Evaluating Conferencing Solutions: Work in the Time of Corona

In the first two blogs of this series on conferencing, Amalgam Insights discussed top conferencing vendors and their Coronavirus-specific free offerings to support remote work as well as top functional considerations for purchasing conferencing solutions. In this third of four blogs on conferencing solutions, Amalgam Insights describes important features to consider in evaluating competing technologies. This blog is a continuation of our work on remote work in the Time of Corona.

This four-part blog series on Conferencing Solutions includes the following topics:
Part I: Introduction to Conferencing Solutions
Part II: Defining and Purchasing Conferencing Solutions
Part III: Evaluating Conferencing Solutions
Part IV: Recommendations for Effective Conferencing

Key Stakeholders: Chief Executive Officer, Chief Information Officer, Network Services Directors and Managers, Telecom Directors and Managers, IT Directors and Managers

Why It Matters: In the Time of Corona, Amalgam Insights estimates that the United States workforce working from home has increased from 5% at the end of 2019 to over 30% as of the end of March 2020. In light of this fundamental shift, companies must choose, deploy, and administer conferencing solutions effectively to support remote workers and maintain collaboration-based productivity.

Top Takeaway: Conferencing is a core capability to support teamwork, collaboration, and face-to-face interaction in remote work settings. By understanding the features, pricing, and best practices associated with supporting conferencing solutions at scale, companies can evaluate and implement conferencing solutions at scale to support business continuity and remote teams in the Time of Corona.

Cloud-Based Conferencing is the Norm

Today, vendors focused on supporting end-user productivity provision conferencing platforms in the cloud and all hardware resides in the conferencing provider’s data centers. In other words, the customer only needs to have phones, laptops, desktop computers and/or tablets with internet access. In most cases, a single brand of equipment is not necessary. Cloud-based conferencing is ideal for distributed workforces. Over the past decade, the trend towards conferencing solutions supported by commodity end-user hardware has become the norm. Vendors that traditionally have sold “walled garden” technology understand this trend and have shifted from dedicated room-based systems to conferencing solutions.

What Features Should I Look For?

First, be careful as vendors may charge more for certain value-added features or reduce access to features at specific tiers of usage or product. Above all, look for a conferencing tool that will help the enterprise and its users to collaborate more efficiently based on the typical size of internal or customer-facing groups, need for personalization, frequency of meetings, ease of use, and available IT support. Framing the search from that perspective will help narrow the hunt more quickly, especially because most products have similar basic functions and similarly named capabilities. With conferencing, the key trait is not typically based on the number of features and functionalities available, but how quickly and easily the solution can be used and how reliable the conferencing solution is in a variety of bandwidth settings. This is especially important in home settings where network performance is often variable, employees rarely purchase business-class symmetrical upload and download speeds, and bandwidth can be affected by everything from a child’s constant use of YouTube to a bevy of next-door neighbors catching up on the latest Netflix hit.

After companies have settled on the core capabilities that are most important to their employees, the noise sets in. By “noise,” we mean all the extras that few people will actually use, but that vendors like to highlight because they sound cool and flashy, whether this may include analytics, natural language processing and captioning, advanced search, geospatial support, employee engagement, or productivity capabilities. It may be necessary to ask vendor reps to describe and demonstrate their platforms in plain language and to step away from hyperbole or standards. This is a time when enterprises need basic and straightforward information that leads to rapid purchases while racing against financial losses, trying to keep staff employed, and keeping operations intact. With these salient business pressures in mind, we have compiled a list of conferencing features that will meet the needs of most organizations suddenly supporting a disparate workforce.

Necessary Conferencing Features for Remote Work

Reservationless scheduling. The ability for coworkers to meet any time and on the fly is critical. Extra points for platforms that simply distribute a link to join and do not require an applications download or any other obstacles.

Centralized Muting and Access Control. Background noise from participants who do not mute their lines causes immense disruption. The conference organizer must be able to mute everyone’s lines and to selectively choose which participants are able to speak, rather than allowing employees to unwitting wreak havoc or, even worse, for strangers to come in and “hack” the conference with unwanted content and comments.

Change presenters. Not all conference calls are or should be a one-way source of information. Allowing different people to present from wherever they are located increases conversation value.

Security protocols. Much of what the organization talks about needs to remain within its confines. Choose a platform that contains stringent and proven safeguards and allows administrators to kick off users that have either inadvertently joined the wrong conference or are purposefully trying to enter a conference for malicious reasons. And make sure that all outputs from a conference, including slides, transcripts, and other shared documents and content are all secured, stored in compliant areas, and encrypted as necessary.

Announcement Administration. Almost nothing interrupts a meeting’s productivity and flow more than the announcement that someone new has joined the meeting, particularly after it has started. A platform that facilitates silent entry while notifying the organizer goes a long way toward reducing everyone’s frustration.

Recording and playback. These capabilities are vital for audio and video calls, and are an overall plus if they also apply to chat. Organizations may need transcripts for regulatory or internal reasons, or to share with colleagues who could not join the conference. Strong solutions in this area will provide the capability to automate transcripts and provide captioning for the hearing impaired.

Screen sharing. Visualization is a core capability to support remote collaboration and contributions. As Amalgam Insights writes in our training practice, the brain has multiple learning processes. While the “cognitive” portion of the brain logically processes information in a structured and academic fashion, the “behavioral” portion of the brain reacts to visual and other stimuli within the first half second of presentation and makes decisions on whether the content is relevant or not. To support that behavioral portion of the brain, screen sharing is an important visual aid that paves the way for more impactful discussions. (Pro Tip: This same behavioral part of the brain is an important reason to show your face in video conferencing, when possible, because people both process and consider your facial expressions and body language in considering your perspective.)

Additional Conferencing Features to Consider

Digital whiteboard. This feature enables brainstorming sessions. Remote teams need the ability to flesh out ideas as if they were all gathered in a room together. This includes the ability to share content, write documents, and collaborate on creating content.

Polling. This can be useful for taking a temperature check on a specific matter if the conference call has a large number of people and organizers do not want to interrupt or delay proceedings. Embedded polling tends to be most important for training purposes, such as continuing education courses that require some amount of in-presentation polling or questioning. However, there are stand-alone polling products that enterprises can just as easily use that may be more relevant from an employee engagement or brainstorming perspective.

Breakout rooms. These can be useful in situations where multiple teams need to meet at once, then gather individually and then come back together. An organization will want to weigh whether it would use breakout rooms often enough to justify the cost, if it is an extra expense. Breakout rooms are helpful to facilitate the in-office collaboration and separate conversations that can be hard to otherwise support.

In general, aim to keep the platform as simple as possible from a usability perspective. This will ensure that people use the licenses for which the business is paying, and they will make the most of the platform. There is little or no point in paying for features that do not enhance outcomes because they are either too cumbersome to use or too difficult to find. Conferencing is a market where ease-of-use, breadth of adoption, and well-managed administration are key capabilities.

In our next blog in this series, Part IV: Recommendations for Effective Conferencing, Amalgam Insights will discuss best practices and guidance for utilizing conferencing solutions to help employees be more productive.

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