How has UC Quality Changed with the Increase of WFH?

Written by: Scott Gode

Back before COVID, the world of UC was much different. On-premises systems were still the norm. Voice was king. Video, especially for those trying to work from home (WFH), was a decidedly non-standard option, especially since it meant some pre-call grooming was required. Then, everything changed. Zoom went from an unknown to a household name, and Microsoft Teams caught fire. Suddenly, the rules and requirements changed.

There’s a lot of talk about the “new normal,” but most of the chatter centers around remote work and how it’s being done. Little, if any, attention has been given to key measurements and KPIs (key performance indicators) related to how unified communications and workstream collaboration (WSC) should be appraised and the key metrics for evaluating success. That ends now. Welcome to the new normal of UC and Collaboration – monitoring and analytics edition.

UC video conference

The Old World of UC Analytics

Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of the old UC world of key measurements. For audio, it was all about packet loss, jitter, and latency. For video & content sharing, the metrics were similar, but also included frame rate and resolution. However, the primary driver and focal point was the voice stream and its quality. Initially, the UC industry focused on MOS (mean opinion score) measurements, however as it matured, measurement techniques quickly evolved to encompass whole site actionability for calls. Pre-COVID, quality-centered on the user experience overall – searching and visualizing a call as it happened to allow for quick resolution of issues.

UC call at desk

UC Analytics Evolved

“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
‘Maybe Unified Communications,’ he thought, ‘isn’t JUST about quality of voice.’
Maybe UC and Collab measurements…perhaps…. means a totally brand-new choice?”

With apologies to Dr. Seuss, the question is still quite valid. If video and voice quality are now classified as old, what is new? Just as our WFH environments allowed us to embrace the video conferencing informality of pajamas, spontaneous pet appearances, and “good enough” audio and video, so too have the core metrics changed. An interesting analogy regarding the transformation in UC measurement can be found by looking at the US coffee market. Post-COVID, fancy coffee drinkers simply went into hibernation. Both Dunkin’s and McDonald’s stole huge market share from Starbuck’s providing no more quality experience other than an easy drive-thru, a bargain price, and cheap paper cup. Similarly, in the UC market, the traditional, more formal video and audio quality metrics quickly faded with COVID. The new focus centers on more basic issues like lighting, backgrounds (both settings and sound levels), and bandwidth. Quality has faded into a secondary or even tertiary concern.

With these new standards in mind, the best way to think about the new metrics is in a UC hierarchy of needs. Keep in mind that this new standard may only be temporary (with measurements returning to pre-COVID standards once employees return to office in mass). Or, it may be a permanent change, evolving into the new normal.

  • Baseline: background images/background de-cluttering, background noises, sound settings (end-user levels), camera positioning, home bandwidth (other family members, wired connection), public internet connectivity, spatial audio
  • Level 1: lighting, webcam (external), microphone (external), headphones, workplace analytics, collaboration security & governance
  • Level 2: personal attire, personal grooming, voice quality 1.0, video quality 1.0, content quality 1.0

Most of the “new” metrics listed above are fairly well understood. For example, Zoom, Microsoft, and even third-party content providers have invested heavily in virtual background options. Additionally, the news media has made a big deal about extensive home bookshelf backgrounds as an indicator of the education and knowledge of the speaker. Simple issues like lighting, camera positioning, and the richness of home internet signals are also, by now, well understood and (mostly) well adopted. There are, however, some relatively new entries to the hierarchy. Some of these are misunderstood. Others just don’t receive nearly enough attention from IT.  Let’s drill into spatial audio, workplace analytics, and collaboration security to better understand their impact on today’s new UC world.

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UC Quality

Spatial Audio Represents the Future of Video Conferencing

Much has been written about the concept of “Zoom fatigue” during the pandemic. The prevailing wisdom is that this phenomenon stems from how we process images over video. Video conferencing makes us feel like we must engage in a constant gaze which makes us uncomfortable — and tired. For in-office meetings, we can vary our gaze, look out the window, or look at the whiteboard. However, performing such actions on a video call might make it seem like we’re not paying attention.

A new theory has emerged regarding Zoom fatigue, which points to the real issue not being the visual fatigue, but rather the audio fatigue. The problem relates to the actual “shape” and direction of the sound, but not its quality. In-office meetings allow us to hear voices that are separated by distance and appear at specific points around the conference room table. This spatial presentation makes it easy for users to identify and decipher who is speaking. However, when it comes to virtual voices all the audio is squeezed through a single speaker leaving the listener with an artificial and unnatural listening experience. This is true Zoom Fatigue. The intense concentration to decipher the shape and spatial orientation of the sound is seriously hard work.

