Business video conferencing: Will users ever prefer visual calls?

Enterprises weigh in on their use of business video conferencing, and whether or not it could one day become the preferred method for communications.

Business video conferencing adoption is growing as the technology shifts from high-end conference rooms to desktops and mobile devices. While video vendors have predicted for years that video calling will overtake voice, some users still prefer picking up a phone when they need to talk to someone. Video calling won't overtake voice for some time, but the seeds for that change are evident.

The success of consumer video-calling apps like Skype and FaceTime have prompted video conferencing vendors and service providers to make their technology more accessible and easier to use, which has allowed enterprises to explore the benefits that video calling has over voice, such as enabling face-to-face interaction among geographically disparate employees and partners without forcing them to travel.

The Agency Group, a London-based talent booking firm with six global offices uses Avaya's Radvision room-based video conferencing technology to boost the engagement of employees during meetings. "There were concerns that some attendees were becoming distracted by PCs and smartphones during our [conference calls], and we felt that video conferencing would make employees more attentive during our weekly meetings," said Howie Gold, director of IT for worldwide operations for The Agency Group.

My goal is push [video] adoption as close as possible to 100%, and I'd like to see telecom costs drop dramatically along with it.

Mike Westlund,
senior director of IT, Jive

"We are definitely seeing video expanding across many different use cases -- way beyond the meeting room," said Andrew Davis, senior partner and analyst at Duxbury, Mass.-based Wainhouse Research. "While visual communications is a rapidly growing mode of communications, it will never be used all the time. However, as the technology improves and prices come down, we will see more enterprises deploying [video] applications."

While interest in video is growing, enterprises must integrate business video conferencing into the company culture -- while keeping the technology simple -- in order to encourage video use, especially in cases where an audio call just won't cut it, Davis said.

"Our old [video conferencing] hardware was difficult to administer, and we ended up with a single use case -- hardware in a room -- and [users] eventually stopped using it," said Mike Westlund, senior director of IT for social collaboration vendor Jive. "Our [employees] just started using Skype."

Jive deployed a software-based video conferencing service from Vidyo across its enterprise that works in multiple user environments -- from the mobile phone to the large boardroom, Westlund said.

Increasing video adoption is all about the culture of the company, combined with change control, Westlund said. He would like users to use video even more broadly. Jive's sales force currently relies on audio conference calling, which is a disadvantage.

"The problem lies with the way people think of real-time communications -- they are comparing video to audio's 100-year-old infrastructure … the video environment still is a variable at this point … But we've seen adoption grow from nothing, to 40 to 50 concurrent users on a daily basis, throughout the workday," Westlund said. "My goal is [to] push adoption as close as possible to 100%, and I'd like to see telecom costs drop dramatically along with it," he said.

The Agency Group's deployment of Radvision has boosted face-to-face meetings with employees at remote offices. The ability to see facial expressions is critical in his company's line of business, Gold said. "It's important for us to see the expression on an executive's face when they are talking, or [listening] to a new [musical] artist -- it's a totally new dynamic," he said.

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While most of The Agency Group's video conferencing is confined to the conference room, the company's New York office has access to browser-based video calling on desktops, and the firm has started to roll out an application that allows users at additional locations to enter a video conference from a smartphone or browser. Having the ability for its employees to communicate from the desktop via video conferencing is the goal, Gold said.

Video conferencing can also save companies money over time, said Dave Gilbert, CEO of Simple Signal, a Dana Point, Calif.-based cloud-based unified communications service provider.

Simple Signal -- a Polycom partner and customer -- uses video to connect its highly distributed workforce and reduce travel costs. Employees have access to a room-based system at headquarters, and they can access the daily, company-wide video meeting via their PCs, tablets or smartphones.

"We live on video -- managers are constantly in touch with their direct reports via video," Gilbert said. "A conversation is much more natural when you can see them and [their] nonverbal signals, and we didn't want to settle for blind communication."

Voice-only calling will always have a place within the enterprise

While video conferencing is easier to deploy and use, there is no replacing the convenience of picking up the phone to make a quick voice call. There will still be certain circumstances where a phone call will be easier or more appropriate, Wainhouse's Davis said.

"Video will never be used all of the time -- there are plenty of reasons why [a user] wouldn't want to take a call on video, like if they were on the move in a car, or not dressed appropriately," Davis said. Users also won't be needlessly firing up video calls to convey quick messages -- such as saying they'll be late, or they're on the way -- in which a quick voice call would suffice. "The overriding factor will be convenience," he said.

But as the workforce changes, so do attitudes about video, Davis said. While video calls may never be as common as a phone call, "video adoption will be helped along by the existing workforce being exposed to more visual communications, and the incoming workforce expecting it," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, News Writer and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter. 

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