HR Technology: Meetings Go Virtual

Web-conferencing tools aid collaboration, help slash travel costs.

By Elizabeth Agnvall Jan 1, 2009
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HR Magazine, January 2009Each month, Peter Quirk, senior consulting program manager within the HR Office of Operations at EMC Corp., a global provider of information infrastructure technology and tools, runs the company’s Global HR Program Management meeting using Microsoft Office Live Meeting web-conferencing software.

About 15 participants join the meeting at headquarters in Hopkinton, Mass. The remaining 15 attend via Live Meeting from different locations.

Quirk says because the company’s 33,000 employees are tech-savvy, they function well in a web-conferencing environment, but he maintains that the meetings can be improved.

In November, Quirk met with the communications director for the company’s human resource group to discuss adding Live Meeting video to the Global HR Program Management meeting and potentially to all-hands human resource meetings as well.

The company already uses Polycom video cameras for some HR meetings. Now, Quirk says HR officials are seriously considering adopting Live Meeting video, thereby permitting home-based employees and those in offices without Polycom video to receive video feed and presentation slides.

EMC also recently purchased a Microsoft RoundTable camera, a 360-degree, voice-steered camera with software that tracks the active speaker in real time and integrates with Live Meeting software. One of the HR directors for the company’s Americas division just purchased webcams for all of her HR operations people.

In the past, Quirk says, including home-based workers in meetings through video was both technically complex and costly. As prices have dropped, webcams and web-conferencing software have become widely available. Today, he says, the investment is worthwhile.

Many computers now come with embedded webcams, while detached cams are available for as little as $25. Quirk says increased competition, embedded webcams and simpler software installation are taking videoconferencing mainstream.

Clearly, as more people work away from the office, “you need to engage them. Video is one way of putting them on [a] level playing field,” Quirk says.

Cost-Conscious Solutions

As companies continue to tighten their belts with the deepening financial crisis, and the cost of web-conferencing and video tools drops, human resource managers are increasingly integrating videoconferencing and online collaboration into meetings, recruitment, benefits explanations and other HR functions.

Today’s web-conferencing software commonly features audio and videoconferencing, live chat with Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP), and document sharing. The software and equipment allow users to give slide presentations, use drawing tools, conduct demos and collaborate in real time on projects. Users sit at their desks, view documents together, share keyboard and mouse control, and see applications run on each other’s computers. Web meetings and presentations are easily recorded.

Although large, multinational companies may spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to create sophisticated conference sites that make participants feel they’re in the same room, costs of web-conferencing software allow small and medium-sized businesses to get into the game as well. Cisco’s WebEx, for example, is priced as low as $59 a month for unlimited online meetings with 25 participants. Some web-meeting rooms are available for as low as $9.95 a month. Citrix’s GoToMeeting program is available for $49 a month or $468 a year for up to 10 attendees.

Web-conferencing tools can be purchased in a variety of ways—from one-time use to subscriptions to licenses. Some tools are purely web-based for participants; others require downloading software onto users’ computers.

In September, Cisco announced a collaboration portfolio aimed at integrating videoconferencing and business software with newer applications such as blogs and wikis. The company estimates that the web-collaboration market is worth $34 billion and predicts that customers will be willing to invest to bring far-flung employees closer together without the travel costs.

Tips for Buying Web-Conferencing Software

How will your company use the software? If you just want to be able to share documents, video capabilities may not be necessary.

Consider scalability. Will human resources start with a pilot and potentially roll the software out to the company?

Consider compatibility. Are some employees on Macs and others on PCs? If so, you’ll need software that works with both.

Who will collaborate remotely? Employees and clients?

How important is security? Do you need security-level technology?

Will firewalls conflict with technology when installing new software or running video?

Do employees have built-in microphones in their computers? Is background noise for audio an issue? Participants might need headphones with microphones.

When budgeting, think about all equipment needed to make the web conferencing work. For example, will some remote employees need to buy webcams?

How many participants will you have and how often? Costs vary, depending on frequency and number of users.

Consider who will need software and how complicated it is to install.

What types of files will you share? Do you need to track files? Are archiving features important?

Thoroughly test any web-conferencing software you are considering buying. (Most products have free trial periods.)


Making Web Meetings Work

Even with all the bells and whistles at lower costs, users advise carefully planning the best ways to use the tools.

EMC’s Quirk says, for example, that the leaders of meetings or training must avoid web-conferencing pitfalls: Presenters should gauge participant engagement, capture audience questions and keep the audience involved. Long presentations can easily lose participants who may decide they can run out for a quick cup of coffee rather than listen to a speaker for an hour. Users who want to participate sometimes find it difficult to know when to talk to avoid interrupting another speaker and understanding how to ask or hold questions.

No Travel Required

David Burta, chief operating officer of LatitudeU, an open marketplace for professional training and learning, says companies cut down on the cost of travel both in real dollars and lost productivity. 

Burta says web conferencing can be the “optimal communication method” for enhanced control of geographically distributed projects, especially when quick turnaround decisions are required. Because leaders and participants can be enabled to take over each other’s computers, web-conferencing tools allow groups to share and change files together.

“When employees are connected to documents and files, it is a truly fantastic collaborative project, management and interaction tool with reduced time to resolve issues,” Burta says.

