Recently, I covered an event for a client, blogging about each presentation and subsequent discussion. (Sorry I can’t provide a link. The content is proprietary.) The event was in Tuscon, but I attended remotely, via videoconference. So did a handful of participants, including one of the presenters.
Although the technology isn’t perfect, it’s darn good. What technical issues I encountered—a session in which the video feed wasn’t available, and some poorly placed mics—resulted from human error and (it seemed to me) were easily fixed. Which makes me think that the reason we don’t use video more often has less to do with the tools than with our skills and motivation. We (by which I mean the mid-career people who tend to be running meetings) are comfortable with the telephone, thank you very much. And, speaking for myself, at least, we’re not all completely comfortable in front of the camera.
Consider what I observed during the event I covered. Throughout, the camera was positioned so that the front of the room, and thus the presenters, were visible no matter where they moved in front of the projection screen. The presenters were all senior corporate executives, experienced at delivering information to a variety of audiences. Each one made eye contact with attendees around the room. But unless I wasn’t looking when it happened, not one presenter made eye contact with the camera and thus, with those three or four of us attending virtually. Even when table microphones—one for each attendee—were correctly positioned, a couple of people couldn’t manage to speak into them clearly.
We’ve come a long way since the 1990s, when PC makers began bundling webcams with desktops. Back then, I spent two years as a remote employee on a small team. Video over my dial-up connection would have been more trouble than it was worth. But even conference calls were a struggle. Some colleagues never got close enough to the speaker for me to hear them. Sound quality was iffy, in any case. And though my co-workers around the conference table never forgot about me entirely, sometimes it was hard to get their attention. Since then, we’ve developed pretty good conference call etiquette. Most people are tuned in to what their colleagues on the phone are saying, and meeting facilitators know how to monitor meeting dynamics to make sure callers are equal participants.
Now video seems poised to become second nature. While it’s true that most companies haven’t yet deployed enterprise video, according to a survey by IDG Enterprise (which I helped to analyze, and which is published here for readers who register) 67 percent of respondents said the influx of consumer devices such as smartphones are prompting them to speed up their plans to deploy Unified Communications & Collaboration tools.
It surprised me a little that only 48 percent of respondents said they used Skype and, especially, that only one-fourth used video chat, given that nearly everyone with a smartphone or an IM account has the capability. Then I thought about it. As a freelancer, nearly every meeting and interview I have is a phone call. Though I use video sometimes, it still feels experimental. For example, It took me a while to find a comfortable arrangement on my laptop screen for taking notes and monitoring the video window at the same time.
Do something often enough, though, and you won’t be able to imagine any other way. I wasn’t born yet when AT&T installed the first Picturephone. Twenty-three years ago, in Back to the Future II, writer-director Robert Zemeckis imagined videoconferencing would be routine. That movie was set in 2015. We’re nearly there.