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Seeing is believing

With millions of workers experiencing video meetings for the first time, are we entering a new era of collaboration?

Communication and collaboration practices were changing before the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have accelerated rapidly since.

A Futuresource Consulting survey of 2,500 end users in the UK, USA, Germany and France highlighted a growing trend for more frequent, more informal meetings, with nearly 40% of companies – twice as many as in 2018 – reporting that employees regularly hold meetings in ad hoc spaces like kitchens, foyers and reception areas.

This trend has been turbo-charged by COVID-19, albeit in the virtual sphere, with near universal take-up of informal video meeting solutions as home workers desperate to see and interact with colleagues (and friends and family) have taken advantage of free conferencing solutions to videocall from garden offices, kitchens and bedrooms.

The stats say it all:

*Lifesize’s new user registrations in March were 5000% higher than in previous months, with global Lifesize call volume up 500%;

*8×8 has seen a 75-fold increase in users of its instant video call solution, from 200,000 global users to 16 million;

*less than two months after COVID had spread to Western Europe, the daily average conferencing traffic for BlueJeans meetings had increased by 289% in the UK, with even greater increases in Germany and Spain;

*in March, Cisco saw a 7-fold increase in take-up of the free version of its Webex collaboration platform in countries affected by COVID-19, with 240,000 online sign-ups in 24 hours and a record 14 billion meeting minutes – 24 times more minutes than normal;

*Starleaf has announced a 947% increase in weekly minutes from UK calls since January, with Manchester recording the biggest daily increase in call volumes (more than 3000%), followed by Birmingham (2500%) and Bristol (2000%).

Zoom phenomenon
Most striking of all has been the performance of Zoom, which has seen the number of daily meeting participants in its platform increase from 10 million in December 2019 to 200 million in March, growing again to 300 million in April. This, despite widely publicised security weaknesses that have allowed hackers to unleash malware attacks, compromise privacy and gate-crash meetings in a practice now known as Zoom-bombing.

Zoom certainly has questions to answer, which it has attempted to do through a new release (Zoom 5), featuring support for AES 256-bit GCM encryption, and the announcement of a 90-day plan to bolster key privacy and security initiatives. So, too, do its users, many of whom have displayed a remarkably cavalier attitude to security.

Risk management company Turnkey Consulting points out that Zoom already has security features offering a high level of protection. It advises Zoom users to make the following changes in Settings:

1 Require a password for new meetings. This will prevent unwelcome guests from being able to join the call, as long as they haven’t been invited and been provided with the password.

2 Set screen sharing to ‘host only’. This will prevent anyone randomly taking control of the screen to share something inappropriate.

3 Disable file transfer. This will stop the spread of malicious files, should an uninvited guest manage to join the call.

4 Disable ‘Join before host’. This will prevent a participant joining before the host arrives and exploiting the controls. There is also the option to use the ‘Waiting Room’ feature, which automatically places attendees in a virtual room before the host admits them to the call.

5 Disable ‘Allow removed participants to re-join’. Turning off this feature will prevent guests who have been removed from re-joining the call.

Productivity drain
There have also been questions about the effect of video meetings on productivity. In the Wundamail Work from Home 2020 report, Wundamail Research claims that pointless video meetings are costing businesses more than £1,000 per employee per month.

Although almost half (45%) of the 20,000 US and UK workers surveyed on April 6-7 cited videoconferencing as their preferred communication method in the transition to home-working (vs. 32% for written updates/briefings, 13% for texting/messaging and 9% for phone calls), 58% think they are spending too much time on video calls, with 42% admitting that they frequently dial in and contribute nothing.

In addition, Wundamail’s survey indicates that video may be less effective at prompting people to act than other communication methods, with respondents being three times more likely to deliver on actions that have been agreed in writing than on video. More than one quarter (27%) cite ‘lack of follow-up’ as the biggest communication barrier for virtual teams, with 30% admitting to not delivering on actions agreed over a video call.

In these respects, video meetings have many of the same frustrations and shortcomings as the face-to-face meetings they have replaced.

For the long-term
So, is our appetite for video meetings going to be a flash in the pan or a more durable phenomenon?

Despite the concerns highlighted above, Starleaf CEO Mark Richer believes there are good reasons why video meetings are here to stay and will become part of the new normal once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, including pressure on businesses to cut costs.

“The financial impact of coronavirus is undeniable, and we believe many organisations will need to deploy cost cutting measures. Physical office space will be one area under consideration, with many businesses potentially downsizing their workspaces or looking for flexible office space rather than long-term leases, made possible by greater numbers of staff being able to work remotely. We also can’t ignore the psychological impact of coronavirus. The idea of commuting back into busy hubs such as London will be a daunting prospect for many employees. Employers will need to be sensitive to this issue and offer greater flexibility to those who feel they need it,” he said.

Richer added: “We are also likely to see a change in attitudes towards areas such as recruitment. Historically, the ability to employ the best people has been restricted by geographical location. With more remote and flexible working practices, organisations will be able to think more broadly about who they employ and not be restricted by where that person is based.

“One final consideration is the positive impact coronavirus has had on environmental sustainability. It’s a high priority for leaders in most organisations, and many will look at how coronavirus has improved their environmental impact and will want to build on this. We can expect to see more organisations re-evaluating their travel needs, opting to keep the more viable, environmentally friendly alternatives such as video meetings.”

These reasons aside, it is hard to imagine the millions of workers who have learnt to love the flexibility, informality and intimacy of video meetings in the last couple of months going back to more rigid communication channels after lockdown.

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