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VC: Is it in the Process of Leaving the Building?

Author : David Strydom

30 June 2015

How should FMs deal with the fact that the growing popularity of video conferencing is increasing pressure on meeting room space?

While the job of a facility manager has undoubtedly become more complicated over the past few years, there’s no denying technology can – and often does – make things easier. But what should the FM do if that same technology causes side effects he or she hadn’t expected? Take video conferencing (VC), for instance. As it becomes ever more popular for those with meeting room space, it is – at the same time – placing increasing pressure on that space, which in turn places renewed pressure on the FM.

"With the increasing popularity of VC - in businesses of all sizes – comes choice for the user as well as a wider range of products,’’ says Nigel Roberts, marketing manager for AVer. "Ideally businesses would have an air-conditioned meeting room set up with multiple screens, audio system, projector, Visualiser and control system. However, for many businesses this isn’t achievable owing to lack of space or rooms having to serve multiple purposes.’’

Roberts says companies supplying VC equipment recognise the challenges, and says many modern systems are much smaller and more space efficient than previous generations, and offer compact codecs, cameras and microphones that are less apt to use up space. "Coupled with wireless audio systems and Visualisers, size need not be an issue. Alternatively, complete bundle packages are available, comprising sturdy wheeled monitor stands for single or dual monitors, plus associated VC hardware, and some even include high-quality LED displays.’’

These systems hold many advantages for businesses, says Roberts, as they can be stored away when not required and, being mobile, can be used in different parts of the building, which increases flexibility over traditional wall-mounted systems. Also, bought as a package, these systems ‘offer great savings too, which is a big win for a busy FM’.

Matthew Cobbett, business development consultant for Electrosonic, says the problem faced by many organisations is that VC systems were installed in the wrong place. ``VC and telepresence systems were installed in traditional meeting rooms such as executive meeting rooms or boardrooms,’’ he explains. ``Traditional meeting rooms are the domain of the few and VC is seen as the ‘great enabler’ of unified communications (UC) for the masses. Increasing the number of traditional VC room systems isn’t a scaleable or appropriate solution to improved UC communications.’’

Cobbett asserts that VC still has a place in traditional meeting spaces and shouldn’t be removed, but that the underlying VC and IT infrastructures need to be developed to integrate room-based VC with desktop VC, mobile VC, and e-mail and calendaring applications. He adds that this is where technologies such as Microsoft Lync has an increasingly important role. "The poor adoption levels achieved by traditional meeting room VC wasn’t entirely owing to its poor performance and high cost but had much to do with room availability, ease-of-use and the lack of integration with business processes and culture.’’

Cobbett says he sees the responsibility for corporate VC shifting away from FM and dedicated FM teams and towards IT departments and cloud-based service providers. "Access to the room-based VC systems will still need to be scheduled and managed but this should be done via intelligent room-booking applications with digital signage panels at room entry points. These panels can show room status and can also be used to cancel bookings, book and schedule new meetings, and check peoples’ presence status and availability – although this can be achieved only if the room-scheduling application has an open API with e-mail and calendaring tools such as Outlook and Notes.’’

With the explosion of desktop/personal and mobile VC systems, the vast majority of video communications will now be ad hoc/spur-of-the-moment meetings which may have started as a IM or chat session between two parties, but as the exchange develops other people are invited and the need for sharing ideas and material becomes an essential part of meaningful collaborative communication, Cobbett says.

"Over the next five years I see the deployment of traditional VC room systems and telepresence systems flattening out, and the type of room system changing. Telepresence systems are losing their niche and non-immersive VC systems are achieving the highest levels of quality as well as a user experience previously associated only with bespoke telepresence systems, but at a fraction of the cost.’’

The trend to move VC intelligence into the VC/IT infrastructure, on-premise and cloud, will continue, and the next generation of VC room systems will have a lower cost of ownership and be simpler to use, Cobbett predicts. "The adoption of desktop and mobile VC will signal a change in the way people choose to communicate using UC tools, VC being one of just many collaboration tools available at the desktop or on a mobile device. This change will open up the VC endpoint/codec market to new suppliers such as the touchscreen manufacturers and, notably, Microsoft.’’

The VC world as we know it, Cobbett adds, is in the process of leaving the building.

Ray McGroarty, global director for Enterprise UC Solutions at Polycom, says that we are living in a virtual world so we need to be able to work in one as well. "The popularity of VC and telepresence, which gives a person the ability to ‘be’ in another location via technology continues to rise and shows no signs of stopping.’’

McGroarty says when people talk about VC, they often think of the recognisable room-based telepresence systems, where people sit around a desk and use conferencing technologies to communicate with another meeting room elsewhere in the country. "Of course,’’ he says, "the popularity of these systems can challenge FMs, as there’s a need for several suitable equipped rooms. However, not all VC solutions require allocated meeting rooms.’’

When people talk about VC, they often think of the recognisable room-based telepresence systems where participants sit around a desk and use conferencing technologies to communicate with another meeting room elsewhere in the country. "Of course, the popularity of these kinds of systems can challenge FMs as there is a need for several suitably equipped rooms. However, not all VC solutions require allocated meeting rooms,’’ says McGroarty.

Many VC solutions can now be operated from an office desktop, he adds, from home or even from a smartphone or tablet. For these systems, no meeting room is needed at all. "We have many cases of customers who use our products to collaborate on-the-go so they can work from home, in a café, or even while travelling between locations.’’

FMs facing problems allocating meeting room space could help their organisation by informing the wider business about the benefits of desk-based VC systems and encouraging their use where practical. "As it stands, we’re in a situation where an employee could join a VC from a park bench if they wanted, and this is something we’re keen to help FMs communicate to the wider business.’’

