Once reserved for the select few, videoconferencing is finally coming of age, uniting multinational businesses and acting as the focal point for the newest wave of collaboration software
Videoconferencing has become a big part of the way many companies do business – and not without good reason. “It’s not surprising that people are adopting videoconferencing at a rapid rate,” comments Sean O’Brien, EVP of strategy and communications for PGi, the US-based multinational provider of meeting solutions. With rising levels of mobility, as well as an increasing trend for flexible and home working, the demand for effective remote-conferencing solutions has never been greater. In addition, O’Brien also feel it tends to offer a better quality of meeting than other solutions such as instant messaging and teleconferencing, with staff feeling more engaged in the process because it more closely represents natural meetings. “Video in general happens to be a great technology for bridging time and distance and getting that more human connection,” he says.
Traditionally, the videoconferencing market has been dominated by room-based solutions and while these served a valuable function they weren’t without clear drawbacks. “Business users like video because it drives more efficient meetings,” says O’Brien. “But the reality is that room-based systems are expensive to install, they’re expensive to maintain and they don’t travel with you.”
He claims that providers such as Cisco and Polycom have found their traditional, room-based videoconferencing solutions are suffering in the current economic climate because they’re just too expensive. In contrast, cloud-based and mobile solutions have proved to be incredibly lucrative. He explains: “It’s a combination of price, value and it’s also a way to democratise the video technology so everyone within an organisation has access to it; it’s not just the C-suite executives.”
To really understand the popularity of these videoconferencing solutions, it pays to talk directly to the end-user. Given that professional housing provider Capital Living was built upon a foundation of cloud-based tools, videoconferencing is very much its cornerstone. “We work in lots of different locations and we work remotely,” says founder Adam Goff. “But if we can see each other it can become a very focused organisation.” He explains that, given they are a multinational company, visual contact is a hugely important tool to allow them to work effectively together. He continues: “We make it almost obligatory that you can see the person and interact with them.”
“What I like about videoconferencing is that it can be more productive,” comments Goff. “For example, I can have four people editing a document at once online and we can all be videoconferencing at the same time.” In recent times, the organisation has made the switch from using individual tools such as Skype for video-chatting or Dropbox for file-sharing to using the more unified approach offered by Google Apps for Business. “To go from email to video chat, it’s one button; it’s not opening new software or changing screens because it’s more integrated,” he says. “There are solutions out there now that just tie it all together very nicely. It just feels more normal – a bit like an office space would.”
iMeet, PGi’s flagship application, is also particularly focused on delivering this sort of integrated experience. “Collaboration helps foster a fluid exchange of ideas and information within an enterprise,” explains O’Brien. iMeet is part of a wave of new products which recognise that an application delivering one isolated function creates a jarring gap in the user experience; whether providing screen- and file-sharing, file-storage, collaborative notes or social-network integration. Fluidity of experience is the key phrase. “The experience has been specifically designed to let people connect in a more human way; people are at the centre of the conversation.”
And being at the centre of the conversation means users can find new ways to utilise the tools. One application Capital Living has found for videoconferencing software is using it totrain new members of staff. “A new member of staff might shadow a manager online while they’re doing tasks that this person is going to have to do,” explains Goff. “They’ll screen-share and then they can talk through what they’re doing.” This means that not only is one not having to look over the other’s shoulder but they are able to make use of note-taking applications and other software at the same time. None of this was dictated by a top down decision. Goff continues: “It’s not like we told them to – people just used it that way naturally.”
But there is an unspoken question in this debate. While videoconferencing is providing an increasingly viable alternative when distance or other circumstances mean a personal meeting is out of the question, can it ever equal the value of dealing with someone face-to-face?
“Sometimes it’s actually an improvement,” reckons Goff. However, he is quick to qualify this – he still feels there is still a massive value in the personal touch. He refers to a recent team action day where all of the UK staff came to London and had the chance to meet each other in person for the first time, providing a rather novel experience. “You’re actually re-meeting people that you already know quite well,” he explains. “But when you actually shake their hand, give them a hug or a kiss on the cheek – whatever the etiquette is – that cements the relationship.”
O’Brien also agrees that digital alone can’t rival meeting in person. “It’s how human bonds are formed, it’s how trust is built,” he says. “We are big believers in the value of face-to-face meetings but we also recognise the fact that people cannot always be together.” And in these cases videoconferencing and other collaborative software are making the experience as true to life as possible. As O’Brien concludes: “These tools and technologies help people to be as productive when they’re apart as when they’re together.”