Today’s work environment is rapidly changing, and technology is allowing users to work anywhere and at any time. With project and case teams spread among offices, a new method of communication and collaboration is required to work effectively and efficiently in groups. If the new approach is ‘work is what you do, not where you do it’ then this new form of collaboration must also encompass how groups communicate across time zones and countries. In order to meet virtually, technology must enable this method of collaboration.
‘Virtual Meetings’ are replicating the effectiveness of an in-person meeting at remote locations. These meeting locations may consist of your office, conference room, home office, airport lounge, coffee shop, client’s office, or any location with sufficient bandwidth and a modicum of acoustic privacy. Virtual meetings depend on technology to allow audio, content sharing, and increasingly video to approximate an in-person experience. Being able to communicate independently of your physical location greatly increases your ability to attend a meeting, providing quicker decisions, and reducing unproductive time.
Providing clarity of audio between remote locations is the critical part of a remote meeting. Different from a short conversation, an audio conference lasting 30 minutes to 8+ hours requires clear audio conversations. Good audio can come from a professionally installed audio system, a speaker phone, or a quality headset depending on the setting. However, conferencing etiquette is important, and participants joining from a mobile phone and/or a noisy environment should participate as listeners only, with their connection on mute.
What separates a conference call from a collaborative meeting is the sharing of information or content. Content sharing focuses the meeting and clearly displays the ideas being presented. Today most of this information is on our computer or accessible from a mobile device. It is important that virtual meetings be able to quickly and easily share content. The sharing part is easy, since the meeting organizer gets to choose the collaboration software to use. Receiving the content can be difficult as the audience may not be setup, familiar, or compatible with the presenter’s software.
While sharing a camera is not required for a virtual meeting, it does retain the participants' attention for the duration of the meeting and is therefore key to providing virtual meeting collaboration. Room-based videoconferencing typically includes one or more main cameras focused on a small or large group of participants. These room-based video systems rarely provide the face-to-face communication that we were sold 20-years ago.
Virtual meetings can instead utilize a small fixed camera (webcam) for personalized interaction in the meetings. Most collaboration software will allow constant viewing of the top five participants in the meeting. This personal camera provides a similar experience as being physically in one room. Just like in a face-to-face meeting, if an attendee starts to zone-out, surf the web, or start checking emails, the other meeting participants (perhaps including your boss or client) are going to notice. Video helps keep participants more engaged. Therefore more information is retained and, most times, meetings are shorter.
PRESENCE AND CHAT
An interesting and highly useful function of collaboration software are the presence and chat functions. The presence portion displays the status of selected contacts on the desktop so that you can see when someone is available, busy, or out of the office; like a contact traffic light. The chat function allows you to have a quick informal dialog with anyone in the firm (available? Do you want to talk to Mr. Smith? Are you working on the TPS report?, etc.).
Using both presence and chat functions reduces internal (within your firm) telephone calls and emails. We find there are so many internal communications that can be quickly resolved with a check of someone’s availability and a quick message. If the message is more complicated then click on the talk button for a quick conversation. This sequence eliminates voice mail messages from internal callers. These collaboration functions are not another distraction, but a consolidation and evolution of communication.
Bring Your Own Conference (BYOC) involves using the collaboration software on your portable device in a physical conference room, creating a virtual “environment” for a small local group. It simplifies the conference room AV system and helps minimize the learning curve to use these rooms’ systems since it can mimic your desktop experience more faithfully. Remote and local participants are both able to present to all meeting attendees by being promoted to presenter just as you would from your office.
However, there is a downside to scaling a consistent BYOC experience across the firm. In a small group meeting room, there is the need to connect to a more high-quality audio experience than one’s individual laptop/tablet audio if all participants are going to be heard equally well. Similarly, if video of the room’s participants is to be shared, then a room camera needs to be connected to the host’s personal device. Seamlessly connecting to these devices can prove troublesome if users don’t connect items before starting a call or if drivers for these devices aren’t loaded on these personal devices prior to the meeting. A solution to this problem can be to place a low-cost computer in each room to serve as the virtual meeting host and either have that room PC be invited to the meeting or have the organizer log into that computer upon entering the room so that all of their meetings and contacts can be quickly found.
THE NEW NORMAL
The latest collaboration software provides all the functions into one coordinated package. Integrating these virtual meeting functions with the “presence” and “chat” functionality provides a new workspace communication experience. Intelligently using all the collaboration tools allows for an ad hoc virtual meeting experience such as:
Check user’s presence for availability
Chat via chat to see if they are available
Connect via audio and video, share content if needed
Conclude with follow up email to document decisions, if needed
This eliminates the multiple emails, ringing phones, voice mails, and non-engaging conversations.
As ‘tele-communicating’ changed to ‘working remotely’ and is now just consisted ‘work,’ the same will be said for ‘virtual meetings’. New workplace practices, mixed with enabling technologies will allow for remote meetings to become the new norm for group collaboration and decision making.
Ross Cunningham, PMP, ITIL-F, CTS-D, RCDD, Principal, Waveguide Consulting Inc.