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September 8, 2009

VIDEO CONFERENCING:Is it a viable alternative to face-to-face meetings?

With companies looking to implement greener and more cost effective meetings and events strategies, Ian Whiteling investigates whether the latest video conferencing technology is the answer.

There’s no getting around it. No matter how much pressure is put on organisations to stop holding meetings and events for socially and environmentally responsible reasons, getting together with colleagues, partners and customers is a business imperative.

However, companies have never been more aware of their social and environmental obligations, and the influence it has on the marketplace. What’s more, the downturn has brought with it an intolerance – and quite rightly – of unnecessary excess, not to mention a need to cut costs to a minimum.

This has put pressure on businesses across the globe to carefully review every meeting and event they hold, and make sure that it’s necessary and worth the money. Of course, many would say that this should have been the case all along. And, surely, only good can come of this approach, through more profitable businesses and better meetings.

Meeting without moving
Helping companies towards this goal is video conferencing. It’s a technology that allows people in different locations to hold meetings without leaving the office, saving time, cutting the cost of travelling and booking venues, and reducing environmental impact.

But with an increasing emphasis on quality and effectiveness, can video conferencing really deliver? Is viewing and interacting with colleagues on a big screen a viable alternative to getting face to face?

Not according to David Dryden, managing partner at global engineering design company Cundall.

Insufficient engagement
“Sustainability is at the heart of our operation and is a core competency,” he says. “Therefore, the environmental impact of travel, as well as the inherent cost and associated inefficiencies of ‘being on the move’, have to be kept to a minimum.

“In attempting to solve this issue, we discovered that a plethora of technologies have emerged, the key requirement being to facilitate and simulate a meeting environment from multiple locations. Although tele, web and video conferencing have tried to support this, the level of engagement they provide simply isn't sufficient and often creates a one dimensional and dysfunctional meeting environment. 

“While these technologies may solve the travel issue,” he continues, “they actually fail to achieve the creative collaboration needed for our design processes. Our engineers need to be able to draw out their ideas on a shared board or highlight items in a shared document or drawing to recreate the same dynamism, interactivity and productivity that is generated from face-to-face meetings.”

Closing the gap
Having said that, Cundall has come up with a solution that mixes video conferencing with voice and device-based applications to achieve the specific level of interactivity required by its engineers.

Exploring the dynamism and inspiration that it was enjoying from face-to-face interaction, and replicating this virtually has replaced the need for Cundall to hold traditional meetings and enabled it to fulfill its corporate social responsibility obligations.

Often, however, the aim is not to replace all face-to-face meetings, but simply to cut them down, or actually be able to afford to increase the number of gatherings. In fact, most video conferencing experts are the first to admit that the technology is no substitute for direct interaction. But as technology evolves, many are keen stress that the gap between face-to-face and virtual meetings is closing.

A viable alternative
“Telepresence, the latest technology, has revolutionised video conferencing,” says Simon Hunt, commercial director, meeting rooms and video conferencing at Regus. “It enables a person to feel as if they were present. There is no loss of eye contact or body language and the visual quality is superb.”

In fact, Regus is so impressed that it is installing telepresence in 25 of its meetings centres by the end of the year.

“Although face-to-face communication is often still preferred, with telepresence technologies, video conferencing is increasingly becoming a viable alternative,” adds Hunt.

Razor sharp
Jeff Prestel, general manager at BT Conferencing’s Video Business Unit, is also convinced of the power of telepresence, saying: “Colleagues and suppliers can now feel as if they are in a face-to-face meeting.”

Meanwhile, Jon Tracey, engineering manager EMEA at LifeSize, talks of “razor sharp images so meeting delegates can gauge facial expressions, view documents and presentations, and show new products or designs to the group as they would in person”.

Although Prestel admits that the technology is currently usually bought by larger companies due to cost, Paul Louden, vice president of sales at telepresence supplier Polycom, claims many of his customers see “a complete return on investment” within six months of purchasing.

“If a company cuts one business trip for a few employees from the US to Europe or Asia, the money saved will pay for one of our telepresence systems, which are available from £2,500,” he says.

Flexible friend
Tracey is also keen to stress the increased flexibility of video conferencing. “It is no longer being used solely in the boardroom,” he says. “We find that systems are used in conference rooms of all sizes, personal offices and studies at home, as companies focus on remote working to help beat the downturn. Earlier this year we released LifeSize Desktop – a high-definition videoconferencing tool for PCs and laptops, particularly aimed at the remote worker.”

Although Tracey says modern video conferencing products are designed to overcome the early pitfalls of the technology, he does recommend carefully planned integration to overcome resistance from employees who may be hesitant about using new communication technologies.

Real benefits
Ultimately, it depends what you want from a virtual meeting. If it’s simply to be able to hold more meetings to increase collaboration within an organisation or engage more directly with other stakeholders, then less advanced and cheaper video conferencing systems could well suffice.

The real issue, however, is that it’s now possible to almost replicate the feel of a live meeting using the more advanced telepresence technology. Despite the cost, it can save companies money in the longer term and boost their social and environmental credentials, without compromising too much on quality.

Over the next few weeks we will be continuing our investigation into video conferencing, looking at how it can change the way companies plan their meetings and the effect it can have on their budgets, as well as getting tips from the experts on how to make the most of the technology.

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