Is video conferencing finally ready to replace business travel and in-person meetings?

After years of promises, video conferencing may finally be a viable alternative to face-to-face meetings. But there are still some best practices to follow.

Video concept. people using mobile gadgets,

Image: drogatnev, Getty Images/iStockphoto

I remember my first scratchy call over a computer in the late 1990s, attempting to chat with the girl I was dating in order to avoid long-distance phone charges. (For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, once upon a time you actually had to pay for voice calls to locations more than a dozen miles from where you were sitting.) The call quality was atrocious, and video wasn't even an option, but I remember thinking that this was the future of communications.

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Years later, we've gone through multiple cycles of "video conferencing for the masses," usually pitched as a solution to avoid the airplanes, hotels, and cost of assembling people in a room together. Each cycle usually fizzled out, due to a combination of bad tools, poor facilitation, and a sense that critical meetings simply weren't that effective done over grainy video calls, with audio that often sounded like the latest autotune-enhanced pop singer or a wayward robot.

What's changed in video conferencing?

As someone whose job, as my youngest child tells it, is to "ride on airplanes and talk to people," the possibility of avoiding planes and hotels is highly attractive, and it appears that this dream is finally coming true. We've long had relatively high-quality video cameras and microphones on our computers, but the software was typically clunky and limited to desktop computers. Joining a video conference was a tedious act of installing or updating plugins, worrying about whether your hardware would be detected, and then several minutes of various participants attempting to share applications.

The tools still aren't perfect, but major players like Skype, GoToMeeting, and relative newcomer Zoom have focused on improving the user interfaces of their applications and unshackled them from the desktop. You can now join a video conference, and even see your colleague's Windows desktop while poolside on your iPad. Similarly, it's almost as easy as a phone call to jump on an ad hoc video conference and get the richness of a human interaction with very little technology overhead. Behind the scenes, new compression algorithms offer high quality audio and video even on mobile networks, versus the pixelated images and robot voices of the past.

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The key is still culture and facilitation

You've likely spent a fair portion of your life on conference calls, many of them useless. There's always "Chatty Cathy/Karl," who wants to talk about the weather or some other non sequitur, "Solitaire Steve/Stacy," who clearly is focusing their attention elsewhere, and "Plugin Pete/Pam," who lacks the right plugin, didn't receive the attachment, or otherwise requires the entire team to pause while they sort out their technology issues. What's intriguing is not that these conference call personalities exist, but that they're tolerated in some organizations that would never tolerate that type of behavior in person.

The new video technologies help to some extent: It's harder to be on another call, mowing the lawn, or folding laundry when people are looking at you, and the updated software helps avoid some of the old technology challenges. But the technology is not a magic bullet. Simple cultural cues like making participation via video the expectation rather than the exception, is a good start. If you as a team leader are always on video, smiling and engaged, you'll set an example that's emulated. If you're always calling from the car and half listening, expect your team to follow your example as well. Showing up prepared and making video meetings 99% working time and only 1% fluff makes them a valuable experience most participants enjoy engaging with. If you allow these conferences to turn into gab sessions, or five minutes of value for every hour spent staring at a camera, you'll find the same old frustrations.

SEE: How video conferencing is reducing business travel and increasing productivity (TechRepublic)

Similarly, understand the pros and cons of the medium. On one of my teams where everyone has iPads or touch-sensitive laptops, reviewing a draft presentation is fantastic because people can mark up the document as we speak, and we can interactively draw and build on each other's ideas. Brainstorming sessions with a team that you know reasonably well can also be highly effective, since you can read each other's facial expressions, and identify when people are engaged and agree with a concept or have questions and are still processing.

Keep it interesting, or you'll lose them

With larger-scale presentations, video runs the risk of creating a "talking slideshow," where 60 minutes of the same voice droning on while slides flash across the screen quickly loses the attention of the audience. If you have to present to a large group, try to use the medium to your advantage, offering slides where the audience can write in a topic, or vote on the answer to a quick quiz, or try to cycle through different speakers and types of content to keep things interesting. The old trick of pausing and asking for questions is generally not very effective, but calling on a specific individual, even if the first one is arranged in advance, can signal to the audience that participation and engagement are expected and to their benefit.

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While physical presence is still critical for something like a board meeting with accompanying body language, and the "unofficial meetings" that occur in the hallway are often more important than the "official" meeting, it's worth trying video conferencing with your team. This could be as simple as a one-on-one video-based call with some of your remote workers or attempting larger meetings. Invest the 10 minutes to test the tools and prepare your meeting, paying attention to the nuances of the tools. After a few sessions, video conferencing will become second nature, and might just keep you off a plane or two.

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...