Rowan Brunger, sales director at Viewpoint AV, says there are several ways to address the space issue, and the best results come from a combination of tactics. "One way to reduce demands on meeting rooms is to equip employees with desktop conferencing capabilities so they can join video conferences from their desks or a designated quiet area.’’

When using this approach, says Brunger, in-room VC equipment needs to be set up to allow entry into conference via things such as Skype and Microsoft Lync. "A centralised room booking system can also help, encouraging users to consider their real needs such as number of attendees and equipment requirements, rather than just booking a space because it’s their ‘favourite’. This will improve the general ebb-and-flow of traffic in the meeting rooms and avoid space being used inefficiently.’’

The other option, Brunger suggests, is to create more meeting room spaces. "We’re seeing a significant increase in the number of businesses using furniture pod solutions (from manufacturers such as Orangebox and Boss) which have VC equipment integrated within them. These pods go directly onto the office floor plate in open areas and eliminate the need to build walls and rooms.’’

Best kept as non-bookable resources, these spaces provide somewhere for impromptu meetings; this, in turn, takes pressure off the more formal meeting rooms. "Another option is to use ‘media tables’, which are equipped with conference technology. These are designed to be used in open areas and are often used for meetings that don’t require as much privacy as a traditional VC suite.’’

VC is something that many FMs have actively introduced into their clients as a means of encouraging better communication between teams while reducing the need for travel, says Martin Ward, CEO of iSite. "It is a perfect example of IT and FM combining to add value to the workplace. If that means more meetings room being taken up to achieve better communication and a lower carbon footprint then the answer is to co-ordinate the meetings via slick, efficient room booking system as well as creating some flexible space for ad hoc meetings – perhaps making use of wireless headsets and stealing a few ideas from the world of contact centres.’’

Jon Knight, director of Smarter Interactive, says that within the workplace, there are different ways of reacting to pressure from VC equipment on meeting room space. "Option One is to look at setting up dedicated rooms with VC equipment. These allocated spaces are specifically for VC meetings.

’’Option Two is to increase the use of PC-based videoconferencing software, with associated headsets, to enable greater use of VC without the need for a meeting room. And Option Three is for VC to be run through mobile devices such as iOS and android; thus making video conferences more accessible when you are on the go.’’

Ideally, however, Knight says the best approach would be to look at a combination of all technologies, meaning you may end up with a team of six people in one meeting room conferencing with two PC users and two mobile device users. ‘’Another popular alternative,’’ he says, ‘’is to introduce VC systems on floor stands to allow the system to be moved between multiple meeting rooms. Usually this will only involve plugging in power and a network connection to get the VC unit to work in a different room. This removes the pressure of meeting room space as you can take the video conference to any available space.’’

Knight says cloud VC is also a serious consideration as it offers increased savings, a reduced carbon footprint, improved communications and collaboration, increased flexibility and productivity without the need to invest in expensive infrastructure.

Dan Tanel, CTO BCS Global, says the VC scenario is ‘a vicious cycle’. He adds that pressure on office space has led to an increase in mobile and remote working, yet working this way drives the need for more meeting rooms and tools to enable remote collaboration, such as audio and VC solutions.

"In general most people are resourceful,’’ says Tanel. "This lack of meeting space means many employees are taking the matter into their own hands and using Skype and other consumer-targeted solutions, such as Google Talk video and Facetime for business purposes. Although their quality can be variable, these are great applications. But it must be remembered they’re unsupported and present a security risk. Any IT department has to make a decision whether to support their use or outlaw them all together.’’

So what’s the answer? Tanel says anyone who has used VC solutions in the past will remember them as cumbersome and overly complex. ‘’But things have moved on – they are now more stable, streamlined, less expensive and higher quality – and the purchasing model has been transformed. Video solutions are now available as a managed service with a flat-rate monthly fee and no additional ‘per call’ charges – and this change looks set to significantly accelerate adoption.

‘’These providers can often revive first-generation equipment by integrating the latest technology. They can also offer solutions which include the most sophisticated technology for high-level client meetings but enable day-to-day use of video on desktops, laptops, tablets or mobiles. The balance of dedicated video conferencing rooms and desktop facilities will depend on each individual business.’’

Tanel says the cycle can be broken – and the solution will pay for itself in improved productivity and motivation as employees get to know their colleagues and clients, wherever they are in the world, by sight.

‘’With today’s improved sophistication of VC making it more effective as a communication tool, it is inevitably more popular, yet the cost savings associated with it such as reduce travel costs and more productive use of time are equally significant,’’ says Guy Phelps, corporate sales manager for NEC Display Solutions. ‘’The question, therefore, is how FMs can maximise the space available for VC and to improve the efficiency of its use.’’

Room management systems are effective in improving the productivity of meeting room space, helping staff quickly identify availability and to book time slots, Phelps says, adding that signage in reception areas will help visitors quickly locate and find their appropriate meeting.

‘’There are several potential solutions that may help FMs maximise the space available for VC. Often a video conference may only require attendance from a single person. Perhaps large meeting rooms could be subdivided to allow simultaneous meetings to take place while the dividing walls could be pulled back when a larger space is required. For quick meetings only standing space need be provided with a desktop size monitor available thus taking up just a phonebox-sized space. Innovative VC solutions such as ‘vpods’ offer a standalone, fully integrated environment which can provide additional resource within an existing space.’’

In many instances, Phelps says, the conference delegate need not leave his own desk. ‘’Desktop VC is increasing in popularity saving time in getting to the meeting and ultimately reducing the pressure on the availability of meeting rooms.’’

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