Videoconferencing has benefits for companies of all sizes, but smaller companies face some special challenges. For one thing, the cost of travel can hit especially hard, but they may have trouble coming up with capital to install their own videoconferencing systems. But while working on a column on the social factors affecting videoconferencing, I talked to one midsized company that's making it work.With about 200 employees in Massachusetts, Georgia, and Wisconsin -- not to mention Japan and Holland -- 15-year-old software-maker Ipswitch turned to videoconferencing to cut spiraling T&E expenses. Ennio Carboni, Ipswitch's vice president of network management, told me the new Polycom system immediately cut travel spending in half and international travel costs by a whopping 80%.
But Carboni says the real story is how the technology has spurred more-frequent meetings between distributed workers, and improved productivity by speeding product completion and helping teams discover problems faster. You can see the facial expressions and body language indicating agreement or disagreement, Carboni says, which can lead engineers to acknowledge and address problems earlier in the development cycle. Video also leads to more "closure" to meetings, he says, and a greater feeling of connectedness in remote offices, which is good for morale.
Videoconferencing also helps Ipswitch with sensitive communications with remote employees. "It's much better [than the telephone] for hard conversations with salespeople," Carboni says. "They understand the sincerity and seriousness of the discussion."
While people were pretty nervous in the beginning, Carboni says, "a month in people were jumping into it pretty aggressively. I'm a strong proponent," he adds, "and I was skeptic when we started."
Carboni says the system is "much better than voice calls but still no replacement for face-to-face meetings, depending on the situation. We're still doing flights, absolutely. There's still a magic in shaking someone's hand."
To make the most of videoconferencing, Carboni says, companies need to buy adequate equipment and pay for the required bandwidth. "The budget may be a little higher than originally expected," he says, but it will pay for itself in a few years.
Fortunately, more and more companies are developing video conferencing solutions at all levels and all price points. And the increasing spread of high-bandwidth Internet connections and HDTV standards is rapidly improving the quality of the videoconferencing experience.
While high-end telepresence systems can cost up to $400,000 or more, you can get into the Web conferencing game for the price of a couple of $40 Webcams. (Ipswitch spent $200 to $250 per laptop to equip some of its salespeople and partners, Carboni says.) In between those levels, HD-video conferencing systems begin at just a few thousand dollars.
Of course, many smaller companies don't want to set up their own systems, or require a high-quality systems than they can afford. In those cases, they often turn to video conferencing service providers like Intercall , Wire One Communications, and others who offer a rental-based introduction to high-end video conferencing.
In addition, hotels and office-space providers are getting into the video conferencing act. According to the Wall Street Journal, HP has a deal with Marriott International to install videoconferencing systems at its hotels, while Cisco has inked a partnership with "workplace solutions" provider Regus Group to create video conferencing systems in some 50 locations. The Regus Web site says the company has more than 600 videoconferencing studios in 70 countries.