Fallout from a recession and ash from a volcano drove more companies than ever to try videoconferencing. Once the skies clear on both fronts, will it be time to plan more business trips or will virtual meetings continue to get the job done? A technology consultant for the IBB Consulting Group, Justin Forer of Miami takes 100-150 flights a year and also participates in one to four audio or video conferences a day. His answer? “I do believe you can get quite a bit done via teleconferencing"—especially things such as project updates and clarifications. But when it comes to creating strategies, general brainstorming or generating new business, a trip is better, he says.

Online meet: Virtual meetings suit some activities.

If companies have both options at their disposal, how can they deploy them successfully?

Videoconferencing “is well-suited to routine kinds of information exchange activities"—for example, a regular meeting of a management team, says Patricia L. Mokhtarian, chairwoman of the Transportation Technology and Policy Graduate Program at the University of California, Davis, US.

The technology “enables activities that need to happen in a regular work flow in spite of the fact that people are across the country or across the world," says Laura Neumann, senior user researcher for Microsoft, which offers videoconferencing. And videoconferences can serve as backup in an emergency, as the volcanic eruption in Iceland showed. Companies offering the service found themselves inundated with calls when travellers were unable to make it to meetings.

Among those stranded was Stephen Prentice, a London-based analyst for Gartner, who was scheduled to deliver the keynote address at his company’s wireless, networking and communications conference in San Diego.

Once he realized that he would be unable to fly to San Diego, Prentice, along with the technical people in London and San Diego, spent three days figuring out the best way for him to deliver the speech remotely. The title of the speech he had planned to give in person? “The Art of Being There When You're Not", about the use of virtual worlds.

With video, it is much harder to gauge an audience’s reaction, so it is important to have “back channels" from the audience to the speaker, Prentice says. While he gave his speech, a colleague in San Diego instant-messaged his impressions of the audience’s reaction (were they interested? bored?) to a colleague sitting next to Prentice in London. His colleague in London wrote down the comments using a marker on a whiteboard.

When videoconferencing for meetings is makeshift or bare bones, it can be harder to hold a smooth conversation and read the room for visual and vocal cues. Jittery or pixelated pictures can be distracting. Sound delays can be jarring, making it hard to interrupt the speaker (good for keeping rudeness at bay, bad for cutting off non-stop droners).

“It really interrupts the natural flow of the conversation" to have technical issues, says Charles Stucki, head of the TelePresence business at Cisco. He says the goal of a company’s meeting technology—with its absence of voice delays, high-quality picture, curved tables and large curved screens—“is not to remind me that you’re not here". This type of system requires major financial commitment.

Still, “it's not like you’re never going to travel again", Stucki says. For example, he would have preferred to be in Norway last month to toast Cisco’s deal to buy Tandberg, a videoconferencing company based there. But because of the volcano, he (like Prentice) was stranded in London. So the company set up a global champagne toast to the deal involving hundreds of employees in nine cities around the world—a rare case where videoconferencing was used mainly to enact a ritual.

Toasting a deal, meeting a customer for a meal, having a personal conversation with a colleague—the trip will always trump video in these areas. Business trips are superior for things such as finding and reaching out to new customers, starting a project, soothing a client, dealing with controversy or delivering bad news, Mokhtarian says.

She says such trips also make a powerful statement that videoconferences cannot: They signal that the people being visited are important. “Sometimes it's not so much the content of the meeting itself as it is the symbolic nature of the person taking the time to be there," she says.


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