The benefits of online meetings are clear: substantial time and cost savings for businesses, employees and clients. But, as Lucie Benson discovers, there are other reasons to consider web conferencing within your organisation.
In today’s modern and global business environment, online meetings are fast becoming a popular and effective way of communicating with customers or employees who are not located in the office.
The immediate benefits that spring to mind are, of course, time and cost savings, as well as a reduced carbon footprint if, for instance, people have to travel long distances to attend meetings.
Plus, according to a survey of over 1,200 UK office workers carried out by YouGov last year, unnecessary face-to-face meetings are costing UK businesses £17 billion annually. The research also found that 67 per cent of respondents travel at least once a week for work-related meetings, and a staggering 82 per cent felt that the majority of them were unnecessary meaning workers are getting fed up with the amount of face-to-face meetings they have to attend.
Source: Right Management
These findings therefore call into question the effect that unnecessary face-to-face meetings are having on staff in terms of motivation and productivity. In an article on HRZone.co.uk in October last year, Bert Van Der Zwan, vice president EMEA of online meeting provider WebEx, highlighted a survey his organisation carried out, which found that 28 per cent of respondents felt that reducing their number of face-to-face meetings would improve overall productivity at work, with a further 21 per cent saying they would feel less stressed, and 18 per cent commenting they would have a better work-life balance.
So the results are there for all to see. But is web conferencing suitable for your organisation? Well, online meeting facilities aren’t just confined to the larger businesses that can afford state-of-the-art and costly services. Smaller organisations are just as well placed to meet virtually with customers or employees who work remotely, and share information online.
Axel Albrecht, from WebEx, remarks that all you need to participate in WebEx is a browser and internet connection, and adds that smaller organisations still face the same issues, but on a smaller scale. “There are still benefits for smaller companies as everyone is facing the same dilemmas of how to do a good job with the tools they have – and this can help them save time,” he says.
Academee is a provider of leadership learning solutions, and it employs 75 people worldwide. Its employees and clients are spread across the UK, Europe and the Asia Pacific region, so, says its MD Clare Roberts, virtual meetings are “a way of life” for the company.
“The time and cost savings are substantial,” she remarks. “Over the course of a year, virtual meetings save us and our clients hundreds of thousands of pounds.”
Roberts adds that online meetings can also be more efficient than face-to-face because participants tend to be more focused on the agenda. “By utilising innovative applications which combine visuals, audio and online tools such as the ability to view and amend presentations online, participants can actively contribute no matter how great the geographical distance between them. There is a huge choice of multimedia conferencing and screen-sharing packages on the market. More traditional chat conferencing or bulletin board systems with real-time capabilities can also be useful.”
Cathy Ham, general manager at BT conferencing, echoes Roberts’ remarks on time savings, saying that video conferencing generally requires less time investment. “As well as less waiting time, there are also reduced amounts of travel to benefit from,” she adds. “Online conferencing solutions, combined with audio, can enable participants to share, update documents, and present and discuss points instantly – something which might not even be as easily done in a face-to-face meeting. This in turn helps to manage information, as well as helping employees to establish or maintain a healthier work-life balance.”
The potential cost savings are really significant too, says Ham. “BT group itself saved at least £238 million in 2006 by using conferencing services across the business,” she comments. “Each BT conferencing meeting saves BT at least £298 in travel cost and time. Plus, one of BT’s customers, a leading bank, says it saved more than 25 per cent on its annual predicted £70 million expenditure on travel and subsistence by using conferencing.”
So it is pretty clear how much organisations can benefit from investing in online conferencing technology, but how can HR departments set about introducing these facilities at work and encourage staff take-up?
Clare Roberts, MD, Academee
“An organisation’s culture can be changed from face-to-face to conferencing much more quickly than might otherwise be possible,” explains Ham. “There should be little difficulty in convincing about 10 to 15 per cent of staff to use the service but the main issue is convincing the rest of the organisation. Unless someone is telling people why it is beneficial to change, showing them how to do it, training them in the technology and monitoring their usage, it won’t happen.”
Roberts adds that, when introducing online meetings for the first time, it is important to communicate the benefits to all employees. “Online meetings can help people to work more flexibly, because there is no need to travel,” she remarks. “They can bring together individuals who rarely or never have the opportunity to meet face-to-face. They can be an effective learning tool, and play an important part in blended learning programmes. Any organisation can benefit from online meetings, particularly geographically-dispersed organisations.”
However, it is also sensible to be aware of the limitations of online meetings. “Face-to-face meetings and face-to-face learning will always have a place,” says Roberts. “They can offer the time and space to talk ‘around’ the agenda, to open up debates and explore new possibilities. They also offer participants the opportunity to get to know each other better.
“Also, non-verbal communication is non-existent in online meetings, but plays an important part in face-to-face meetings. Online meetings are more effective if the participants have met face-to-face on other occasions.”
Yet, as Ham explains, there have been considerable technological advancements in speed, quality and ease-of-use, demonstrating how “organic” the videoconference experience can be.
“As it continues to evolve, these ‘dedicated rooms with sophisticated equipment’ are now being turned into immersive ‘telepresence’ suites which can transform the conferencing experience. The immersive suites can make participants feel like they are actually in the same room as their fellow meeting attendees – so body language and eye contact can still be used to get a point across or to negotiate a tricky deal. This is something that simpler solutions just won’t be able to replace.”
At the end of the day, it comes down to what method suits each individual company, whilst also taking into account the preferred communication styles of different individuals. As Roberts says: “By offering a range of meeting solutions to meet the needs of individuals, teams and organisations, you can create highly effective communication and learning programmes.”
Fleet funding specialists Lloyds TSB Autolease saved more than £100,000 and significantly reduced its carbon footprint over 12 months by introducing a videoconferencing policy.
The organisation operates on two sites and several of its core functions are split across these sites. Face-to-face meetings between staff from the two locations required a 212-mile round trip.
The new technology meant that Lloyds TSB Autolease could cut its own annual business mileage by 122,000, and reduce its carbon footprint by 44,000kg CO2.
David Kershaw, operations director at Lloyds TSB Autolease, says: “We now have two meeting rooms at each site that offer [videoconferencing] facilities and we hold around 24 video conferences a month. The numbers are encouraging when you consider across an entire year we have eliminated the need for around 580 return journeys.”
Stats : Lloyds TSB Autolease saving sums
- £15,000 saved annually in fuel from an average 12p per mile
- 240 hours per month lost through face-to-face, equating to £60,000 approx per year from an average £20 per hour
- Annual saving on other costs = £100,000+ (hotels, car hire etc)
“This technology is a win-win for all as it is cost effective and it helps reduce carbon emissions,” says Kershaw.
Source: Lloyds TSB Autolease