What came first, the conversation or the water cooler?
Clearly, before we can talk to each other we have to have a means of doing so. In a traditional office environment, that means having a common area where employee paths can cross, or at least a culture that tolerates people moving from desk to desk for a casual chat. That kind of environment isn’t hard to create, and usually develops organic development in a shared work space. The conversation will find a corner in which to exist regardless of the availability of a water cooler.
In a modern, mobile, and remote workplace, however, where an increasing number of employees don’t share physical proximity, the question gets a little murkier. When you are dependent on wholly digital technologies for interaction such as video conferencing, chat, and email, then it could be argued that the venue for conversation–the water cooler, if you will–becomes far more important.
So, could better hardware and platforms for conversation better engage remote employees? Is the success of the virtual office totally contingent on the devices and software that link its workers?
We’ll go with a mixture of both yes and no, in answer to that question. There’s a basic level of technical prowess needed to engage staff, but ultimately the success of such devices comes down to how they are used by the humans involved.
Let’s address each answer separately.
Better Tech Does Help Engage Remote Employees
First, you must acknowledge that the kind of remote, virtual working conditions described above not only exist but are increasing in popularity. More than 40% of the U.S. workforce already spends at least some time working outside the office, and 3.7 million employees work remotely half of their professional lives. Those figures stem from the fact that the number of remote employees has grown 115% over the past decade.
Secondly, things aren’t all sunshine and roses for the remote or telecommuting set. Former large-scale backers of telecommuting such as IBM and Yahoo! have all but banned remote work, describing it as detrimental to corporate creativity and team culture. More recently, research from video conferencing hardware maker Owl Labs found that 77% of people felt disengaged when joining an internal meeting remotely, which in turn led them to believe that they wasted as much as seven weeks a year in unproductive meetings.
Owl’s solution to that problem is to make meetings more engaging by creating better video conference equipment. VC Daily has previously taken a look at the Meeting Owl, a 360-degree video conferencing camera the company produces, and can agree to some extent with their proposition. Participating in a video meeting that better resembles a real-world setting does make it feel more authentic. When you can see and hear your colleagues clearly and interact with them smoothly instead of being constantly derailed by lags and frozen screens, it’s easier to have a natural conversation. If that, in turn, promotes better employee engagement, then great.
To hit that level of comfort you only need to achieve a few basic goals:
- HD visuals
- A solid video frame rate
- Basic camera automation for focus and light adjustment
- A reliable video conferencing platform
That’s the standard of technology you absolutely have to hit to make your meetings count–anything less and basic communication falls apart. In our opinion, however, remote employee engagement comes down to how you use the technology.
Technology Alone Isn’t the Answer
As much as we sing the praises of video conferencing here at VC Daily, it’s ultimately just a tool. It’s a powerful tool and by far the best way to communicate over any distance–in fact, as far as combining audio and visuals in real-time over the internet goes, it’s the only tool available–but it isn’t an end in itself.
As the Harvard Business Review has stated, engaging remote employees is remarkably similar to managing in-house staff–it’s about time and attention. In essence, you’re using the webcams and Skype calls of video conferencing as a replacement for the face time you’d normally have across a desk or around the water cooler.
That means not every video call should be a meeting, and not every meeting should be all about business. We’ve thrown out a few of these ideas before, but they’re worth considering if you want to make your virtual team as vibrant and connected as any brick-and-mortar business.
- Workplace collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams and Slack are built for instant, constant contact, so you can leave your digital door open to quick, even informal video calls.
- Group video chat can now readily accommodate dozens of people, with features like active speaker location that seek out whoever’s currently speaking, so don’t be afraid to open up the conversation to the table.
- Webcams, especially huddle room-type conference cams like the Meeting Owl and Logitech MeetUp, are mobile and quick to set up. Consider making them available at in-house social events so remote employees can join, too.
- Set up a “virtual water cooler,” an always-open video chat room which employees can drop in and out of throughout the day for a little face time or to get some unbiased input from a member of another team.
Most importantly, make video contact a regular and frequent part of your day. Consider making a video call instead of sending an email or using the phone–it’s a far more effective means of communication anyway.
To go back to our question of whether the conversation or water cooler came first, we think it’s clear: when you need to engage remote employees, the water cooler should be there first. And that means making video conferencing as accessible, informal, and friendly as a cozy corner of the break room.
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