Experts predict that 3D audio will be quickly adopted into video conferencing platforms. To date, this new audio technology has been mainly deployed in the gaming industry to create a more realistic rendering of a soundscape. Going forward the emphasis will be less on the quality of the sound and more on the shape of the sound. The metrics will be around timing, volume, resonance, and echo characteristics of each voice on the call. The emphasis will be on controlling how and when the sound reaches the ear and enables the listener to accurately place the voice exactly where it should be.

UC Statistics

Understand User Productivity with Workplace Analytics

Workplace Analytics builds on top of UC metrics and provides measures for both UC as well as the collaboration. In our COVID-19 world, collaboration is often the simplest and easiest form of engagement for end-users. Both Microsoft and Gartner have agreed on the term “workplace analytics” as a head-nod for talking about the way that businesses can measure teamwork and collaboration across various organizational levels. For example, with workplace analytics, it is possible to identify employee satisfaction issues caused by meetings being repeatedly scheduled outside of working hours. This is especially relevant with a remote workforce that crosses multiple time zones.

If collaboration is at the core of our UC and WSC platform usage today, why is Workplace Analytics slotted as a Level 1 metric to track, why not baseline? The answer is that these metrics are tricky to define and hard to accurately measure. Over half of today’s enterprise employees are simultaneously using at least 3 different collaboration platforms, and some as many as 5. Additionally, some of the most illuminating workplace analytics metrics sought by IT and the corner office center around concepts like employee engagement and workforce effectiveness. These are notoriously difficult to measure.

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These key workplace analytics metrics provide significant value to organizations. Employee engagement not only results in a more productive workforce; it also decreases the money and time lost when knowledge workers leave the organization. Research by Aon Hewitt has shown that, if employee engagement increases by just five percentage points, companies experience an average of three percent revenue growth the following year. This is obviously very valuable data, but the calculation process (i.e. baselining the definition of “engagement” across different UC and WSC platforms, collecting the data in a non-intrusive manner, and then summarizing it in an easily consumable approach), is far from simple.

Other workplace analytics that is compelling for management relate to concepts such as “champion users” (the most prolific users of technology and/or work modality), frontline worker experience, and workstyle user segmentation (i.e. who just reads vs actively replies vs initiates new text discussions).

Finally, there is the notion of not just engagement, but fortification of the collaboration platform. Here is where the connection between workplace analytics and our final metric example, collaboration security & governance, emerges. A great way to fortify a UC system is to ensure all solutions are supported by behavioral analytics to quickly and accurately identify security threats. These behavioral analytics must be specifically geared for UC solutions. Not only can workplace analytics — along with artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML) — help prevent cyberattacks, but it can also help companies optimize IT operations. The efficiencies, insights, and cost savings that this can bring are one way that businesses can maximize the return on investment for UC and plan for the future.

UC security and governance

The Importance of Collaboration Security & Governance

Collaboration security & governance (CSG) wins the award for simultaneously being the easiest set of metrics to overlook, the hardest to measure, and the most expensive to recover from (when a security incident arises). UC and collaboration platforms often lack sufficient collaboration security solutions forcing organizations to choose between delaying adoption or accepting suboptimal security capabilities.

The tricky part about collaboration security is that its genesis is most frequently the result of either a shadow IT deployment, or from well-meaning, but negligent end-users or IT personnel. For example, a recent Osterman Research survey underscored that 89% of former employees retained access to CRM, email, document management systems, and other sensitive corporate apps even after they had exited the company. Twenty-five percent of organizations take longer than a week to de-provision former employees, and 25% do not even know how long accounts remain active after employees leave the company.

CSG metrics related to guest users and risk profiles, as well as the ability to create and monitor policies related to collaboration platform access and team ownership, are core to this set of emerging measurements in our new normal.

UC big picture

Full Circle UC Metric Changes

It’s hard to predict if this new, more informal, version of our UC metrics will persist once we return to a new normal. It’s equally hard to predict if this increasingly “casual” approach to UC and Collaboration in general, is going to have follow-on repercussions. For example, will what used to be a standard “in-office” procedure of locking a PC during a coffee break, turn into a more lackadaisical, “never sign out” practice at home? And will this, in turn, open the door for other security breaches related to kids or significant others working on the laptop with potentially disastrous consequences? Whether your measurement questions relate to the new world of workplace analytics or collaboration security or the more formal old world of UC voice, our PowerSuite software has you covered.

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