Evaluating Services and Hardware for Remote Collaboration
What Should You Consider?
Events in early 2020 forced nearly every industry to reconsider at least some part of how their employees communicate and collaborate. Some organizations had a high level of maturity with collaboration and conferencing tools, while others made hasty decisions on tools and hardware to prevent disruptions in the workforce.
Looking back six months’ later, even if some miracle technology ends the global health crisis tomorrow, the idea of working remotely is most certainly a cat running free of its proverbial bag. As IT decision makers and admins, it is time to look back at the solutions and decisions we made at the beginning of the year and ask the following questions…
- Are our users empowered or hindered by our communications and collab tools?
- Are the services and solutions we spun up the best fit and return on investment?
- Are the services and solutions secure and compliant?
- Have we been able to integrate our existing apps and services into our new solutions?
- Do our users have the right hardware and peripherals to leverage the services?
In this blog post I would like to highlight a common crossroad that most organizations find themselves at. I hope to dissect the most popular tools and services on the market and hopefully get the reader to consider somethings they may have not otherwise.
What Kind of Tool Am I Looking For?
Let us look at the functionalities that logically separate each tool. Most tools are not limited to a single functionality, so evaluating what each tool can do and whether you can leverage the functionality now or in the future is important.
Conferencing solutions have been a staple in the professional world for over a decade. However, many organizations found a drastic increase in the number of users that required a meeting/conferencing tool to do their jobs in the early months of 2020. What defines a conferencing/meeting solution?
- Dial-in conferencing
- Video and audio meetings
- Screen sharing
- Meeting chat
While conferencing/meeting solutions can certainly fall in the realm of collaboration, more purpose-built apps for team collaboration are available. Some of the features common to tools built for collaboration are…
- Persistent chat
- Integrated file shares
- Document/file co-authoring
- Shared notes
- Shared application within a collaboration tool wrapper
- Whiteboard Persistence
PSTN Calling Services
Working remotely can present a challenge to organizations reliant on a on premise resources for telephony. Ideally, we do not want to be back hauling our VOIP calls through the VPN to our network only to go out to the end destination. Cloud PBX options have matured rapidly over the past five years. It is not uncommon to find a VOIP solution integrated with other collaboration tools. Example of PSTN calling services are…
- Cloud PBX – Place calls over the public switched telephone network (Hard or Soft Phones)
- Cloud Voicemail
- Hunt groups
What Should You Considering When Selecting a Conferencing/Collaboration Tool?
Whether you are evaluating a new or existing tool, it is important to identify what considerations will be most pertinent to your choice. Those considerations can act as a filter and help you to identify which choice may or may not be right for your organization.
- What tools are you already leveraging? Does your organization have familiarity with a vendor already? Is there existing cloud infrastructure you can leverage in the new tool?
- How will the tool be used? Considering how existing tools are being used and how they may be used in the future can help you narrow in on the appropriate choice.
- Who will be using the tool? Most organizations do not have the luxury of a single business unit with similar user types. Often tools that are a good fit in one department, may not lend themselves to another. Taking stock of the needs of each business unit can inform your selection
- How much is the tool going to cost? The pricing a vendor may offer is only a piece of the total cost. It is important to consider if any other tools can be retired as the new tool is put in place. An addition in licensing for one tool may result in an elimination or reduction in the licensing for another.
- Do you already have licensing or partial licensing? Many vendors such as Microsoft or Google package total or partial licensing for these tools with licensing you may already own. It may be possible to pilot or even rollout a new tool with no additional licensing cost.
- How willing are your users to adopt a new tool? The tolerance of change is something varies drastically from organization to organization. Communication, training, and evangelism for technology changes can be the difference between grateful productive user and confused reluctant users.
- What is it going take to manage the tool? Fortunately, the labor investment to manage most cloud tools is minimal when compared to legacy systems of the past. However, it is important to consider configuration and troubleshooting when factoring management costs.
Comparing Conferencing Solutions
Let us look at some of the most popular conferencing solutions. How do they stack up?
Comparing Collaboration Tools
In contrast to the conferencing solutions, a good collaboration tool should be the hub of your organizations business units. Features like document co-authoring and integrated file shares have been around awhile but are more important in a remote collaboration scenario. Collaboration tools can also act as a single pane of glass for files, chats and the apps your users need to access.
- Persistent Chat = Google Rooms
- File Share/File Collaboration = Google Drive, Document Coauthoring
- Notes = Google Keep (collaborative?)
- App integration = Support through third party apps like Zapier
- Persistent Chat = Slack Channels – Public and Private
- File Share/File Collaboration = File sharing through channel attachments
- Notes = no
- App integration = no native support
- Persistent Chat = Teams Channels – Public and Private
- File Share/File Collaboration = O365 groups backend – Included SharePoint Library for each Team/Channel, Document Coauthoring
- Notes = OneNote Shared Notebooks
- App integration = Prebuilt app integration for most apps. Free app development tools for customs apps
Hardware and Device Considerations
In 2020 we are lucky to have a multitude of services to enable remote workers and drive collaboration even when we are apart. After we have done our evaluations and made our choices, how do we make sure our users are getting the best out of the tools we have provided? How do we make sure we are putting our best foot forward to our clients?
One key area is evaluating the devices these tools will be used on. We have all been in a meeting where we could not see or properly hear some of the participants. While sometimes that can be the fault of the service itself or downstream network issues that are out of our control, we can prevent issues that may arise from outdated or legacy devices. The way we approach collaboration has changed, so it follows that the devices we collaborate on will be changing as well.
- Are the integrated camera’s in our devices sufficient?
- Sensor quality?
- Low light quality?
- Presentation worthy?
- Changes in lighting equipment?
- Integrated microphones and speakers can be problematic
- Do your users need to be mobile while collaborating/conferencing?
- Headsets or conference speakers?
As collaboration services integrate themselves into our day to day, looking for ways to improve our interaction with them is a natural next step. Luckily the choices for purpose-built hardware that pair with almost any service are increasing every day.
Conferencing Room Hardware
- High quality conferencing hardware dedicated to a specific space
- Microsoft Teams and Zoom Solutions (Surface Hub, Zoom Rooms)
- Audio and video solutions
- May include whiteboards or touchscreens
Mobile Collaboration Stations/Bars
- Cheaper alternatives to dedicated room setups
- Does not have to be a dedicated to specific space
- Offers more options for conferencing and presenting space
In summary, It’s important, as we push into a new collaboration paradigm that we make sure we select the appropriate tools to enable collaboration but we are also providing the proper training, support and hardware to get a full return out of our investments.