Gamma’s public sector director, Sam Winterbottom, interviewed Rob Poyser, Vivid Homes’ infrastructure operations manager about the housing provider’s use of Microsoft Teams Direct Routing.
In the January 2021 issue of Housing Technology, we looked at how Microsoft Teams has provided an easy route by which housing providers can adopt unified communications as a service. We also noted that while the power of Teams is undisputed, in its basic form it is an inward-facing solution, a compelling unified platform for internal collaboration, but one that can’t link to the outside world via mobile or wireline public telephone networks.
That’s a real problem for organisations, such as housing providers, whose very raison d’etre is to serve customer constituencies for whom the phone is still the preferred method of communication. Microsoft offers two solutions to this telephony integration challenge – Microsoft Calling Plans and Microsoft Direct Routing.
Calling Plans keeps things tidy in a contractual sense because it’s provided by Microsoft but calls packages can be expensive and inflexible when compared to offerings from ‘normal’ telcos. Direct Routing enables Teams to work with telephony provided by a third party such as an existing telco, so depending on the choice of telco, call costs can be lower and flexibility greater.
Vivid Homes adopted Teams Direct Routing in 2020 and is now reaping the benefits. With 31,000 homes across four counties of Southern England and plans to build 17,000 more over the next decade, Vivid serves 72,000 customers, and those numbers give a clue to the scale of the external communications challenge faced by Vivid.
Rob Poyser, infrastructure operations manager, Vivid Homes, said, “By happy serendipity, we had already adopted Teams before coronavirus struck. We’d been using the on-premise Unify Openscape system for around 10 years; it was great when it was first installed but over time had become a nightmare to support, so we decided to move to a cloud solution and chose Teams.
“We have a full E5 license for Teams and are keen to use the entire stack provided by Microsoft in order to generate maximum value for money. Before coronavirus, we were already holding meetings on Teams and that on its own was having a positive impact on our operations.
“Having it in place put us in a really good position to quickly move to more flexible ways of working. People log on, do a few hours’ work, then maybe need to look after their children for a while, and can then log back on and do some more work later. Talking to our people, many are much happier working from home and not having to do their daily commutes. Of course, it’s about a better work-life balance for them.”
Vivid’s staff liked Teams from the outset because they found it so intuitive. At the same time, Poyser and his colleagues were freed from the burden of the almost daily interventions they previously had to make to keep things working smoothly.
Poyser said, “We suddenly had time to work on other projects. Even upgrades are handled without us having to get involved. Being cloud-based means that we don’t have to worry about the upgrades – they’re just done for you.”
When Vivid wanted to extend Teams to accommodate external telephony, Poyser and his colleagues first of all experimented with Microsoft Calling Plans but soon saw that Direct Routing would deliver two further benefits.
Poyser said, “Of course, there was the question of cost from making savings with Direct Routing over Calling Plans, plus our telephony provider was Gamma and we already had a good working relationship with them.”
However, Poyser is realistic and pragmatic about the customer dynamic between the global scale of Microsoft and its smaller customers.
Poyser said, “When we’ve had to call on Microsoft regarding support issues, they did what was needed, but when it’s something as crucial to our daily operations as the primary link between Vivid and our customers, the telephone, then we really want the comfort of being able to speak to someone who can help right there and then, and that’s what our relationship with Gamma gives us.
“The transition to Teams Direct Routing with Gamma was smooth. We did it in stages, department by department. Now Vivid staff can work from pretty much anywhere and still take and make phone calls to external mobile and landline numbers.”
Apart from choosing a telco with an advanced and highly stable infrastructure and a very proactive approach to customer care and service, what’s Poyser’s next tip for the smooth integration of ‘anywhere telephony’ using Teams Direct Routing? It’s not quite what you might expect: headsets.
Poyser said, “Yes, headsets… Think about it – you’re giving people the ability to take and make phone calls through any device they choose that’s logged on to Teams. They might be using a laptop on a train or in another public place, or a tablet in the kitchen at home. Unless they use a headset, everyone around them hears the call and for a number of reasons that’s clearly undesirable.
“Headsets are essential. We discussed with our people what they wanted and top of the list was comfort, followed by really good quality audio, both from a hearing and speaking viewpoint as well as the removal of extraneous noise. We tested loads of different headsets before choosing ones from Jabra.”
Sam Winterbottom is the public sector director at Gamma, and Rob Poyser is the infrastructure operations manager at Vivid Homes.