It can save money on travel and help remote workers feel part of the team. Here’s how to get started with videoconferencing.
“It's just like being in the same room!” Well, that's the goal of videoconferencing, and some high-end systems such as Cisco TelePresence go to considerable lengths to make what's on the screen appear to be just across the desk.
While room-based videoconferencing certainly has a place, the widespread use of the technology has largely been driven by the ability to participate from everyday devices: desktops, notebooks, tablets and smartphones.
The basic idea is to conduct face-to-face meetings without requiring any of the parties to travel. Not only does that eliminate travel costs, it also avoids unproductive time getting to and from the venue.
That brings us to another motivation: remote working of one kind or another is becoming increasingly common, so getting everyone in your team into one room at the same time is a non-trivial task.
With videoconferencing, people can participate whether they are working from home, in remote premises, or between sales visits. And you don't need a meeting room big enough to accommodate all the attendees.
A related bonus is that it makes it easier to bring in specialists who are only needed for a small part of the meeting – the ability to join a videoconference from their desk means they are distracted from their primary work for a very short period.
Pros and cons
But videoconferencing isn't always the answer. It's not unknown for the most significant interactions to occur outside the formal parts of meetings (such as during breaks), and that is far more likely to occur when participants are in the same place.
In our experience, the video part of videoconferencing often adds very little to the audio component. Good conferencing software identifies the person currently speaking, so there's no real benefit in being able to see their lips move – especially if any of the participants are strangers to you as you won't recognise their faces or voices. And the more moving images there are on your screen, the more likely you are to be distracted from the topic under discussion.
This is a particular problem in contemporary open-plan offices where there is no guarantee that all participants will be able to secure a private room for the duration, so there's likely to be a lot of background movement.
Furthermore, multi-party video consumes a lot of bandwidth. The growing number of small businesses and home businesses connecting via the NBN means bandwidth isn't as scarce as it used to be, but the data has to be paid for.
So, audio conferencing has a lot to commend it.
On the other hand, video can be especially helpful where there's a need to show physical objects, and the ability to share device screens to support presentations or engage in communal whiteboarding can be a real boon.
What to consider
If videoconferencing is right for you, some of the things to consider when selecting products are:
- Integration. Ideally, you should be able to schedule a videoconference through your calendar, and when the time comes join it from the notification with a single click. If you use a unified communication system, the fact that you are currently participating in a videoconference should be reflected in your presence status.
- Compatibility/interoperability. Even if you initially adopt videoconferencing for internal use, you will probably also use it for meetings with customers, suppliers and so on. So you want a system that works with a broad range of hardware (ideally without having to install specific software - a dedicated app might work better, but some organisations have an 'approved software only' rule that rules out ad hoc installations), and preferably can interoperate with popular services such as Office 365, Skype and FaceTime
- Video quality. Poor image quality is a big turn-off for users. Modern codecs should give decent results in most circumstances, but check the performance of candidate systems over the types of links your people will be using.
A few names to help kick-start your search:
- Adobe Connect
- Amazon Chime
- Cisco Webex
- Google Hangouts
- Skype for Business
A couple of years ago, videoconferencing provider Join.me published an ebook called The Top Do's and Don'ts of Video Conferencing. It seems that it has been withdrawn, but a summary is available.
In a nutshell:
- Wear appropriate clothes
- Don't use your computer or device as a mirror
- Keep pets (and children?) away
- Don't pick your nose
- Avoid bodily noises (use the mute button)
- Don't videoconference from a bed
- Don't videoconference from a bathroom.
If you think they are too obvious to mention, consider that between 6 percent (bathroom) and 18 percent (mirror) of respondents in Join.me's survey said they had experienced videoconference participants breaking these rules.