Small businesses have created a collaboration crisis

For small businesses, communications tapped out on mobile devices has replaced direct, verbal communication and the nuance and personality that create effective work relationships can be lost, says Intermedia's Serguei Sofinski.
Written by Serguei Sofinski,, Contributor
Commentary - Small businesses today are facing a crisis of their own making. As technology has made it easy for companies of any size to distribute projects and workforces, small firms have been quick to adopt flexible work arrangements as a means to retain top talent, foster work/life balance and/or increase productivity. However, there are unwanted side effects created by this flexibility. Schedule and/or time zone differences can make it challenging to bring groups together (even virtually). Shorthand communication tapped out on mobile devices has replaced direct, verbal communication and the nuance and personality that create effective work relationships can be lost.

This collaboration crisis was caused by technology – wi-fi networks, notebook PCs, video conferencing and so on – and it must also be solved by technology. Traditionally, finding a technology solution has been challenging for small businesses because they did not have the resources to invest in a unified communications solution. However, new technologies and offerings have eliminated the financial and management barrier to unified communications technology for small businesses and can help these smaller firms avert this crisis.

Starved of face time
A recent survey commissioned by Microsoft from 7th Sense Research on telecommuting revealed that the top complaint amongst the 3,600 workers in 36 markets surveyed was the lack of face-to-face interaction with colleagues. While face time with colleagues and decision-makers is important in today’s economic environment, technology advances are changing interpersonal relationships in the workforce. We all know of work environments where colleagues sitting only a few feet apart send email or text messages rather than speak directly.

How does a small firm create an environment where telecommuting and remote communications resemble face-to-face collaboration as much as possible? The answer isn’t simple. However, the existing infrastructure powering the IT capabilities of today’s businesses, especially those on the smaller side of the scale, presents an enormous opportunity to foster collaboration in a way that is just as effective and meaningful as in-person interactions, regardless of whether workers are remote or located in the same complex, building or office.

Critical turning point
Today’s businesses thrive in real-time, instant communication, a need that has been cultivated by email and instant messaging (IM) technologies. Email programs like Microsoft Exchange and IM systems like AOL IM and Windows Live Messenger have become fundamental technologies for today’s businesses, and this in turn has made it easy for employees to work remotely or companies to distribute projects outside their four walls.

However, just because workers are able to communicate instantly, doesn’t mean they’re collaborating and being productive. Presence is important – especially at small companies. This goes beyond the ability to merely “be in touch” and gets into how small businesses are able to help people work more effectively, share information more effectively and communicate more effectively to harness the collective intelligence of the group. And, this must be accomplished without losing the flexibility and scalability (both up and down) that gives small firms an edge in attracting both talent and customers.

Unified Communications, unified workplace
Unified Communications (UC) is a technology approach that integrates key communication services, such as email, instant messaging, presence, document sharing and telephony, into a single communications system and dashboard. UC offerings that unite these core communications capabilities – heavily relied on by both remote and on-site workers – present an opportunity to fuel collaboration and productivity no matter the worker’s location. Businesses that use UC solutions represent the next chapter in work culture: the unified workplace.

What technology broke, technology must fix
As work arrangements continue to evolve through the next few years, we’ll see a stronger presence of unified workplaces as small businesses are able to make communications technologies an underlying component of the organization. Email, IM, phone, voice and other services will be delivered through a single system over the Internet and integrated into every aspect of the business – from project management to daily tasks – and collaboration will be fully restored.

The changing nature of workplace environments is undeniable and although today’s standard communications technology has helped workers stay in contact more easily, it hasn’t helped small businesses collaborate effectively. And since smaller businesses are founded on collaboration and their success is strongly dependent on it, the adoption of unified communications and a bolder move towards the unified workplace must be taken in order to avoid the loss of what helps businesses grow, thrive and succeed: collaboration.

Serguei Sofinski is CEO of Intermedia, a global leader in Microsoft Exchange and unified communications hosting. Joining Intermedia in 1998, Sofinski has led the company's rapid growth into the world's leading provider of business email and unified communications services.

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