At a time when sharing images has become a daily ritual, the maligned practice of video conferencing could be facing a surge in popularity.
Science fiction writers in the 1970s predicted that by now we would be waited on by robots, driving flying cars and making video calls from work. Flying cars and robot waiters may still be a decade or two away. Videoconferencing, however, has become the promise that never quite delivered.
There are more videoconferencing solutions than ever before. In fact, it’s hard to pick up a device that doesn’t have the ability to send your image somewhere else, yet businesses seem to have had only a mild interest in the technology. In most cases it has languished in the boardroom.
One hurdle is that videoconferencing companies could never agree on a common standard that would allow one manufacturer’s system to talk to a rival’s. Instead, each built separate networks of customers who couldn’t make video calls between them.
“There’s the fear of ‘what if it goes wrong and I look silly?’.”
People used to talk about problems with interoperability, but this is no longer an issue, says James Ware, senior manager for alliances and cloud services at videoconferencing systems manufacturer Polycom. “We’re now talking about [software] integration and making it part of the existing workflow.”
These days, office dwellers can book a videoconferencing meeting within their Outlook calendar using a Polycom plug-in. They no longer need to fire up a separate program each time.
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Another possible reason for the slow uptake of videoconferencing is fear, says Michael “MC” Carter, CEO of Practice Paradox, a digital marketing agency for accountants.
“One of the reasons that people have been slow to adopt it is technological and the other is psychological – there’s the fear of ‘what if it goes wrong and I look silly?’, or the fear of appearing impersonal,” says Carter.
The classic application of videoconferencing in a boardroom has always been flawed, he adds. Even with expensive telepresence set-ups, it becomes difficult to read facial expressions in a group of people looking into one camera. When coupled with poor microphone placement, the experience can be underwhelming.
If Carter is holding an online meeting with two people from the same office, he asks them to log in separately with their own webcams to make it easier to gauge their individual reactions to questions.
“Eye contact is crucial if you’re an adviser or a salesperson,” he says.
“If you can’t read the non-verbals, you’re flying blind.” (Multiple surveys claim that two-thirds of communication is conveyed through tone, posture and facial expression.)
Related: Phone or career? It's your call.
The new breed of accounting firms run by millennials may help change attitudes toward videoconferencing. One such firm is Canadian-based Xen Accounting, which advises businesses on transacting in the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.
“We simply refuse to hold in-person meetings at Xen Accounting, even if the business we’re working with is right down the street,” says Xen’s Ryan Lanzanis.
As ubiquitous videoconferencing edges ever closer, specialist suppliers will have to fight to survive. Owners of Apple and Android smartphones and tablets can make video calls as easily as phone calls, using either the in-built video-call software or a cross-platform app.
Microsoft bought the consumer videoconferencing service Skype in 2011. It is plugging Skype in to its unified communications app, Lync, which is part of Microsoft Office 365, the cloud productivity suite.
Polycom and other manufacturers competing with native solutions may find they have little to smile about – on screen or otherwise.
Web vs. face to face
Practice Paradox’s Michael “MC” Carter is an ardent believer in one-on-one videoconferencing, or web meetings, for greater productivity. He regularly meets with his accountant clients using Citrix GoToMeeting, even if they work nearby.
Carter lists several advantages over face-to-face meetings:
- It’s easy to video record a web meeting. An adviser can then share the video with the client, who may want to revisit it or share it with other stakeholders who missed the meeting.
- An adviser can play a recorded web meeting for prospective clients. It is also a robust record of everything communicated to the client.
- It is much easier for an adviser to show a client reports, screenshots and software demonstrations on their own computer via a web meeting than in person on a shared laptop or a blurry projector.
- An adviser can fit in many more web meetings in a day by eliminating travel time from in-person meetings.