Snow time! Close encounters of the virtual kind.
Like many businesses, the snow and ice this month has forced us cancel and reschedule meetings.
Despite the obvious inconvenience the weather does at least provide an opportunity to use alternative, low carbon ways of meeting. As with the introduction of fax machines it has taken a while for the technology to become ‘user friendly’ and for enough people to have access to it to make it worth the effort. A single fax machine is about as useful as one shoe, afterall.
So are we there yet? Can we now meet virtually without having to travel in person? Our experience is largely ‘yes’ albeit with a bit of forethought and planning.
We regularly use phone conferences as a way of meeting with clients with groups of up to ten people. There are a number of proprietary and subscription services to do this but ‘free’ alternatives such as Powwownow, and Skype work well. Skype used to be a great way of simulating a meeting under water, but as band widths have improved so to has the quality of the calls. And Skype to Skype conversations are free of phone charges. Spider phones which allow outside users to join round table meetings can work well, provided participants remember to speak clearly. And it is also worth investing in a good quality phone.
Whatever the technology all phone conferences need good chairing to ensure the everyone gets a fair crack of the whip and people don’t talk over each other.
What about video conferencing? Our experience is that it can work well, but it can also be like pulling teeth. Much depends on the speed of the internet connection, software, and the quality of the lighting and cameras at each end. Large organizations may have specialised suites with dedicated ISDN lines which can produce good results, but desktop to desktop video conferencing using Skype, Google or iChat can be more mixed. The benefits of being able to see your opposite number rather than speaking to them on the phone may be limited.
What is much more useful in our view, is the ability to view and share documents while talking on the phone. Once again this can be done using subscription services or for free using a number of services such as Powwownow. For our money, combining phone conferencing with document sharing over the internet offers the most useful combination based on current technology.
And the benefits? As well as the obvious ones of reducing travel costs, time and CO2 emissions, when well chaired generally we find virtual meetings more productive than face to face encounters. Plus you can join a meeting from anywhere with a phone and internet connection, and if the mood takes you turn-up in your pyjamas.
Tags: Virtual meeting, carbon reduction, phone and video conferencing.