Business, IT/AV

Will COVID-19 Be The Tipping Point For Technology Over Travel?


Event cancellations could inspire accelerated adoption of remote-collaboration alternatives.

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread globally, industry giants, one by one, have chosen to cancel their most important in-person meetings and conferences in an attempt to reduce exposure and keep employees safe. Google, Facebook and many more have pulled out of several large events in response to COVID-19. Many companies have closed their campuses to outsiders, or even closed their campuses all together. Most recently, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) Global Health Conference and Exhibition—the nation’s largest healthcare conference—announced its cancellation five days before it was scheduled to begin. Exhibitors were in the midst of setting up their booths when the notice was issued. Currently, there are no plans to reschedule it for this year. Enterprise Connect recently cancelled, as well.

It might be that we are at a tipping point. Our society is increasingly relying on enterprise collaboration and videoconferencing solutions. COVID-19 might be the factor that pushes us over the edge into large-scale adoption of these technologies, as well as a resurgence of teleworking. Twenty years ago, remote collaboration largely took the form of telecommuting and programs to reduce travel. These were new and shiny at the time. Corporate America was beginning to realize the benefits relative to both capital expenditures and work/life balance of having employees work from home or not travel. But even if employees were given access with the most sophisticated home-office equipment, the “water-cooler mindset” prevailed. The general thinking was that the spontaneous, face-to-face exchanges that happened at the water cooler or coffee station created an in-office rapport that couldn’t be duplicated over the phone from a home office.

Marissa Mayer, formerly President and CEO of Yahoo!, famously shut down Yahoo’s work-from-home policy in 2013, saying, “People are more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.” According to the company’s internal memo, “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.” Some companies followed her lead, even as others kept their telecommuting programs in place.

And, honestly, there might have been some validity to Mayer’s argument. The fact is, a phone call is an interaction between two disembodied voices. By definition, that is not going to create the rapport and intimacy of a face-to-face exchange. Disembodied voices cannot substitute for the successes achieved at large-scale events.

However, the latest enterprise-collaboration and videoconferencing solutions are light-years ahead of where we were in the initial telecommuting days. Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx, Poly RealPresence, Pexip, my own company’s Univago and the like have created a new dimension of exchanges that truly could displace the water-cooler conversations of days past. And our increasing reliance on these enterprise-collaboration and videoconferencing technologies directly reflects the amazing capabilities these solutions offer.

Today’s technologies are truly comprehensive, with features that range from presence indicators, to instant chat, to collaborative document sharing, to instantaneous videoconferencing—all at the touch of a button. These capabilities come amazingly close to replicating an in-person experience, and they can be used so spontaneously that they could be considered a virtual water cooler. Some of these systems even let you blur your background (possibly to disguise a less-than-tidy home office).

So, what conclusions can be drawn in the context of conference cancellations and COVID-19? Yes, we are increasingly relying on these cloud-based collaboration technologies, but we’re not 100-percent there. We have seen virtual private networks (VPNs), bandwidth and servers stressed during this period. COVID-19 might be the driver that forces us to explore new applications for these solutions, or that makes us expand upon existing applications and widen their adoption. So, although conventional wisdom might lead one to conclude that the rapid necessity to spin up work-from-home support might drive user organizations to the cloud, risk-averse corporations might actually end up pulling away from a cloud-first strategy and shifting to more of a hybrid approach.

Circling back to cancelled events, it’s true that there’s nothing quite like large-scale conventions. The convention experience requires very physical logistics—from shipping a booth, to flying people in, to walking the show floor, to all the physical interactions that come with those activities. We can’t do without relationship-building, face-to-face meetings—but could they be replicated virtually? I would argue we could certainly come close. And some of the giants have made clear they intend to try. At the time of this writing, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, plans to replace the “in-person component” of the Facebook F8 Developer Conference with video presentations and livestreamed content, plus locally hosted gatherings for developers. Many others are aiming to turn their own meetings into online-only events.

In fact, some of today’s industry behemoths are already using collaborative-media and videoconferencing technology to host town-hall-style sessions as part of their regularly scheduled corporate communications with employees and partners. You could say this application is necessary for these global corporations, which can’t necessarily fly in all their players to meet at the same time, in the same place, on a regular basis.

It doesn’t have to be only the giants leveraging collaboration technology in this way, though. Today’s enterprise-collaboration and videoconferencing solutions are mainly cloud-based. They require very little infrastructure, and they’re widely accessible and secure to anyone who has an internet connection and a device. Any organization can adopt this technology or enhance its existing solution set to acquire these capabilities. Many small and mid-size businesses will adopt this same approach.

This is a pivotal time, and we might have reached the tipping point for change. Our reliance on technology is undeniable, but, as current events have made clear, we’re still uncovering new applications for what we’re currently practicing on a smaller scale. Can today’s enterprise-collaboration and videoconferencing solutions exactly replicate the meetings and events that are being cancelled to protect global health? No, not quite. But they do provide a strong path for moving forward.

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