HR Technology: Show and Tell

New videoconferencing tools are easier to use and offer more options.

By Jennifer Taylor Arnold Jun 1, 2013
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A few years ago, the partners at Morris Polich & Purdy were looking for an efficient way to bring their growing staff together. The law firm—now with nearly 100 attorneys in six California and Nevada offices—had almost doubled in 10 years. “There was a lot of recruitment, meetings, traveling,” says George Brandon, partnership development leader. “We were not making the best use of our time.”

In December 2011, leaders at the firm invested in a new videoconferencing solution—and they haven’t been disappointed.

Videoconferencing has been around for some time, but experts say new technology makes it more convenient, flexible and affordable. HR professionals who remember clunky and expensive room-based systems may want to take another look.

Newer Is Better

Old videoconferencing systems required pricey dedicated hardware at a fixed site. Today, nearly every laptop, tablet or smartphone comes with a camera and microphone, and webcams are readily available for under $100.

Plus, old systems were often difficult to use. For that reason, Morris Polich & Purdy’s first videoconferencing system sat around collecting dust. “We never used it because it took much too much time to set it up,” Brandon says. The firm’s new Polycom solution has been embraced in part because it’s easier to use: “You don’t need to be technical,” he explains.

Seeing callers while you talk with them remotely is no longer futuristic. Free services such as Skype and FaceTime make the technology commonplace. Business users are demanding similarly accessible experiences from videoconferencing tools, along with:

  • Enhanced capabilities to accommodate multiple participants.
  • Access from a variety of locations and devices.
  • High-quality video and audio.

Technology vendors are responding. Today, employers’ options range from cloud-based software-as-a-service tools to high-tech enterprisewide solutions.

All the options connect people in diverse locations through cameras, microphones and screens. But beyond those basics, variables include ease of use, cost, maximum user capacity, cloud vs. server bases, bandwidth demands and video quality.

Next-Best Option

Experts agree that in-person communication is best, but today it can be impractical and cost-prohibitive. At the same time, in high-touch fields like HR, other communication methods simply fall short: E-mail, telephone and print materials are poor stand-ins when assessing candidates, conducting performance reviews or relaying benefits information.

Research has shown that videoconferencing is the next-best option after face-to-face communication. A 2010 study conducted by Microsoft Research and the University of Washington compared participants’ reactions to business meetings conducted via telephone conference call, videoconference and 3-D avatar conferencing. In the last case, each participant is represented by a cartoonlike figure on a display screen. Seventy-eight percent of survey participants said they preferred videoconferencing to the audio and avatar approaches. They gave videoconferencing high marks for realism with comments like “much more able to glean subtle reactions” and “like being in the same room as people.”

Experienced videoconference users agree. “Video has been a godsend,” Brandon says. “When people ask a question, the leader can see them. It’s not an anonymous voice on the phone. It’s good to see people’s reactions.”

HR Efficiencies

Videoconferencing has obvious implications for team collaboration and communication, and it can enrich HR functions, as well. “Everything we do in HR can be enhanced over video,” says Ashley Goldsmith, chief human resources officer and executive vice president at Polycom.

At Corvisa Services, a Milwaukee-based technology, development and IT consulting firm, the HR department uses a cloud-based system provided by BlueJeans, a videoconferencing technology company based in Mountain View, Calif. Corvisa, owned by Novation Companies Inc. of Kansas City, Mo., has sister companies in Tampa, Fla., and Indianapolis, with about 1,000 employees in total.

“Since we’re so spread out, before there was a lot of flying around,” says Andy Brezinsky, vice president of engineering at Corvisa. “Benefits meetings were always kind of a pain, with staff members all over the country.” Now, he says, “video has become a very important part of HR” and is used for sexual harassment training, 401(k) enrollment information sessions, new-hire orientations and recruiting interviews.

At Morris Polich & Purdy, the HR department uses videoconferencing to communicate with all employees at once, whether they’re in an office, at home or on the road. California has a lot of employment regulations, Brandon says, and videoconferencing is a better way to communicate them than just including the information in the staff handbook.

The HR team uses the technology for training, information sessions and interviews with candidates. Although recruiters still meet candidates personally before extending an offer, videoconferencing makes it easier to conduct initial screenings or continue negotiations after an offer has been made. “There might be questions that come up later,” Brandon says. With videoconferencing, “We can keep the dialogue going, but we don’t have to fly out there for a 30-minute meeting.”

