Video conferencing - no more face-to-face?

6th of December 2013
Video conferencing - no more face-to-face?

Love them or loathe them, business meetings in far away places look set to become a thing of the past as more convenient online alternatives gain converts across the corporate world. Hartley Milner looks at the growing market for video conferencing and the real savings it can bring.  

It’s no joke having to be up with the lark after working late into the night putting a final polish on preparations for yet another business meeting that you are not convinced is really necessary. As you rub your weary eyes, ahead stretches another long day, starting with a stressful journey where you are at the mercy of road works planners, capricious airport baggage handlers or train cancellations, all seemingly conspiring to get you to your destination late or in a flustered state.

So was the meeting worth all the hassle? Did it achieve anything that could not have been sorted by email or over the phone? This is a question increasingly being asked by travel-weary business executives on tight schedules and budgets.

In a survey, nine out of 10 people admitted to daydreaming in meetings and 60 per cent said they only took notes to appear as if they were interested in the proceedings. And others viewed these gatherings are merely an opportunity to renew acquaintances or escape the office for a few hours.

“Some meetings are, of course, very necessary – you cannot deliver an effective presentation to a prospective new client without making contact on a personal level first,” said business communications adviser Karl Mayer. “In such circumstances, you need to impress and it’s not just the product the customer is interested in. It’s as much about you; how you are turned out, how you conduct yourself and your personality.

“However, once you have won the customer over and established a working relationship with them it is arguable whether further in-person contact is necessary, except under very special circumstances. You need to ask – is anything likely to be debated that cannot be communicated on the telephone, in a memo, email, briefing report or via a video conference?

“Video conferencing technology is so sophisticated now that it is almost like being in the same room with a person. You can ‘meet up’ with a client or a colleague as regularly and for as long as you wish, so establishing a more informal relationship.”

Video conferencing has proven a game-changer in recent years, along with hybrid consumer-corporate communications solutions like Skype, Jabber, Google Talk and Apple’s FaceTime. Increased access and affordability of internet and cloud is revolutionising the way firms communicate internally and with customers.

More mobile workers

The global video conferencing market is expected to be worth 10.4 billion euros by 2017. In Europe alone, the sector saw growth of 20 per cent in 2010 and has expanded every year since, no doubt in part due to companies seeking ways to reduce their costs during the recession. Other factors are a rise in the number of mobile workers, growing prominence of telepresence and increasing take-up of video calling and conferencing solutions among small and medium-sized enterprises.

For large or small businesses, the potential to save costs is one of the main drivers of this fast expanding market. Video conferencing is not a cheap alternative to globe-trotting, but in the long term the outlay is more than offset by savings on travel and other business meeting costs, and revenue lost by having key employees away from the office.

Virtual meetings tend to be shorter, so eliminating unproductive discussions. Scheduling meetings is made easier, as they require less planning in terms of getting key employees together at a mutually convenient date and time. And by reducing travel and using less paper, you are taking a big step towards reducing your carbon footprint.

Video conferencing works by connecting individuals in real time through audio and video communication over broadband networks, enabling visual meetings and collaboration on digital documents and shared presentations. In the early days, people could only be connected between central meeting rooms fitted out with an array of cumbersome hardware. New technologies allow us to link up remotely over a network via multiple devices like desktops, smartphones and tablets.

Conferencing technology broadly comprises four types – telepresence, integrated, set-top and desktop.

Telepresence is the most advanced of online conferencing systems. Telepresence creates and amazingly realistic environment where two or more people can react as though they are actually in the same room. Users can read body language such as telling shifts in eye contact, glimmers of interest – or disinterest – and you can pick up clues as to whether the communicator is being completely open with you.

The system works by employing concealed multiple codecs plus cameras, speakers, microphones and monitors. The centrepiece is a video wall or large monitor panorama. Linked to this, a high quality audio system provides almost perfect speech clarity. All this comes at a price, of course – up to 225,000 euros, depending on the size and sophistication of the system you require. There is also a portable version of the telepresence system.

Integrated video conferencing is broadly a pared-down version of the telepresence system and a much cheaper option. It still uses screens, monitors and cameras, but the overall set-up is more basic. Being also more space-efficient, these systems are in demand by smaller businesses and can be accommodated in most conferencing rooms.

All necessary equipment is integrated into the room, restricting video conferencing to one central location. Various configurations are available, tailored to the needs of your business and the size of your conference room. These systems cost anywhere from 7,500 euros to 75,000 euros.

The set-top video conferencing option is the most basic system currently available and is designed for smaller groups of people. It includes a camera and microphone incorporated into your computer. The equipment is also portable, enabling it to be used in different rooms. The cost ranges from 3,7000 euros to 7,500 euros.

If you use Skype or other type of video messaging application to talk through your computer, then you will already be familiar with desktop video conferencing. Rather than using separate television screens or monitors, the person you are in contact with is displayed on your computer screen. Being stand-alone systems, they operate through software or downloaded applications on your hard drive.

As an alternative to video conferencing, ‘chat’ applications are arguably the most practical and increasingly popular online meeting tools. They combine real-time teleconferencing with the capabilities of email and are ideal for virtual meetings that may be lengthy because they allow users to multitask at their desk while participating. Employees enjoy collaborating virtually with chat conferencing because it is so fast and efficient, and it can be fun – you can contribute to a meaningful business meeting while still in your pyjamas!

If you are leading a team, you will want to ensure that none of your people ‘drop the baton’ during an important online meeting. Wikis are special files that multiple people can access and edit. You can then edit the draft to remove any rough edges and then send out the finished document to the team. Virtual meetings can be more productive and efficient as a result of allowing multiple users to access the same documents.

Video conferencing is becoming more affordable with increasing competition in the market, and low cost but high quality systems are being offered via the cloud.

But cost is not the only consideration. “As with any online activity, video conferencing has its drawbacks,” said Mayer “For example, anything said or discussed at virtual business meetings can be leaked or there may be a hacker listening in on behalf of a competitor, so it is vital you have a secure connection with firewall and anti-spyware capabilities.

“And technical difficulties arising from software, hardware or network failure can happen anytime, which could be a big inconvenience, or a disaster if the screen goes blank or you lose audio contact in the middle of critical discussions with a client. You can get conferencing kits with a back-up system.

“When it comes down to it, you have to balance the very real savings in time and money and convenience, against the likelihood of these hiccups happening from time to time. In the long term, though, businesses that go down the online conferencing route find it worth the investment and make significant savings.”


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