5 reasons videoconferencing is on the decline (again)


Videoconferencing and collaboration vendors like Zoom have been reporting a sharp decline in business this year. It’s been a recurring in the industry for decades, a boom followed by a bust. The first spike happened in the 1990s, when Intel CEO Andy Grove invested heavily in the technology then indicated that was one of his biggest mistakes. A second spike took place a decade later when HP rolled out Halo rooms, followed again, by a decline.

Most recently, interest in video shot up (out of necessity) during the COVID-19 pandemic. As it’s waned, so has the rush to video.

There’s a chance the market won’t pull back this time as sharply as it did in the past. But until the industry steps up to address problems it’s known about for decades, fixes that could make the technology sustainable, videoconferencing will never reach its full potential. 

The issue? To be successful, videoconferencing vendors need to me several requirements. And yet ,they treat the list as something they can pick and choose from without realizing they need to do all of them. 

The main benefit of video

The primary benefit from using these tools isn’t collaboration; we   collaborated successfully using mail, telephone, and in-person meetings long before videoconferencing showed up. You could easily skip most video sessions and simply send out a hard copy of the pitch, tell people to look it over while on the phone, and you’d get nearly an identical outcome. Most meetings aren’t particularly collaborative, they’re more like communication sessions with questions. Staff meetings, company meetings, vendor pitches, HR updates, and even meetings on organizational changes and financial performance don’t require real-time video.

In fact, one of the benefits of a phone call is that you don’t have to worry about your appearance. This was one of two reasons desktop video communications failed in the 1980s. (The other: employees feared their boss was secretly watching them.)

The best argument for videoconferencing is to avoid travel. Travel is expensive, sometimes comes with safety and health risks, and in-flight productivity suffers when workers are on planes. The economic, safety, health and opportunity benefits of videoconferencing should have made air travel for business nearly obsolete.

Here are five reasons it hasn’t.

No. 1: The technology still isn’t easy to use

Video was originally seen as a phone feature. You’d call someone on your phone, then enable video. That was the vision AT&T had decades ago because, naturally, it viewed the world through lens of phones. And while the technology did improve, even in the 1990s and 2000s you often needed a techie to operate the equipment; it was very different from a simple dial-up call. Plus, few systems interoperated; there was a good chance you couldn’t get your particular system to work with others. 

We no longer need a dedicated technician for video, or even a dedicated service, but many systems still don’t play together reliably.

Ease of use and interoperability both drove success in the telecom industry, yet both seem to be afterthoughts when it comes to videoconferencing.

No. 2: In-meeting conversations matter

When you meet in person, you can make a comment to the person next to you, engage with someone else across from you, and you can force yourself to be heard. In remote meetings, you’re often muted until someone lets you talk. If you want to chat with someone else, you’ll either have to type out a direct message (which the other person may not see) or call them on the phone.

This makes remote attendees feel like second class citizens to those meeting in person. They don’t get needed face time, may not be heard, can’t develop professional relationships, or have a chance to really engage well with others. Allowing side chats, which many meeting leaders frown on, would help. Because in a videoconferencing session, you can fully isolate these chats, allowing information to be shared that would be disruptive in an in-person meeting. 

No. 3: After-meeting engagements are important, too

People who travel to meetings often gather after things break up to chat socially. They may be in the hallway, over lunch or dinner, or when grabbing a huddle space to work on a side project. Being at a meeting in person has a team-building element that helps surface people to upline managers, opens additional avenues for job advancement, and allows collaborative projects to move forward more quickly.

But the social nature of meetings, which could be addressed with video game-like tools, the metaverse, or even a shared lunch over the video system, just aren’t done at scale. Thus, remote employees rightly feel that by not traveling to a meeting, they’re at a disadvantage.

No. 4: Hybrid meetings don’t work

When you have a meeting where some folks are remote, it’s almost painful for everyone involved. The cameras rarely show the remote person, and it isn’t uncommon for those in the room to secretly ridicule non-present attendees or ignore those who’ve been muted. Remote attendees feel like interlopers. And if the volume is too high, they’ll come across as loud and aggressive; if it’s too low, they’ll be scene as passive.

And if you make a mistake? In person, you might be able to correct the situation. But if you’re remote, that’s harder to do — especially if you don’t even realize you’ve said the wrong thing.

In short, when it comes to hybrid meetings, the smart attendees are the ones in the room.

No. 5: The best video tech isn’t available, yet

One issue with attending a meeting in person is that travel is hard. You might appear tired, disheveled, or off your game. But with video, emerging technology can make you look your best — even if you’re in PJs. Generative AI could be used to refine your pitch, and even give it for you, while you watch the audience and answer online questions. That would help the audience feel you’re listening to their needs. You could even use generative AI to answer questions while you talk — and alter your comments in real-tiume based on the comments and questions coming in.

You could even use AI to have a digital version of yourself attend a meeting in your place, answer questions based on your work, or fill in on meetings where different time zones are an issue.  

The benefits of videoconferencing are clear: reduced travel costs, safer employees, higher productivity, happier employees, and a better work/life balance. While the ongoing need to connect remote workers to their companies will likely head off a catastrophic collapse of the industry, it won’t rise to its full potential until the issues Ive listed are addressed. 

Someday, the industry will get this right — just not today. 

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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