Weigh the Users’ Needs

When considering videoconferencing options, take into account the following:

Audience. How large a group will need to be connected at one time? Will videoconferencing be used to communicate only with employees or also with clients and partners? The answers to these questions will help narrow the field of providers.

For example, more-affordable tools like Skype Premium and GoToMeeting limit the number of participants, usually to around 25. More-expensive solutions accommodate hundreds, even thousands, of participants.

Some systems require that users load software onto their devices before participating. Such preparation calls for advance notice and makes it more cumbersome for people outside the business.

Some cloud-based systems allow videoconferences to be scheduled like telephone conference calls, with a link e-mailed to each participant with connection instructions.

Access. Consider the variety of devices people will use to connect to the videoconference. This is what the industry calls “interoperability,” meaning the seamless accessibility from laptops, tablets and smartphones with different operating systems. Older, room-based videoconferencing systems do not offer this feature. With employees using a variety of technology devices for business purposes, videoconferencing tools need that flexibility.

Integration. Some solutions will work with existing room-based systems, allowing companies to expand their use of current assets. For example, Corvisa Services started using BlueJeans’ cloud-based system in late 2012, in conjunction with an existing Polycom room-based system.

Experts say room-based systems have improved. Older systems had a fixed camera that captured one large space, making it difficult to view everyone in the room and to recognize who was talking. Newer cameras, such as Polycom’s EagleEye, include sensors that allow the video to zoom in on the speaker.

Added values. Others features to consider include:

  • Document sharing, which allows users to simultaneously view files while in the videoconference.
  • The ability to participate in a conference via audio only, for users calling from remote areas where connectivity issues may preclude video.
  • The ability to record videoconferences for later use.
  • Integration with social media platforms such as LinkedIn and Salesforce.

Plans and Pricing

Videoconferencing solutions for business use come at several prices. Options include minute-based bundles, similar to a mobile phone plan, and named host licenses for a particular location, like a conference room, or a particular user. Larger businesses may pay by the number of virtual “ports” or concurrent connections.

Prices vary widely depending on the plan and its features. Skype’s basic service, which connects two individuals, is free; Skype Premium, which connects up to 10 participants at a time, costs as little as $5 a month. For limited use with smaller groups, solutions can cost as little as $50 a month. High-capacity licensed systems that integrate conference room setups with desktop and mobile access and features such as document sharing and recording capabilities can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

But even at the high end of the price range, experts say, businesses may save money with videoconferencing. In 2009, Wainhouse Research was commissioned by Polycom to survey 300 companies on their return on investment. The researchers found that, on average, businesses saved 30 percent on travel costs after adding videoconferencing. That return is likely even higher now, as travel costs have soared in recent years.

The value of Time

Although Morris Polich & Purdy has not conducted a formal analysis, its video­confer­encing solution is “paying for itself,” Brandon says. “We’re not paying for flights, hotels. But travel is just the tip of the iceberg. How do you put a price on the value of actually seeing someone rather than talking to them on the phone?”

There’s also the loss of time and productivity when staff members travel. At Corvisa Services, the decision to go with videoconferencing “stemmed from the airlines canceling direct routes between our offices,” Brezinsky says. The extra time for connecting flights tipped the scales toward finding another means of communication.

The value of Training

Wainhouse researchers found that companies can also save 22 percent to 25 percent in training costs. In addition to travel costs associated with training, savings come from recording training sessions and making them available to employees on a company’s intranet.

Before implementing the new Polycom system, Morris Polich & Purdy hired an outside vendor to record and transmit training sessions. According to Brandon, it was “incredibly expensive.” Now, “We can record whatever is happening in the room at the time when we’re doing training, rather than paying someone.”

For all of these reasons, many employers are considering videoconferencing capabilities. Experienced users say new adopters often make buying decisions based on one defined need, then discover dozens of applications for functions such as benefits administration, meetings, training and interviewing. “You often don’t realize the true value until you start to use it,” Brandon says. “I don’t think we’ve gotten all the potential out of it yet.”

Jennifer Taylor Arnold is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

Web Extras

SHRM article: Being Clear Isn’t Enough (HR Magazine)
SHRM article: The Personal Touch: Videoconferencing Catches On in HR (Technology)
SHRM research article: Workplace Communication Series: Communication and Technology
SHRM resource: Employee Communication Resource Page

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