Hold the Line: Telephony is Back on the Boardroom Agenda
In our world of lawtech, fintech, machine learning, AI, and smart drafting, talking about telephones seems so passé! So why an advice piece dedicated to the topic? The team at Lights-On Consulting explains why telephony is firmly back on the boardroom agenda and gives practical advice for professional firms reviewing their communications strategy.
The phenomenal rise in video conferencing since the start of the pandemic was matched for a long time by an almost equal and opposite drop in voice calls. Microsoft Teams became a mass adopted platform for many professional services firms, recording a global increase in the use of between 600% and 900% since February 2020.
As firms now address their future working models, with the vast majority opting for a hybrid structure, the humble phone has emerged as a strategic topic for CIOs, as they weigh up if, how and when new platforms such as MS Teams will replace (or complement) their traditional telephony strategies.
Please can we turn off our cameras?
As the pandemic hit, the assumption was that to do our jobs effectively we had to see each other, and so Teams and Zoom quickly became the go-to technologies, almost entirely replacing landlines, mobile phones, and audio-only communications.
After 18-months of intense, often back-to-back virtual meetings, ‘Zoom fatigue’ is well understood. It is clear there is still a place for audio-based telephony, and a growing acceptance that simply talking to someone using either voice-only PC-based calling systems or even picking up the phone is, in fact, an effective way of communicating. Indeed, a new study* by Carnegie Mellon University found that we actually rely more on audio cues than visual cues when it comes to moving a conversation forward productively, and that video compromises the ability to pick up on tone and rhythm of speech.
KPMG is just one firm that has already taken steps to recognise the benefits of voice-only communications and recently designated Fridays as “camera free” days for work meetings. By committing to voice-only meetings every Friday, the firm has said it hopes to provide a more ‘relaxed transition into the weekend’, and to reduce the stress of constantly having to appear on camera
Wellbeing aside, and whether its break clauses for real estate, phone systems, comms lines, or simply retirement age for systems, we are seeing three more practical reasons why firms are revisiting their telephony:
1. Legacy technology retirement
The good old mainstay of telephony comms, ISDN is being phased out in the UK by December 2025. If you did nothing at all and were on an old phone system using ISDN, it will stop working. In the main, this switch-off is on track to take a similar approach to when analogue TV went off air and will be well published. There will also be plenty of information about the many options and companies out there that can help.
2. Budgets and cost-savings
If you move from ISDN to IP telephony and start to use SIP trunks for your calls, prices are almost certainly going to drop considerably. In fact, if done well, the savings from inline and call cost alone can be so great, it will quickly pay for itself.
3. Business continuity
Effective communications technology is critical for the new world of remote and hybrid work, and, without doubt, there is some hardware and technology that simply doesn’t support past ways of working. Old digital phones only work when connected to the digital telephone system, so take the handset home and it will not work, however many times the user tries to plug it into the BT socket or back of their router!
However, not so for an IP phone. As long as you have a suitable IP phone, it can be taken home and plugged into your broadband router and, set up correctly, can act just like your office phone.
The same is true of ‘soft phones’, which use software run on your PC to behave just like a phone and use a wired or wireless headset as the ‘handset’. Again, correctly configured, these can work on your firm’s laptop – as well as on employee-owned equipment – from any place with an internet connection. The net result is you start to get immediate benefits of DR and business continuity.
Hosted IP telephony systems (which are in effect a PABX in the cloud) provide even greater resilience – when suitably and robustly configured by the supplier, your office and its location are irrelevant, as you can make and receive business calls from wherever you are.
What should you consider before switching to IP telephony?
IP telephony works by converting voice calls, faxes and other information into digital signals that travel through IP networks. If you are looking to change to IP telephony, there are several key points to address, some of which can be easily overlooked:
- Compliance – ask how the new system will address call recording, logging and time capture.
- Security – SIP lines and the integration of telephony into collaboration platforms can present several systems and cybersecurity challenges, especially when there are numerous workplaces, handsets, hardware and devices. Voice communications and recordings are a rich source of confidential information and are becoming a hot target for hackers, and so cybersecurity measures must be addressed within your telephony strategy.
- Cabling and power – old digital phones can get their power from the switchboard or PABX. New IP phones can’t; they need power from a network switch or power supply unit. Always consider the power source as many network switches cannot support power provision (called POE or Power over Ethernet).
- Mobiles – consider how mobile fits into your strategy and single number adoption, and whether the phone system needs to have a mobile app. Device deployment and ongoing management can be time-consuming, but mobile device management is now available ‘as a service’, so it may make sense to outsource this administrative overhead.
- Analogue lines– some faxes, panic buttons, franking machines, and Redcare set-ups, rely on old fashioned ‘landlines’, so check with suppliers how they can guarantee these will continue to work.
- Visibility–new telephony and unified communications systems show if a user is busy, away, or out of the office. There’s still a way to go before these work properly, but understanding their limitations and setting some customised system and people policies will pay dividends.
- Call management set–up – how calls are handled and transferred can be highly complex, and phone systems have evolved in support of this. Some new systems lack this sophistication, so review and rethink the call management set-up and a potentially simpler system.
- COVID-19– hot-desking with a handset that can be wiped down is quite different to a headset that is harder to clean, so factor in one headset per individual.
- Product family – because telephony is evolving into software, consider the ‘product family’ to ensure it is possible and easy to transition from voice to video to conferencing and screen sharing.
- Market adoption – this impacts integration capabilities, so make provision for training to minimise incompatibility issues with other suppliers.
- Meeting and ancillary rooms – don’t forget about phones located in utility areas such as kitchens, which will likely still be needed.
Your firm’s culture must also be considered in telephony plans. We have been picking up telephone handsets for a long time and it’s obvious when you are on a call and busy. This isn’t so easy to detect if you are listening on a headset, and interruptions in open-plan workspaces are commonplace, so consider introducing ‘headset etiquette’ or technology that clearly indicates when an individual is busy.
Also, be mindful that switching to headsets may feel counter-cultural for the firm and/or staff, so it could take a while for some people to get used to.
Consider too how staff manage their calls i.e. do they take them directly, or rely on secretaries, PAs and reception staff to answer them.
Speaker phones may be needed in individual offices that are regularly used as mini meeting rooms, such as partners’ offices or conference rooms.
Planning for procurement
As with all IT and communications procurement, sourcing a new telephony system can be a complex and time-consuming process.
The first step is to ensure you have a clear picture of your current system, its connections, and the impact of any deadlines such as ISDN retirement in December 2025. Whilst you do not need to deploy the whole new solution in one go, you do need to understand how it will integrate in the long term to ensure you set out with the right strategy in place.
Depending on the size of your firm, providers of aggregator/integrator services can leverage cost options and deliver a more personalised and attentive experience when help or support is required. They also really help to seek out the best deals in what can be a murky and complex world.
*Speaking out of turn: How video conferencing reduces vocal synchrony and collective intelligence, by Tomprou, Maria (Carnegie Mellon University) Kim, Young Ji (University of California, Santa Barbara), Chikersal, Prerna (Carnegie Mellon University), Williams Woolley, Anita (Carnegie Mellon University), and Dabbish, Laura A. (Carnegie Mellon University). It appears in PLoS One, published by the Public Library of Science.