Unintended Consequences of Video Conferencing
Early this week, I wrote about a research study which attempted to prove (or disprove) one of the primary benefits of video conferencing - a correlation between travel spend and use of video conferencing. They concluded there wasn't necessarily a direct correlation - those employees who traveled heavily, continued to do so, and those who used video conferencing most often, weren't heavy travelers. Personally, their results didn't surprise me. Business habits die hard, and companies or individuals who believe physical face-to-face meetings are best, will continue to operate that way.
From my perspective, after seeing hundreds of companies embrace video conferencing over the past 5+ years, is what we believe is the biggest benefit, isn't. With video conferencing in general, and then the expansion of video conferencing enabled meeting spaces, the biggest benefits are those we never even consider. These unintended consequences (from a positive standpoint) tend to benefit us more than the ones we include in our initial business case, but they are hard to quantify and put a dollar amount to - which means ROI is elusive at best.
Let's explore a few unintended consequences for video conferencing - you may or may not see these in your company, but we have seen each of these happen for our customers.
Unintended Consequence #1: Becoming Faster
No one will disagree that our world operates at a faster speed today than it did just a few years ago. Every aspect of your business today has sped up. What we tend to find when companies embrace video conferencing, is they can now operate at a faster speed. Some of that is better team work and collaboration, but in some aspects, that doesn't actually account for the broader effect of speed.
Take away the ability for multiple people to get on a video call, and just look at what happens when two people are talking face to face. We tend to take action more readily when we have to look someone else in the eyes. This isn't another email or voice mail (or even voice on a call), this is an actual human being, asking for our help. It may not happen in 100% of these types of calls, but even it happens in only 50%, then you have increased the speed of your company to get things done, whether that's inside or outside the company.
Now, we take that to the next level, and we have groups talking to groups - we have the ability for our teams to interact quicker. This speed can be witnessed when there's a conflict or a problem, with two or three teams working on at opposite ends. First, they can get together more often and second, they can "see" each other. Don't discount the power of being able to see each other, it creates connections that may not have been possible if we only used email or even team communications tools such as Slack.
And that brings us to Unintended Consequence #2: Deeper Connections
Without getting into human psychology, in general, humans will always come together in "tribes". Our workplaces are an example of a tribe. We come together for a common purpose, each one of use with a specific "job" to do that will benefit the tribe as whole. Basically through our evolution as humans, we have always been stronger, and had a much better chance of survival, within a group as opposed to individuals.
As companies embrace remote work, contractors, subcontractors, outsourcing, and any other business arrangement where there is a loose affiliation, we need to also embrace some way to create deeper connections between them. Video Conferencing allows us to do that. Even within our business, we use video meetings (along with email) as our primary communications. It's across the board - from employees, business partners, vendors, customers. It's a way for us to communicate better, but the underlying benefit is the ability to have a deeper connection with these individuals and companies. When you "see" someone on a regular basis, and you know you have a common goal, it's just natural to have a deeper connection with them.
That deeper connection is hard to quantify in dollars. Where it becomes a true business benefit is when things need to get done "right now". You can rely on that connection to come through, not because it's the right thing to do (which it probably is), but because of the deeper connection. You are part of my "tribe" and you need my help - and what ultimately is good for my tribe is good for me.
Unintended Consequence #3: Higher Quality
If you've stayed with me this far, then this won't surprise you. Quality is an outcome of better communications and teamwork. With speed, comes the possibility of mistakes. Without a constant flow of communications - between people and teams - those mistakes can go undetected. But when we come together with video conferencing, we also have the ability to achieve high quality. We can expose mistakes, work through solutions, and get to better answers with the same speed of execution.
We have a tendency to think of video conferencing as just something our project teams would use, but think about how easy it would be to have your employee benefits group use it to resolve problems, or your IT organization to answer question. When we can resolve problems faster, even the smallest ones within our company, we eliminate one area of friction. Eliminate enough of those "small" ones, and naturally have a higher quality organization across the board.
When we extend that same ability to address internal problems and use them externally, we create an organization which is viewed as customer first. Being able to see a customer service rep, gives us a competitive edge in the market place. You have jumped over any competition that used text (email or chat) or voice (online or voice line). Now we change the game by letting you see the other people, and they get to see you. It goes hand-in-hand with creating a deeper connection with your customers.
Unintended Consequence #4: Finding "Rock Stars"
One of the fascinating things about any new technology, is who really "shines" using it. Some people will just naturally gravitate to it, others will shy away. That goes for video conferencing also. Video (think Youtube) has changed the landscape for entertainment, and provided us with "celebrities" who would not have been discovered otherwise. Your company is the same way, video conferencing gives you the ability to find internal super stars who might have gone unnoticed. How we act and react to situations, the ability to think on your feet, our presentation skills - all are on display with video conferencing, and probably to a larger audience than before. We can now record our meetings and conversations, and with that ability, a larger audience can be exposed to them.
There's no way to calculate how many people (usually at lower levels within our organizations) have been given a communication platform which exposes them, for good or bad. I don't know how many employees could be given opportunities to excel, but some "gems" within our companies will be discovered. The opposite is true also, we will expose those employees who are not "super stars", but were previously thought to be. In either situation, it wouldn't happen without video conferencing.
What we don't know
If there is one thing I'd like to make sure you understand when you start (or expand) your company's journey with video conferencing is this:
We don't know what we don't know.
That may sound confusing, but it's just a fact of learning and doing something new. You will never know the best questions to ask, or what to expect for your company, without taking the first steps. Absolutely no one can provide a specific list of benefits for your company, there may be a few general benefits, but each company has unique challenges. You can't know from the beginning exactly how a new technology will be used - you can guide your employees, but even that guidance can't look to every outcome.
One thing I do know, there will untended consequences. Your company may change in ways you can't imagine today, let alone, be able to put it into a business plan or estimated ROI. All we can do is say we believe video conferencing will have a much higher positive affect on your company than you originally thought. And if you have questions, we are always here to help.