Virtual meetings are fast replacing face-to-face encounters as businesses dispense with the cost and hassle of travel
With soaring fuel costs, the Olympics looming and major airports in chaos, business travel has never been more challenging.
It’s no coincidence that 2011 saw a 34 per cent rise in sales of video-conferencing and related technologies (a market now worth just under £2 billion), according to Infonetics Research. The need for people to leave the office – or indeed home – isn’t as pressing as it once was.
Newer businesses are embracing remote working and virtual meetings from the outset, giving them freedom to explore new business models. Caydoo, an online start-up based in Brighton, meeting people virtually has enabled it to cross international boundaries when talent hunting and securing funding.
The business (an online community for those interested in sustainable living) has two full-time employees, two part-time staff and 15 contractors scattered worldwide. Several of them have never met Caydoo’s founders.
The extended team uses a portfolio of systems to replace face-to-face meetings. These include Skype for audio/videoconferencing; Basecamp to schedule meetings and collaborate on projects; Dropbox to share large files; a virtual private network to access company servers remotely; Xero to access accounts remotely; Google Docs to allow dispersed teams to work on the same presentation; and Cozimo, enabling online presentations.
Through Skype alone, Caydoo has saved £30,000 in the first year because the founders haven’t had to travel around the world for meetings. They secured funding in Australia, only flying out to shake hands on the deal at the final stage. The company’s smartphone app is being developed in Sri Lanka; web development in Nepal.
Co-founder Liam Muckleston doesn’t deny that human contact is important though. “Even via a video call, you aren’t looking the other person directly in the eye so there are times when being in the same room is important,” he says. But Caydoo is able to achieve several levels of meeting virtually before getting to that point.
More traditional businesses are waking up to the opportunities for virtual working. Last year Unilever staff conducted double the number of virtual meetings of 2010, and claims video-conferencing alone saved the company 38,202 flights and 113,507 tonnes of CO2 in 2011, not to mention £32m in travel costs.
Engineering consultancy Buro Happold uses virtual meetings to enable a team in one country to draw on expertise in another. Last year the firm rolled out Microsoft Lync Server to its global workforce so any team anywhere could connect spontaneously using instant messaging, file transfer or audio, video or web-based conferencing. For high-quality video links, the company also uses professional Polycom systems, switching between the two formats.
Chief executive Paul Westbury says that using virtual meetings has cut its travel bill by 25 per cent, clawing back 3,000 hours a month in lost productivity and £250,000 a month in travel costs.
“It’s also made us more competitive,” he says. “If anyone in our 30 offices needs to offer a client any aspect of our skills, whether it’s a hotel or stadium development or the design for a new city, we can readily bring in the relevant people. And I can now join in meetings all over the world from my laptop, even from home.”
Sue Tabbitt is a business technology journalist with over 20 years’ experience on magazines and as a freelance writer, covering a broad range of business and IT subjects for The Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and Guardian as well as specialist technology and industry publications.