The Future Is Now: Virtual Office Reality

The idea of stepping into a hologram for a monthly staff meeting may still seem a tad far-fetched for most small-business owners, but improvements in broadband quality and available technology are expanding virtual meeting options at warp speed.

Yet, even in the virtual world, it’s best to take a hard look before you leap. Whether you’re NASA conjuring the holodek of Star Trek science fiction to train astronauts, or a fledgling entrepreneur struggling to communicate with remote partners or customers, the first step into the burgeoning virtual world should be doing your homework to find the most appropriate and cost-effective solution for you. First, here’s a primer on the available technology.

In its simplest sense, a virtual meeting is a phone call between two or more people. Good audio is essential for success. The next step is either a desktop or a fixed-station streaming video and data-sharing process, which can run from simple—such as the popular consumer Skype programs—to elaborate. Once you start adding high-quality video and uniform-scale screens—which basically ensure everyone’s face is the same size and everyone can make virtual eye-to-eye contact—then the systems get a little more complicated and expensive.

Three-D or “immersion” technology allows participants to enter into the meeting as if they were part of a video game. “Second Life” technology, a multi-user virtual 3D environment, includes avatars, or characters that participants fashion to represent themselves as they navigate the virtual world. Considering all these things available today, an auditorium full of holograms that participants step into (think the Galactic Senate in Star Wars) doesn’t seem as far-fetched or sci-fi as it once did.

Homecare Homebase, a 10-year-old Dallas-based company that provides web-based software solutions for the homecare industry, saved significant travel cost by connecting headquarters staff and project managers in Dallas to technologists based in Prospect, a suburb of Louisville, Kentucky via virtual conference. “We were spending about $20,000 a month on basic travel expenses between Dallas and Kentucky,” says Guy Conces, the company's chief strategist. “With the high-quality video system, we’ve cut way into that, and saved considerable money there.”

The cost and software demands of such systems are high. But they can be offset by the savings in travel expenses that otherwise would be incurred by far-flung teams that need to interact. Further, if there isn’t a need for a physical company headquarters, a startup might find that it’s worth the cost to initiate a virtual, animated HQ accessible by people worldwide.

Indeed, businesses have been embracing the virtual path in recent years, particularly since the 2009 economic meltdown that prompted companies to slash travel budgets and aggressively search for alternatives to person-to-person contacts, on-site training sessions and physical trade events. Improvements in audio and video quality and in delivery speed, and the evolution of virtual tools, have enabled affordable ways around expensive travel costs.

High-end companies involved in enabling virtual technologies and related software support—Hewlett-Packard, Second Life, Adobe, Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, Citrix and the like—have pioneered models for avoiding many of the pitfalls associated with taking the virtual plunge.

A Virtual Shove

One company that was forced into the virtual world when the economy soured in 2009 was Planview, a Texas-based portfolio management solutions company that provides largely high-end clients with enterprise software. With customers canceling plans to attend the company’s annual in-person user conference, “We were trying to figure out what to do—do we cancel, do we try something online?” recounts Kimberly Stone, director of web and creative services.

Are you considering web conferencing? Consider this.

1. What are the use cases you need solutions for? How many are external? Internal? 

2. Seek industry insights into the strengths and weaknesses of various solution alternatives. 

3. Boil down your options to two or three solutions, and do a free trial. Test each on how the solution meets your specific needs. 

4. Think through the more extensive use cases. Try to figure out how to meet the needs of everyone within the organization versus a subset that addresses the criteria of the power users within the group. 

5. Structure a license agreement appropriate to your organization.

“We didn’t really understand what a virtual event was at the time. I went out to the Virtual Edge Summit [an annual event where virtual technology companies display their wares] to explore our options, and was able to come back with some real ideas on how virtual plans might meet our needs,” she says. The 350-employee firm with offices worldwide devised a virtual version of its annual live event. “We listed all the components of our event, down to the hallway conversations, to see how we might re-create a virtual platform. We talked about our event goals, and developed a features matrix, and then evaluated vendors based on that matrix.… The right user experience and ease of use was a must-have on our matrix.”

