Benefits of video conferencing include less travel, but it's not No. 1

Reduced travel has long been the top reason to deploy video, but enterprises find the soft benefits of video conferencing reap greater rewards.

The Agency Group, a London-based talent agency that represents musicians and other artists around the world, originally adopted video conferencing as a way of making sure staff members in its various global offices were actually paying attention during weekly management meetings.

After all, when the conference calls were conducted blindly over the phone, it was impossible to tell if employees were truly tuning in -- or were they actually scrolling through their smartphones when they should have been listening?

Yet less than a year after installing an Avaya video system in January 2013, IT Director Howie Gold says the technology no longer functions primarily as a nanny cam. The agency's staff has found many more reasons to embrace the business-minded bonuses of video.

"It gives people an opportunity to interact with people you never get to meet," Gold says. "Our people in the U.K. who have never been to LA can see those people now. There's a certain amount of body language and facial expressions that come through on video, and you can't get that from an audio call. It adds a whole other layer to the communication. It took some time for video to catch on here, but now it's so popular, everybody wants to use it all the time."

For decades, enterprises have turned to video conferencing in large part as a means of reducing business travel expenses. However, a recent survey by Duxbury, Mass.-based Wainhouse Research of 4,700 end users of video conferencing found that the incentives for using video are shifting: 94% noted that the biggest benefit was increased efficiency and productivity; 88% cited increased impact of discussions; and 87% said video expedited decision-making -- the same percentage who said it reduced travel. The survey was included in a whitepaper sponsored by video conferencing vendor Polycom.

Some say video conferencing can actually be more efficient than regular face-to-face conferences since the meetings often have a defined start and end time with people calling in from different locations, so a more focused discussion and less chitchat is likely.

Meanwhile, business demand for video remains strong. Polycom and U.K. market research agency Redshift Research released a study last fall, finding that 76% of the 1,205 business decision-makers in 12 countries surveyed said they use video conferencing at work today, and 56% of users participated in at least one video call per week.

Smile! You're on camera!

The soft benefits of video are often hard to quantify, which often makes an investment difficult to justify, but many businesses see it as a key part of keeping dispersed teams connected in a way that simply isn't possible over email or by phone.

Dave Gilbert, the CEO of SimpleSignal who likes to be known as "the big cheese," says his Dana Point, Calif.-based company, which sells cloud-based unified communications services, invested in a Polycom video conferencing system for internal use and has incorporated the technology into his employees' daily routine.

Every weekday at 8 a.m. Pacific time, the company's team of 50 to 60 people gathers for a 10-minute video conference to talk about a work-related accomplishment, discuss what's coming down the pike and even celebrate fun moments, like wishing a staff member a happy birthday. Some staffers were a bit uncomfortable about seeing themselves on video at first, plus the meetings meant having to dress in business-appropriate clothes, put on makeup and tidy up desks in the background, even when working at home. But the payoff from video has been worth it, he says.

"We pull people from all over the U.S. in for what's like homeroom in high school," Gilbert says. "It's a way to pull together the company every day."

Gilbert says his company also sends key customers video phones or software for their mobile devices so his staff can have regular video conversations with them as well, which can create a powerful business connection -- partly by allowing participants to have side conversations that may have nothing to do with business.

For example, Gilbert works in a lighthouse, so customers often immediately ask where he's calling from -- and it may lead to a conversation about his office's location in Southern California, where the surfing culture is popular.

"When I'm talking to you, I might see skis in your background, so we can talk about skiing. Those things are anecdotal, but they're powerful," he says. "It changes the relationship when you can see someone. It ties them to you in a whole new way and makes them feel like there's a deeper relationship."

Keeping it simple

IT professionals need to look for video conferencing systems that will be simple for staffers to use, according to Andrew Davis, a senior partner at Wainhouse Research.

"The analogy I use is that parents buy toys, but kids use them. The IT department tends to buy video conferencing, but they're not the people who use it," Davis says. "It may seem obvious, but it's also the most overlooked aspect when you look at the reasons why these deployments are less than fully successful."

The Agency Group's Gold agrees that the IT professional's key to staff embracement is finding a system that is easy to use.

"I wanted a system where if some people wanted to make a call, they could walk in, pick up a piece of paper with five instructions on it and do it themselves," he says, noting that with previous Web conferencing services, he had to be involved with every call to set it up. "I wanted something simple, and this is simple. Everyone is pleased, so I look like a hero. Anything that makes me look good is a good thing."

How to build video conferencing for collaboration

IT pros shopping for video conferencing capabilities can choose from many options, from hardware-based systems to software suites to virtualized systems. And although the price can vary widely, from high-end telepresence systems that cost a quarter-million dollars to cloud service contracts that run only $30 a month, prices have dropped significantly when compared with systems from just a few years ago.

"The capabilities you get with an entry-point system exceed what you could have received with a high-end system just a few years ago," says Wainhouse's Davis. "People are trying to figure out what their infrastructure should be: Should they buy it and put it on premises, or should they go with a cloud service? I suspect that many companies, especially large companies, will go with a hybrid environment."

Experts say it's helpful to use a centralized system that controls both video and voice calls. So if you're talking on a desktop device, you should be able to seamlessly switch to mobile, rather than having to hang up and dial back into the call.

Many vendors offer sophisticated three-screen telepresence suites that run as high as $200,000 to $300,000 and include multiple high-definition cameras with eye-tracking features and directional microphones that are intended to replicate the feel of an in-person boardroom experience as closely as possible.

These systems consume much more bandwidth, but they provide exceptionally high-quality connections -- and some high-end enterprises, such as those in the financial industry, are willing to invest in that level of quality. Yet you don't need telepresence to have a great experience, as there are many room-based systems that still offer high quality for much less money.

"You can do room systems for a couple grand and get very good quality these days," says Irwin Lazar, vice president and service director at Nemertes Research in Mokena, Ill.

Wainhouse's Davis agrees that while it's possible to install a decent system for less than $2,000, many companies opt for better camera and sound systems that typically cost anywhere between $8,000 and $18,000. These tend to include the two screens, high-definition capabilities, a motorized camera with pan, tilt and zoom functions, as well as speaker-recognition technology in which the camera zooms in on the person speaking and makes that person more prominent on screen.

"The stuff in conference rooms today can be pretty sophisticated," Davis says.

In addition to the equipment in the room, companies often install a video bridge. The average on-premises bridge runs between $20,000 and $50,000, Davis says. Some companies prefer to invest in this equipment so they can keep it on site, rather than opt for a cloud service that would maintain it off-premises.

"Having it in the basement or on your own network gives you a security comfort factor," Davis says. "[You] don't have to worry about anyone else having access to it. With banking information or other sensitive information, that might be a concern."

Connectivity in the cloud

Davis says many enterprises, both large and small, are signing up for video conferences delivered as cloud-based services, rather than installing hardware "in the basement" of their buildings. Cloud can make it easier to conduct business-to-business video calls, he notes.

"I don't have to worry about having you get inside my firewall. I don't have to send you the equipment. We can just link in to Amazon Cloud," he says. "A lot of businesses have moved from hardware-based systems to software-based systems to software that works in a virtualized environment. Today, you can decide whether you want to buy a video bridge or rent it or use a video bridge that's provided to you as a service."

Besides, paying a by-the-minute or monthly fee for a cloud service is preferable for some companies that prefer to avoid making large capital expenses in favor of shifting to an operating-expense model.

"You don't need to go out and spend hundreds of thousands on infrastructure right now," Lazar says. "Cloud services are rapidly improving."

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