Recognizing the Downside of Web Conferencing and Remote Work

Carl Weinschenk

There are several interesting things to consider in the responses to a survey done by Harris Interactive on behalf of Ricoh Americas.

The survey, which was reported upon at eWeek, assessed opinions on modern work arrangements. The topline result – that 64 percent of the 2,512 people surveyed would work virtually if possible – is no surprise. What is a bit unexpected is that the 18-to-34-year-old group, at 43 percent, was the most weighted toward working in an office.

Reasons given by respondents who favor an office experience are that traditional work environments create more discipline, offer social opportunities and more security.

The first two reasons people want to go to an office – discipline and social opportunities – speaks to the inability of technology to completely bridge the gap between actual and virtual work. The fast growth in technical sophistication can reduce these human limitations – think of how Facebook and other platforms have increased social contacts during the past decade – but will never eliminate them. It is difficult or impossible to truly bond on a unified communications platform, no matter how sophisticated it is.

In short, Web conferencing, unified communications and other sophisticated remote working tools will continue to grow, but will never shed all their limitations. At the same time, the advance of networking technology will enable more people to participate. Teleconferencing, for instance, has moved from the rarified air of expensive total immersion rooms used only by executives to everybody’s desktop. This means that a greater percentage of the potential users will not be remote work true believers and collectively will have more misgivings about remote work.

Government use of technology is a great barometer of where the rest of us are going. FederalNewsRadio reports that budget cuts – and fears of the sequestration – are cutting U.S. Department of Defense travel budgets to the bone. This is putting pressure on Defense Connect Online:

The system has seen so much traffic recently that usage is starting to outstrip the system's capacity. And DCO may be about to see even more users. The Defense Information Systems Agency and the contractor that runs DCO have just released an app that lets defense employees host or log into meetings from their iPhones and iPads.

Consider this question through the prism of the Ricoh/Harris study: What is lost by moving so predominantly to remote platforms? The survey suggested that workers fear missing social interaction. Along the same lines, how many good ideas come to light after a formal meeting ends? These informal elements – walking together to the parking lot, chatting at a group lunch or dinner, etc. – aren’t part of a virtual conference. The benefits of Web conferencing and other forms of electronic meetings likely overcome the disadvantages. This is no reason not to recognize that those disadvantages exist, however.

On a side note, it seems that the military is doing some IT spending. Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) announced this week that it has been awarded a contract by the United States National Guard that could reach $58 million if all the options are taken up. The company will help operate, modernize, expand and evolve the National Guard’s communications infrastructure, including “web services, as well as video and audio conferencing and other systems.”

Web conferencing, unified communications and related overlapping disciplines will continue to grow. It clearly is important to understand the benefits. But it possibly is more important to understand the liabilities, since that is the first step in minimizing their impact.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Feb 17, 2013 6:20 AM Phil Byrne Phil Byrne  says:
I agree that remote working is not for everyone, some people prefer the interaction and discipline of an office environment. I am a remote worker and manage my team virtually, it has taken time to find the right people to work with, who are self disciplined and motivated. Some people like the idea of working remotely but when it comes to the crunch find themselves steering back towards an office environment. I think there will always be a divide between people and like most other things in life what will suit one person will not suit another. Working remotely or having remoter workers is certainly an option to explore if you are a business owner or employee before actually making a decision one way or another. Reply

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