I did a short radio interview the other day, about London airport expansion, and the possible new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick. I wasn’t speaking about the choice of one location vs. the other. Instead, I was speaking as a frequent traveller, and why additional capacity is likely to be needed in the first place.
Some of the reasons are aviation-related: congested airports have no wiggle-room if something goes wrong. I’ve suffered big delays when weather or other incidents has meant that airports can only operate at reduced capacity, with greater spacing between landings and take-offs. Then there’s a desire for more direct flights from London to cities across Asia, the Americas, and MEA. Changing planes in NY or Singapore or Istanbul is always possible, but that just adds more time (and additional fuel-heavy take-offs). Various other reasons apply too.
But I’m not an aviation specialist. I’m a communications industry analyst & consultant.
What really stumped the radio-host was when he suggested videoconferencing might replace most business travel, so fewer flights would be needed and therefore perhaps less airport capacity.
I responded that ironically, about half my own travel is to events/clients actually involved in the videoconferencing industry, or in other aspects of advanced communications. I regularly attend and speak at video, UC & WebRTC events in person, have private workshops with operators or vendors, meetings with investors and so on.
Could I do some or all of these via a phone-call or video session? In theory yes, some could be done remotely, but in my view they would be much less productive – and many wouldn’t happen at all. This isn’t just my personal dislike for video either (I prefer voice-only, in general), but a more general observation.
Thinking about it, I’m pretty sure that the people who pitch online alternatives as a replacement for in-person meetings probably don’t do much of either. There are at least 10 reasons why audio & video-conferencing is not a replacement for business travel.
Firstly, it is worth noting that the applicability of video/collaboration tools will necessarily depend on the type of meeting involved. There are multiple “use-cases” for physical business travel, each with different characteristics:
- Short one-to-one meetings (maybe 1hr in length) for sales calls, introductions, catch-ups with colleagues etc. These can be sub-divided into company internal meetings (eg boss/employee) or external (eg salesman/client) which have different dynamics
- Internal small-group meetings, eg a project team distributed across multiple locations. Again, these can be internal or external (eg consultant presenting to the board)
- Site visits, where someone is shown around multiple physical parts of a location, has a variety of meetings & so on.
- Trade shows where the emphasis is on booths and the “show floor”
- Conferences of 1-3 days duration, with multiple presentations, panels, break-out sessions etc
- Seminars (maybe 1-3hrs) with a few speakers and predominantly “broadcast” mode with some Q&A
- Interactive workshops where people interact in small groups
- Team-building sessions combining a mix of presentation and social/bonding activities
- Many other types of “meeting”.
While any of these can use the same transportation mode (ie a flight) they would all need to be re-invented with different forms of conferencing or collaboration application. Some are easier than others – informal meetings with a small dispersed project team, for example, can be done with a simple audio or video bridge, ideally with file/screen-sharing as well. Webinars can replace some seminars.
But a full-on trade show, with demos and new products, as well as private meeting spaces for confidential discussions, cannot really be replicated online to any reasonable extent. Neither can good interactive workshops, or even summit-type conferences. As a regular panel moderator and conference chair, I don’t think anywhere near the same experience could be done via video as in person. Maybe in 10 years time, with Oculus Rift version 8 and some advanced haptic interfaces and full body-suits, but I’m not convinced.
Some of the limitations of videoconferencing-style replacement for physical meetings:
- Lack of detail – while you can replicate lifelike scenes with 4K video, it’s still not fully immersive without stereoscopic vision, ultra-fast frame rate etc.
- No way to support culturally-important actions like handshakes or physical exchanges of business cards
- Security and privacy – how can you be sure that the quiet chat over a virtual coffee remains confidential?
- Subconscious awareness of body language and micro-expressions
- Cognitive absorption – what part of your concentration is diverted to seeing how you appear on-screen to other people?
- Technical complexities of managing virtual events with multiple parties, using different networks & devices. WebRTC and its peers only go so far
- Dependency on camera/sound crews, cameras, microphones – which then mean you get an “edited” version of an event rather than your own choice of where to sit/stand/walk around
- Lack of sync between timezones. Do you want to get “virtual jetlag” by attending the breakfast session at 9pm at night in your timezone & listening to conference presentations until 4am?
- How do you facilitate networking over meals, provide “back-channels” to whisper to your neighbour during sessions, manage realistic arguments or back-and-forth discussions and so on?
Overall, while online collaboration is OK for some use-cases, it is generally a second-class citizen, with numerous almost-intractable limitations. It would reduce the effectiveness of companies, compromise security and productivity, and advantage people with geographic proximity.
In many ways, videoconferencing is becoming more important. In future we may have access to contextual communications tools which may improve some interactions so they're better than real-life speech and vision. But it’s usually more accurate to consider it as a “better phone call” or “richer than an email exchange”. It’s a big step down from interaction in person. Conferencing can enable extra conversations, or allow extra people to attend existing physical meetings remotely. But that is not the same as replacing the core in-person conversations.
Ironically, better remote conversations may lead to more international business and travel. A more-effective initial introduction via video/voice may well lead to new relationships being built. And later, those relationships will often involve in-person meetings, for site visits, events, interactive workshops and so on. Certainly, without my extra “reach” via both conferencing and social-media, I wouldn’t have nearly as many international clients to work with.
It’s also worth noting that while videoconferencing might be able to replicate some aspects of traditional meetings, the latter have evolved as well. Many conferences now employ techniques that are experiential or immersive. Group exercises, interaction with voting terminals, not to mention the improved venues and carefully-crafted social interaction episodes.
A similar story is true for consumers. Wearing a virtual-reality headset in a tanning salon is not a substitute for feeling the beach sand between your toes. Videoconferencing into your distant family’s Xmas dinner doesn’t work, if you can’t taste the turkey and pull the crackers. Listening to a rock concert on the radio doesn’t compare to jostling and jumping with other
fans of the band in the arena.
Nobody can conclude a deal with a video-handshake in a virtual restaurant, or experience Burning Man by conference-call.
Those are "contexts" that cannot be replicated online.
You have to be there.