Are Workers Really Not Ready for Desktop Videoconferencing?

According to new research by Forrester (s forr), desktop videoconferencing isn’t yet taking the enterprise by storm. It found that nearly three-quarters of business technology users don’t want to use desktop videoconferencing, and just 15 percent have access to the necessary tools. These results seem somewhat surprising, given that low-cost videoconferencing technology is now so widely available, thanks mainly to consumer video calling services like Skype, Google Chat (s goog) and Apple FaceTime (s aapl). Our own research suggests that there will be near-exponential growth in video call volume over the next few years (GigaOM Pro link, sub req’d). But is that growth then mainly limited to the consumer market, and if so, why?

Forrester released its data in a report titled Information Workers Are Not Quite Ready For Desktop Videoconferencing, which concentrated primarily on the use of desktop videoconferencing tools (as opposed to traditional room-based videoconferencing and telepresence tools) and was drawn from a survey of North American and European workers in the third quarter of 2010. Some of the interesting headline figures from Forrester’s report:

  • A majority of workers don’t want to use desktop videoconferencing tools. 72 percent of workers indicated they don’t wish to use videoconferencing.
  • A majority of workers don’t have access to desktop videoconferencing tools. 58 percent of workers reported their firms didn’t have desktop videoconferencing technology.
  • Desktop videoconferencing is mostly an upper management tool. While some 42 percent of directors have access to desktop videoconferencing tools, only 7 percent of individual workers do.

While I’d suggest that had Forrester perhaps included a higher concentration of high-tech businesses with remote workers in its study it probably would have found usage of desktop videoconferencing in the enterprise to be higher, it’s hard to argue with the figures; the survey was conducted fairly recently and was drawn from responses from several thousand workers. Most interesting to me was the large number of workers who flat-out don’t want to use videoconferencing tools. The Forrester report doesn’t offer any further insight as to why this might be, but it’s significant, because a general reluctance to use this type of technology in the enterprise will make implementing effective remote work programs more problematic. I’d speculate that reasons for worker reluctance could include not understanding the benefits of using videoconferencing over telephone calls (hence not feeling a need for the technology), and perhaps even feeling embarrassed about making video calls in the office. The report does note that a hindrance to the adoption is corporate IT’s concerns about its impact on network traffic.

The good news is that the workers already using desktop videoconferencing see additional potential uses for the technology, and 13 percent of workers without such tools would be keen to use them, so there’s potential to grow user adoption. The Forrester report includes some recommendations, including planning for infrastructure impact, identifying groups of workers who would be prepared to participate in pilot programs and documenting successes to get buy-in from management. I would add that for videoconferencing to be successful, it needs buy-in from everyone, not just management, and for that to happen, everyone needs to have an understanding of the benefits it can bring — such as building connections, increased productivity and reduced travel time and expenditure — and an understanding that using videoconferencing doesn’t have to be difficult, or involve being any more presentable than one normally would be in the office.

It might also be that, despite their proliferation and low/no cost, the current crop of consumer-focused video chat products (Skype, Google Chat and FaceTime, for example) aren’t seen as being suitable for the workplace. Customized, private versions of these tools (such as those provided by vendors like of ViVu‘s VuRoom for Skype) offer firms greater control and the possibility of integrating them with existing software and processes for relatively low cost, as well as offering additional revenue opportunities for the vendors.

Despite the low penetration of desktop videoconferencing in the workplace indicated by this report, I think it’s likely that its use will grow markedly in the short term. The hardware and software required is cheap, and widespread use offers considerable benefits — such as increased productivity, reduced travel costs and improved work-life balance — that will be impossible for businesses to ignore.

Photo courtesy Flickr user st0nemas0nry

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