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German Chancellor Angela Merkel uses a Motorola Bluetooth mobile phone headset
Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
No patience for your videoconferencing fails.
A COMMON HANG-UP

Why remote meetings are still so painful

By Sarah Kessler

Humans have condensed the world’s information into a device that fits inside a pocket, created cars that drive themselves, and are planning to colonize Mars. But we are still regularly challenged by remote meetings that start like this:

Hi everyone. It’s great to have you all together on the line to discuss this very import–can you hear me?

Wave if you can hear me. 

Ok, I’m not sure what’s going on. Let’s just use the phone for audio. What’s the conference line number? 

Hello. I can hear you now. Good. As you can see from this slide–

You can’t see the slide?

Bill, can you just give us a rundown of what the slide says instead?

I think we lost Bill.

Technology is advancing at such breakneck speed that the World Economic Forum recently dubbed this era the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” So why can’t we fix the humble video conference call?

A growth-industry problem: Evolution is messy

Anyone with a smartphone today has easy and affordable access to simultaneous voice, audio, and text exchange.

In the beginning of remote-meeting software, however, those capabilities were separate businesses. Video calls involved installing expensive equipment in conference rooms. Cisco’s video conferencing technology for homes, introduced in 2010, cost $599, plus $24.99 per month for service. Other companies built products specifically for online conference calls, or for sharing presentations online.

As wifi, mobile video technology, and cloud computing became pervasive, these once-separate aspects of the remote meeting became feasible to combine—just in time, too, for a workforce rapidly getting more interested in remote-work options. “All of the sudden, instead of separate point tools, what you had was a need for people working remote and the feature sets converged,” says Shan Sinha, the founder of an online meeting company called Highfive, who has also worked on enterprise software at Google and Microsoft. “Everything needed to do video. Everything needed to support screen sharing and support phone calls.”

Companies added—sometimes through acquisitions—the necessary new features to products initially designed to do just one thing. Cisco bought Webex, which by that point included video conferencing. FreeConferenceCall.com added screen sharing and video conferencing. IBM bought cloud video company UStream in 2016. Polycom expanded from audioconferencing (the “SoundStation,” introduced in 1992) and videoconferencing (the “ViewStation,” introduced around 1999) to a business that includes desktop, phones, tablet apps, and immersive walk-in rooms with giant screens.

As the broader technology environment evolved, the industry added more capabilities to what already existed rather than building new products from scratch. People already knew how to use PIN codes. They had already installed conference room hardware for making video calls. Even if the status quo remote meeting processes were clunky, maintaining them made the best business sense. “It’s a huge challenge for customers who have invested in what they are using today to switch to what they should be using tomorrow,” says Adam Preset, a Gartner analyst who covers the digital workplace.

“Why do organizations use so much Webex? It’s because they use so much Webex. What prevents them from leaving Webex? Because they’re using Webex.”

The compatibility problem: So many video-calling tools, so little cooperation

Phone calls work no matter what types of phones or service providers are involved. Mobile phones, landlines, different service providers—they’re all capable of talking to one another. But operating systems and web browsers each work a little differently. Some may restrict access to a computer’s video, audio, or both.

This is why some remote-meeting systems may work swimmingly for internal calls in which everyone is using the same IT-provided tools, but fall apart when the meeting involves someone who isn’t wrapped into the company IT infrastructure. That person may be using a browser or an operating system that isn’t compatible with the meeting software—which means that there needs to be an alternative, like a dial-in phone number for those who can’t otherwise connect to the call. Here we collide with one example of the legacy problem: As annoying as PIN numbers may be, the system is hard to change, not so much because of technology but because of people. ”People are used to the way of doing things, no matter how old it is,” says Delanda Coleman, the senior product marketing manager for Skype for Business. “It’s, ‘I’ve memorized my PIN.”

There’s no good way to beat this problem. Some remote-meeting systems bypass the issue of incompatible browsers by asking each participant to download software onto their computers. But that introduces the pain of downloading a new desktop client. (There’s also chance that someone will be using an operating system that doesn’t support that desktop client.)

At large companies, meanwhile, employees often are blocked from downloading software without approval from IT. So maybe you’ll have to postpone your meeting until next week.

Even if a software vendor were to find clever workarounds for all of these potential compatibility hurdles, there will still be one basic variable completely out of its control. “The Internet is fundamentally unstable,” says Elise Keith, the co-founder of Lucid Meetings, which makes remote-meeting software that relies on a number of third-party voice and video systems. “Some guy is going to try to join a meeting on a cell phone while he’s driving through a tunnel.”

 The people problem: Tools do not a meeting make

Most remote-meeting products focus on making connections via video and audio, which doesn’t cover a lot of other important aspects of meetings. We may coordinate meeting times using a calendar tool, track the agenda in a document someone dropped into the company’s chat tool, take notes in a text document, and send follow-up tasks via email. “The problem is the ways that meetings are handled technically, they’re decomposed, and it’s up to the participants and meeting organizer to coordinate everything,”says Gartner’s Preset. “Every step is an opportunity to go wrong.”

Video, audio, and virtual presentation tools for meetings now come bundled together. But creating a productive meeting involves getting scheduling, structure, follow-up and other aspects of collaboration in the same place, too. Otherwise people won’t show up. Or when they do, they won’t pay attention. And nothing will get done. In one recent survey, more than 60% of respondents admitted to doing other work or sending an email while on a conference call (47% said they used the bathroom).

Garner’s Preset argues that enterprise companies are probably best equipped to conquer the remote meeting from this holistic perspective, because they already make products workers use to collaborate, like calendars, email, and cooperative documents. Cisco’s Spark product puts meetings inside of the same environments where teams message and share files. Microsoft has integrated Skype for Business with Outlook, Word, and PowerPoint. “We’re not even at the inflection point yet,” Preset says. “Everyone is endeavoring to make it better, but there’s no gold standard yet for a holistic meeting [system].”

So … Is there any hope?

Silicon Valley apparently thinks so. In February, Google quietly launched a version of Hangouts for businesses. Called Meet, it handles video calls for up to 30 people and integrates with Google Calendar. Amazon launched its remote meeting product, Chime, around the same time. Microsoft acquired Skype for $8.5 billion in 2011 and launched its “Skype for Business” product in 2015. Startups like like BlueJeans, Zoom, Vidyo, and Highfive that focus on videoconferencing have together raised at least half a billion dollars since 2005.

As much as there can ever be an exciting time in remote-meeting software, this is an exciting time in remote meeting software.

Bots and automation offer new potential for digital collaboration in general. Virtual reality is finally a feasible technology (though nowhere near a widely adopted one), which eventually could change the interface for remote meetings entirely.

As for that basic “Can you hear me now?” problem, Lucid Meetings co-founder John Keith suggests that solving it could be just a matter of time. His company focuses on everything about a remote meeting that doesn’t involve that basic technology connection, such as coordination, content, and process, and allows meeting coordinators to choose whatever video or audio software works best for them. The internet is still so new, he says, that there’s not yet been a period where it hasn’t been changing rapidly. “It creates an environment of so much flux,” he says, but “phones pretty much work. It’s possible to get a stable technology out there.”