From one vertical to the next and across the globe, corporate decision makers are huddling up over how best to protect their people from the coronavirus disease, COVID-19. Many have curtailed or restricted travel, and others have broadened the scope of their work-at-home programs as fear over the pandemic spreads.
Use of video meeting services, which had already been on an upward trend at businesses looking to create more collaborative and engaged workforces, has skyrocketed. In a blog post earlier this week, for example, Sri Srinivasan, SVP and GM of Cisco’s Team Collaboration Group, reported
on the Webex usage spike the company has seen since the outbreak began. He shared a number of stats, including that free Webex sign-ups in impacted countries are up sevenfold over pre-outbreak rates. Other cloud-based videoconferencing services providers, such as Zoom and Highfive, have seen similar jumps, and many are taking proactive plans aimed at helping businesses ratchet up their use of video meetings.
We’ve Seen This Before
An increase in video usage due to a global event is certainly nothing new. I recall, for example, that the 9/11 attacks created a surge in the stock prices of video vendors of the day, Polycom and Tandberg, as videoconferencing became a go-to alternative to in-person meetings. But is it different this time? Will the increased use of video stick around even after the health threat dissipates?
You might be skeptical, but I do think it’s different this time… not because people will permanently stop traveling, but because the technology is so much better. In 2001, if a business wanted to use videoconferencing, it had to buy tens of thousands of dollars of hardware. In many cases, this limited implementation to executive-level conference rooms.
On top of the expense, the user interfaces were too complicated for the average executive, so once travel bans lifted, many went back to traveling or having audio-only conference calls.
Moreover, businesses today are much more in tune with the idea of working from home or other remote locations and better appreciate the need to create positive employee experiences. Video meetings have become part of the modern corporate mindset.
But travel is a business essential that’s not going to disappear, and once the hysteria around COVID-19 calms, companies will ease the restrictions and people will be hopping on planes and getting back to regular travel in short order. Where I think we’ll see a lasting impact is on audio-only conferencing, with video calls sticking as a replacement.
As all the video vendors are reporting, the pause in travel has caused a surge in the use of video services, which means more and more people are seeing not only how easy these are to use but also that the quality is great. This could very well change the minds of anybody who ever had to deal with the complicated and clunky video systems of old… and carried a bias against the use of video technology ever since. This coronavirus gives workplace technology planners another shot at converting everybody to the video cause.
As we’re seeing in response to the coronavirus, video usage is about so much more than saving a few shekels on plane tickets or reducing exposure to potential health issues. The reason to use video in the first place and the reason it will stick this time is because video calls are superior to audio calls for employee engagement, and the systems are much easier to use now than in the past. With the mandate to improve employee experience, video is really the only option. In fact, your employees may even find video meetings much easier to launch than audio conferences — a screen tap or mouse click vs. dialing a number and inputting long PIN codes and conference IDs.
This is the message I heard from an SVP at a San Francisco-based PR agency who told me her firm has seen a significant boost in the amount of video calls over the past couple of years. She attributed the uptrend to video’s ability to drive engagement when in-person meetings aren’t feasible. At a previous firm, which “met” with clients via audioconferencing, meaningful engagement between participants was fairly low, she said. People on the other end of a call would be on e-mail or tuning out for other reasons. Now with video-first solutions, everyone is actively engaged; a video meeting is almost as good as being there.
Another trend for video is that meeting participants are now more relaxed over video calls. When I asked the PR SVP about this, she told me that when her firm first started using video people didn’t want to join via video if they weren’t dressed in office attire. Now people attend video calls wherever they are, often dressed casually, as work and life blend. “People are more relaxed about being ‘seen,’ and they realize they communicate more effectively with video on,” she told me.
And age doesn’t matter. Millennials may be the first employee group to think video-first, but workers of all ages tend to use video once they’ve tried today’s technology.
To answer my original question: Yes, it is different this time, not because reaction to coronavirus brings something unique to the table. It’s different because the solutions are so easy to use, the quality so high, and employee engagement so important that almost all of the historical reasons to not use video are now gone.