracked this journey.

Adoption of workplace collaboration tools has grown dramatically since March 2020. In our survey, 100% of business leaders in the UK said that their organizations use a collaboration tool other than e-mail. The cultural change toward remote collaboration has now affected small, medium and large enterprises and the public sector alike. Remote collaboration technology has become the number-two priority for IT investment over the next 12 months, according to our study.

The most dominant collaboration tool is Microsoft Teams, adopted by 59% of companies in the UK with 50 or more employees, followed by Zoom, chosen by 29%, and Skype for Business, which is favoured by 26%. The wide adoption of these collaboration tools has come hand in hand with a growing demand from customers to add a phone system to the application. So it’s no surprise that many major providers of unified communications technologies have already integrated Microsoft Teams with their products, enabling direct voice calling from Teams.

2. A shift from voice to video calls. The second trend borne from the shift to home working was the advent of video as a central communication feature. With the introduction of lockdown rules, most call participants were in their home or office, rather than on the go, and this facilitated the use of video. The human need to see people and feel connected with colleagues, clients and business partners only accelerated the trend.

We’ve seen a significant decline of voice-only conference calls, which were pretty common before March 2020, and their substitution with video conference calls. The shift happened very quickly, with webcams becoming one of the most sought-after tech products during lockdown, so much so that there were stock shortages for multiple weeks.

An important engine of this change was the fact that two major video conferencing solutions were already quite established at the start of the year: Zoom and Microsoft Teams. The availability of Zoom for free — albeit with limited meeting time — and of Teams to all Microsoft 365 subscribers paved an easy path for adoption.

As a result, video is now a must-have feature in unified communications solutions, used by almost all users who have access to it, up from about 10% before March 2020. Voice, however, remains critical to several uses; hospitals are a good example, where the quality of connection remains very important. Voice as a communication tool isn’t going to disappear, but on its own, voice has become insufficient for most users.

3. A move to using a wider range of devices for voice, video and messaging communications. The changes brought about by the pandemic have affected the devices people use for business telecommunications. As people found themselves working from home, relying heavily on video and chat messaging, desk-based communication moved away from fixed-line telephones to laptops, tablets and smartphones, on an app or through a browser.

In this evolving picture, what role does Microsoft play? Is it a partner or a rival to providers of unified communications software? The simple answer is both, but there are nuances to this. Microsoft sells voice packages for calls made in Teams or Skype for Business, mostly to customers who prefer a one-stop shop to dealing with multiple solution providers. But Microsoft is also helping unified communications providers to integrate voice calling from Teams with their services. This approach actually seems to suit Microsoft better: the company leaves its partners to deal with voice connectivity, while Microsoft focusses on its core businesses in cloud services, Office 365 and collaboration.

In the longer term, however, Microsoft could become a threat. If all communication and collaboration happens on Teams, there may be little differentiation beyond price and customer service for unified communications providers.

The business communications market has been shaken up in 2020, making it a hot area of growth for the excitement of telecom and specialist unified communications providers alike.