Posted: Wed 14th Nov 2012
Market research firm IDC found earlier this year that virtual working is becoming commonplace among the UK's small and medium-sized enterprises. Some 46 per cent of UK small and medium-sized businesses now have more than 50 per cent of their staff working remotely - and this figure is increasing all the time. Technology enables contemporary businesses to adopt more flexible shapes than their predecessors - there are more freelance workers, homeworkers and mobile workers than ever before. Businesses on opposite sides of the globe are able to share knowledge, skills and services thanks to email, phone and video conferencing technology. As we know from our Go Global events, the UK's smallest enterprises are using technology to expand their horizons and increase their markets. But collaborative working from different locations presents a communication challenge: how can you replicate the clarity of face-to-face meetings when you're miles apart? When it comes to holding virtual meetings, which works best, and why? Independent research commissioned by technology company Brother suggests that video is far and away the more powerful medium when it comes to virtual collaboration in teams.
Conducted by the Fraunhofer Institute in Stuttgart, the research found that video comprehensively outscored email and phone when it came to brainstorming, collaborative teamworking and simple moderation of discussions. This is perhaps no surprise in itself, given that you can actually see the people you're talking to - but in showing the strength of video, the research also highlighted flaws in the other methods of group communication. The study, which asked two virtual teams to carry out group tasks involving negotiation, document-sharing and decision-making with different media, also threw into relief some of the essentials of successful meetings.
Video makes group co-ordination more effective and results in more engaged participants with better concentration on the task. Some 70 per cent of participants said they were more willing to engage in the discussion when they could see other people and share documents openly; 60 per cent said the discussion itself was more open and close to 70 per cent said brainstorming was more effective. Overall, video provided a more relaxed and engaged experience than phone or email. In particular, the study found, phone and email collaboration among teams tended to boil down to conversations between just two people rather than the whole team.
In fact, some 81 per cent of the study participants said phone and email resulted in a division within their team; 73 per cent said video conferencing encouraged more joint decision-making, with participants saying they felt more like "one team" using video.
A key finding of the research was that video makes meetings easier to moderate because the person running the meeting can see who is speaking or who wants to speak next. Visuals were important to aiding concentration for 79 per cent of the participants (somewhat more men than women, interestingly). Some 85 per cent of study participants said being able to see joint progress on screen (eg, via shared documents viewed by everyone simultaneously) made meetings less strenuous and 55 per cent simply appreciated that they could see what others were doing. Four out of ten felt video led to fewer misunderstandings than phone or email in their group task.
Around 30 per cent of small and medium-sized businesses currently use video communication in their day-to-day work. For small enterprises, in particular, reliable and effective virtual communication tools are at a premium: they simply don't have the resources to travel far afield regularly. As the research shows, phone and email have their limitations and can lead to skewed discussions and misunderstandings. Videoconferencing has clear communication advantages. But it hasn't always been considered cost-effective, reliable or flexible enough by smaller enterprises - it's tended to be seen as a 'big business' thing. This is changing. With the likes of Brother targeting the small business market with tailored technology, it's becoming more accessible to the smallest firms. And, as the trend towards virtual working gathers pace, close to two-thirds of small and medium-sized businesses are expected to be using video conferencing in the next five years. Worth giving it a try? It may well be. As Simon Stones, Senior Manager, Printing & Solutions division, Brother International Europe, puts it: "If you're a small business and you know exactly the right person to collaborate with on a project, it suddenly doesn't matter anymore if that person's in Warrington, Aberdeen or Tokyo. "In today's fast-moving world, video conferencing solutions help build trusting working relationships quickly - by putting a face to a name and creating a natural atmosphere. I was surprised to see how important a relaxed atmosphere is for effective teamwork."
Be seen and heard is supported by Brother, the technology company for small and medium-sized businesses. Brother can help businesses of all sizes communicate like big enterprises with OmniJoin, the new high-end webconferencing software at a small business price. Free trials are available here.