Video-conferencing to save your marriage

July 26, 2011

Do we still need to travel so much now that high-definition audio-visual technology is becoming ever more ubiquitous?

“Face to face meetings will always be a part of our lives; but they’re not required for everyday regular meetings.”

Daniel Weisbeck, who heads up EMEA marketing for telepresence-system purveyors Polycom was trying to persuade me that high-definition video technology, becoming ever more prevalent, means the bulk of business travel is unnecessary.

Weisbeck’s firm commissioned a survey to add further credence to the claim. Four hundred senior business-travelling executives across Europe, at companies with more than 1,000 employees, were interviewed by a third party. Key findings were as follows:

  • Half of all short-haul domestic business flights taken by executives were for regular meetings.
  • A third say that many meetings they attend could be conducted by video conference.
  • Nearly half believe the business could save a lot of money by using video conferencing.
  • Four in 10 reported late arrival for an average of 2.5 meetings for the year because of travel-related delays.
  • Executives spent an average of 13 days out of the office in 2010 taking short-haul flights.
  • A quarter of the executives interviewed reported feeling stressed by plane travel.
  • One in 10 said they had missed a wedding anniversary, and an equal proportion reported missing a child’s birthday.

Weisbeck concedes that face-to-face meetings will always play a part in our business life, just like they do in our personal life. “You will travel to have that meeting, to have that handshake and that dinner to close the deal, or introduce yourself.”

But telepresence, for him, is “the ability to have a meeting-type environment in which you can make decisions quickly, understand the environment and the people you’re communicating with as if you were in that room.” Once clients have tried and tested it, says Weisbeck, they quickly see the benefits.

Screening each other
Non-verbal communication is profoundly important, especially with first impressions (just how important a part of total communication is much debated), but can a screen – no matter how large and high-definition it is – replace our highly evolved and semi-unconscious assessment of another human being in all their shifty-eyed, sweaty palmed, jiggering-legged reality?

“Etiquette is a part of business communication,” says Weisbeck. “In video you are much more transparent, and that makes the meeting more productive. You complete the meeting more quickly because you’re focused, paying attention.”

In a test suite at Polycom’s London HQ, I chatted with the firm’s employees in Slough through a gigantic telepresence screen. I could see and hear them perfectly, but I couldn’t feel or sense them. We were staring at each other but our gazes never completely met.

I couldn’t drag them off for a drink to see what they really thought about the world, off record.

Enriching the phone call
With or without video, teleconferences already save companies lashings of travel time. Multinational employees on one side of the planet are regularly forced to set their alarm to talk to counterparts on the other. When I was based in Singapore, no dinner party went by unhindered; people would dart off into guest bedrooms to join a U.S.- or Europe-initiated call.

My hunch is that teleconferences will gradually incorporate video; surfing Facebook or painting one’s nails during a lengthy soliloquy by a senior partner in Atlanta will be harder to get away with in an audio-visual world.

Weisbeck agrees on this point: “If you want to deploy a tele-worker environment, to allow your employees to work from home for part of the week, they’re most productive when their experiences are as if they were in the office, and you see that with video-collaboration, not when they’re just dialling in or on email.”

Polycom’s survey found that four in 10 companies have not yet implemented video conferencing. Weisbeck thinks that enterprise and the business to business environment is catching up to the desire and need to bring anyone from any device into a room or spontaneously have a meeting. “One of things that we do is to provide the bridging infrastructure… allowing Skype and FaceTime to talk to Polycom, to talk to Cisco. The more people that are using video, the better it is for us, because it opens up that spectrum for video collaboration.”

Living the high life
Will employers start asking middle-management minions to lay off the long-haul and join more video calls? Polycom and other unified communication firms do have a strong argument: that it is non-productive to travel, be it by private jet or high-speed train, for a regular meeting that could just as easily happen on a video call.

Add carbon footprints to the mix and it becomes harder to disagree with their proposition. But, scrap the trip, even the routine one, and you may miss out on something serendipitous: that informal, after-hours jolly when a new plan of action is dreamt up; that chance conversation with a stranger in a hotel bar which blooms into a beautiful new business relationship; that paradigm-shifting bolt of inspiration that strikes in an executive lounge or aircraft cabin. Sometimes you need to take yourself out of your workaday comfort zone to appreciate the big picture.

Where there is one survey, there is always another to counteract it. On July 8, a “Business Traveler Market Segmentation Study” produced by the Global Business Travel Association Foundation (GBTA) found that the majority of U.S. business travellers report that there is no substitute for being there in person (78%), and enjoy travelling for work (78%). A total of 801 travellers, who have taken at least four business trips in the last year, responded to the survey. I’ll be looking at it in more depth in a later column.

Interestingly, the Polycom study points to the French and the Russians finding work travel particularly stressful. Is this a European thing? I quizzed a jet-setting British Blackstone executive on the matter of travel as a source of aggravation; he told me that though he finds the constant agenda-juggling side of his schedule quite stressful, a palpable sense of freedom is brought to his life through his travels. He also appreciates the luxury of premier-class air travel and top-end hotels, and sees this as an affirmation of career success.

The spreadsheets may force travellers off the road, but bottom lines will be affected if we can’t meet and greet in the real-time real world.

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