Teams from Planview and Unisfair, the company it hired to help produce the event, collaborated and the end result was a huge success—with a 250-percent increase in attendance over the live event. Planview returned to live events the next year, but now is investigating a hybrid approach.

Investigating optimal virtual options for an organization takes research, just like any part of a business plan. “Trying to flatly compare virtual software options is like comparing apples, oranges, peaches and plums,” says Michael Doyle, founder and executive director of the Virtual Edge Institute, an enterprise launched in 2008 to help organizations leverage technology to enhance overall event experience and generate revenue. “What we tell people they have to do is first figure out what they want to achieve. One program might be very different from another, even if both are from the business category.”

Mapping It Out

For most companies, virtual planning begins on a small scale. But whether it’s first sketched on a meeting-room plasma TV, a whiteboard, a laptop or old-school legal pad, the path into the virtual world should begin with an organizational road map that spells out who wants to do what—tasks, communication, how many people will be involved, etc. That mapping will lead directly to the sort of equipment that will support those needs, explains Mark Gorzynski, chief scientist with HP’s Halo, which creates stunning videoconferencing rooms used primarily by large manufacturers, and big players in the financial, health and insurance industries.

Smaller organizations need to think about their use cases when considering web-conferencing technology, says Michael Londgren, director of product marketing for Adobe Connect, which offers web-conferencing solutions for online meetings, eLearning and webinars based on its Adobe Flash technology to clients of all sizes.

“Is it important primarily to reach people inside or outside the organization, or both?” he asks. “Should individuals or groups be able to easily join meetings without downloading additional software? Is it important to support different mobile devices? Is it important to share a variety of different content types? Is it important to set up a meeting room for different uses versus having to set up a brand-new meeting room each time?”

To figure out a company’s virtual needs, Gorzynski and HP Experience Design Manager Mike Derocher break down the goals of meetings into four functions.

Socialization: A group of people is just meeting to get to know each other better or build trust.

Coordination: A group of people is attempting to do a simple task, such as trying to sync up schedules.

Cooperation: A group is asking people their opinions, or sharing financials, answering questions or getting feedback. Real dialogue is happening.

True collaboration: A group of people are creating new content, co-generating information.

“Some of this is data-centric and some of it people-centric,” Gorzynski says. “Voice is the currency for everything; you can’t do much without a good voice system. For coordination, you need simple data, to share slides, so you need a good web-conferencing system and voice channel. That’s all you need. When you get into cooperation and collaboration, you start to increase the complexity of the data, and it helps to be able to do more than one thing at a time, and have the kind of data tools you need; for example, Can you share your apps successfully?”

Faces Are Important

Evaluating the ratings of available collaboration or web-conferencing software against your needs can provide guidance.

“The other thing that happens is that socialization becomes more important in these other meetings,” Gorzynski says. “That’s when the importance of video starts coming in—in a cooperation meeting, for example, seeing people’s faces becomes more important.”

Desktop solutions are generally fine for socialization and coordination, he says, but not as effective with collaboration and cooperation. “For example, say you are having a meeting with the CEO of another company for a partnership or a business deal. You are working on your webcam, and you look somewhat unprofessional. You are calling from your dining room or a wrongly lit conference room, and you look like the camera is shining up your nose. Desktop conferencing rapidly loses its charm.”

Lighting, background and camera position are critical to looking professional when using media, Gorzynski says. Consider investing in a better camera, better lighting that’s even, a clean background, and test where the camera should be mounted, he suggests. “The camera should be positioned eye to eye—if you are on a laptop, that means elevating your camera tool [whether it’s internal or an add-on] to eye level. If you’ve done all of this planning, you are ahead of probably 90 percent of other entrepreneurs, without investing all kinds of money.”

Web conferencing is the backbone of the entire system, he says. “You can connect with voice and data at any time. You layer on better video as you need to have more sophisticated meetings. Most small- to medium-size businesses will first turn to low-cost, web-based systems that will serve them well for a subset of their meeting needs. Big video systems have an advantage for socialization and collaboration that require careful attention to social dynamics. Firms should turn to these when they confirm a need to build meeting environments to support socialization and collaboration over distance.”

And don’t forget, Derocher adds ease of use is critical to the rate of use.

Now that you're ready for virtual meetings, here's five tips for making it successful. 


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