Rick Albiero, president of the San Francisco-based Telecommuting Advantage Group, says his company recently helped a large, international architecture firm with 3,100 employees reduce travel costs by 15 percent within one division.

By developing a web-conferencing solution using MegaMeeting, the group cut out an unpopular monthly meeting in Dallas, eliminating travel costs and decreasing employee stress. Eventually, the company rolled out the program companywide. “The HR director tied it to the company’s telework program,” Albiero says, adding that human resource officials tracked the videoconferencing tool’s effect on recruiting, retention and company stress levels.

Albiero says the costs of implementing web conferencing or videoconferencing varies widely—from $15 to $30 per seat per month for simple web-based or videoconferencing software, up to $40,000 for a one-time tech bill for a finance company in Kansas City that purchased high-quality monitors for several rooms, separate servers in all the locations and other expensive equipment. Albiero says in addition to the initial investment, the company will pay relatively small maintenance costs and ongoing bandwidth costs.

Magic Coast of Ann Arbor, Mich., helps companies put high-quality video on the web. Bill Dunning, its chief executive officer, says some Fortune 500 companies are looking for a slick, Hollywood-quality product. His company, for example, helps a Big Three automaker create an internal webcast each month for internal corporate communications. All employees with a desk or PC are invited through e-mail to log in to a web site to watch a high-level executive conduct a video presentation and review PowerPoint slides.

Dunning says his company’s videoconferencing and webcast projects range from $1,500 for a single camera with video-encoding production to $45,000 for a high-end annual corporate meeting for 500 people with six panelists and a three-camera shoot.

Internal Training

Web conferencing and webinars may have been originally developed for holding meetings and presentations among geographically dispersed employees or customers, but a number of HR professionals are finding the tools to be valuable for training as well.

Kory Wright, vice president of associate excellence for Vancouver, Wash.-based Columbia Ultimate, has been experimenting with media for meetings and training. The company sells software for collections to 700 clients including governments, hospital-collection agencies, banks and large retailers. His role includes human resources, internal and external training.

Because of new products and software updates, the company needs to frequently train eight sales associates in several locations and several hundred clients spread out across the country.

The company uses Citrix Online’s GoToMeeting software for sales presentations, associate conferences and collaboration. Recently, it began using Cisco’s WebEx with video for employee training. Wright says WebEx provides a rich training environment—with whiteboards, online drawing, polling and testing ability. For four users, the company pays about $1,000 a month and can have up to 50 people participate per session. The trainers have webcams and are currently experimenting with using IP phones.

Wright says it’s important for HR managers to think carefully about the content they present.

“I wanted to make sure we didn’t get caught up with the technology and that became the driving force,” he says. “It’s the content the people are really after, not the type of media.”

An Arsenal of Tools

High-tech companies are experimenting with all kinds of emerging communication tools, including web conferencing. They’re finding that the ideal application depends on what individuals and groups are trying to accomplish, and the nature of the internal audience.

Karen Rohde, vice president of human resources, global talent management and rewards at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems Inc., says web conferencing represents just one of many communication and social networking tools that the company uses to connect its 33,000 employees in 51 countries.

Rohde, who is responsible for global HR programs, says that since more than half of the employees either work from home or within a flex program, tools that help employees collaborate and communicate are crucial.

The company licenses Cisco’s WebEx, a tool Rohde uses for internal meetings within her group. She likes that the software allows for side conversations, group questions and polling.

She says Sun also has seven islands in Second Life, an Internet 3-D virtual world, and her team enjoys using that tool as well. Because participants can all see each other’s avatars, the meeting sometimes feels more real.

They reserve WebEx for formal occasions. For example: “Maybe we are doing some training across the HR group. We have managers call into the WebEx.” She says participants log in and a speaker can move through the presentation, adding that it’s easy to switch and pass the screen to other people, so they can have input as well and participants can chat privately with each other.

“You can poll people, people can ask questions, you can do an engaging presentation,” Rohde says.

She says Sun uses WebEx for live training around global inclusion, diversity, employment law and unlawful harassment. Sun typically uses the web-conferencing software to roll out information on stock options, salary-increase programs and other company information where giving a presentation is more valuable than simply sending out information by e-mail. Because Sun employees span every time zone on the globe, Rohde says it’s important that people who can’t participate are able to view meetings afterward.

Rohde stressed that it’s important for the group to set protocols around the communication. “The tool is the enabler,” Rohde says. “The behavioral protocol is what makes the tools work.”

In addition to WebEx, Rohde uses other communication methods. For retooling a company policy, for example, someone in HR might create a wiki, a collaborative web site, for internal editing and feedback. Rohde has her own Facebook group for her team that she uses for getting out quick messages and special recognition. Some employees use Twitter during tech conferences and employees have close to 5,000 blogs and several thousand Facebook pages.

“You’re trying to create a sense of community,” Rohde says. “How do you create a sense of community in a physically distributed environment?” Rohde says the younger generation of employees is used to communicating in many different ways, sometimes simultaneously.

“Everybody is connected in all these different ways, but the new generation, they expect this technology to be an extension of themselves,” Rohde says. “People are going to be used to using tools differently. As we roll out HR programs, we need to think about how we are going to receive that. We need to make sure the technology engages them.”

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The author is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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