Northern Ireland’s unpredictable weather system threw up some surprises last month with one of the heaviest snow falls seen in recent years with March 2013 being the joint second coldest in Northern Ireland since records began. It left many stranded and unable to get to work, with roads blocked and paths proving dangerous underfoot. For those businesses that have staff without remote access the disruption has created significant problems and made operations much harder.

Whilst it is difficult to say if this kind of weather will become an annual occurrence, it is accurate to say that is certainly happening more frequently and local SMEs need to look at ways of limiting the damage it can cause to their productivity. One of the key technologies to remedy these situations is Unified Communications (UC).

UC brings together in one solution a number of ways to communicate with staff, suppliers, customers and stakeholders while empowering the individual user to have control over it. Firstly it provides flexibility – it can enable staff to receive voice messages in an e-mail inbox, make phone calls from a laptop computer and transfer calls between a smartphone and a desk phone. Consolidating disparate communication systems has the potential to bring significant savings to a business and simplify management structures whilst maximising return from investment.

With many Northern Ireland SMEs depending heavily on air travel to help facilitate important business to business relationships and grow their share across various target markets, this communication system can provide companies with flexibility in the event of unavoidable weather incidents.

By replacing face to face meetings and training sessions with web and video conferencing, businesses can increase efficiency by avoiding full days of travel for senior and highly paid directors. Weekly sales meetings or one to one catch-up meetings with travelling or remote sales staff can also be done through a UC solution, saving in the region of around 40% on travel costs. This may not be to all businesses or indeed staffs’ liking as some may thrive on face to face contact and the social and creative atmosphere that can exist in a physical meeting. UC, however, shouldn’t be regarded as a replacement to traditional meetings but as an option of consistent and good communication as well as providing solutions in circumstances where logistics prohibit a meeting when it is judged essential.

UC interfaces are able to aid our management of this ‘always connected’ state while reaping benefits across cost and efficiency. With connection issues set to decrease in the coming years, it is important that business owners make themselves aware of the impact that an effective UC system can have and the ways it can be implemented to its full potential.

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