Videoconferencing opens window on the world

Copyright: David Lawson

Published in Property Week July 2009

Half a dozen people are chatting across a table in a windowless room deep in a plush London office block. Nothing unusual there – apart from the fact that one is in New York, two in Singapore and another in Frankfurt.

  Video conferencing has been around for almost a decade but confined mainly to one-to-one conversations on computers or cinema-style suites for multi-person meetings. Broadband transmission and high definition screens are now taking communications to another level.  ‘Telepresence’ is a convincing illusion that someone half a world away is in the same room. The key difference, according to a growing band of users, is that HD means faces are crystal clear and participants are life-size.

  ‘Multiple cameras mean you can pick up the nuances of facial expressions and body language vital for personal judgements on which business decisions often hinge,’ says one agent experimenting with pitching investments to potential investors in the Middle East.  ‘You can also look at the people sitting quietly in the background. They may be the real decision makers and their mood is often significant.’

  Pioneers such as this agent are still not confident enough to admit publically that they use such techniques, fearing it may seem they are not putting in the hard yards to close deals. But cost-cutting and pressures to adopt ‘greener’ policies are bringing video out of the basement.   Mark Dixon is so convinced about potential demand that he is investing in a £32m venture with Cable & Wireless to install a network of giant screens in up to 50 of his Regus Group business centres.

   Hire charges are not cheap, ranging up to £400/hr for a conference of more than four people. But Regus commercial director Simon Hunt says this is peanuts compared with the amount spent jetting around the world for business meetings. A five-hour session in the newly launched telepresence suite at Regus’s centre in London’s Bruton Street would cost half the total outlay sending two people to New York once extras such as accommodation and other expenses are included, he says. Nor does this take account of lost working time away from the office.

   BT Worldwide eliminated more than 850,000 face-to-face meetings in a single year through remote conferencing, saving £135m on travel, more than £100m on management time and 97,000 tonnes of CO2, according to a study by the University of Bradford and SustainIT.

   Video conferencing on smaller screens, costing around £150/hr is already a popular service in around 600 Regus centres across the world.  Up to 80% of users are not office tenants but outsiders who drop in as and when they need the service. Recruitment firms and lawyers are key users, making huge savings through remote interviews and taking witness statements, says Hunt.

   This more modest form of videoconferencing is expanding exponentially as pressure increases on firms to demonstrate green credentials. , and demand soared 40% last year.  Big firms have set up their own suites using the Polycom equipment adopted by Regus or rivals systems such as Cisco. Small concerns rely on Microsoft software, according to research group Instat. The software is almost a routine installation on PCs while expansion of wireless broadband means coffee bars and even back bedrooms have assumed a Star Wars atmosphere as conversations take place across the world.

  For a change, small firms are leading the charge, says Angus MacFadyen, managing director of property software specialist Aperio. ‘Big firms often refuse to allow video on personal PCs because of security fears, so you have to book a slot in a dedicated suite,’ he says. ‘Individuals are much less constrained. Every day I log in for joint conferences with smaller clients across Europe.’


Building services group N G Bailey is rolling out a remote conferencing system after proving the simplicity and effectiveness to staff via ‘virtual coffee mornings’ shared between offices. ‘Getting employees to use video conferencing can be the biggest challenge as they are often apprehensive of putting new ways of working into practice,’ said a spokeswoman.

  Fifteen Tandberg high definition screens will be linked via the firm’s internet protocol (IP) network. NG Bailey, which employs some 4,000 people and has a turnover in the region of £600m, estimates it will cover costs within the first year. The system will be monitored to calculate travel saving by measuring how many join each conference, where they are from and how long they are online. The Tandberg system, which is compatible with customers using other makes, was installed by Bailey Teswaine, NG Bailey’s network infrastructure arm. ‘Video conferencing can give staff a better work/life balance, cut company travel costs and improve communications with customers and partners while retaining the trust built by face-to-face meetings, says the company.