All gain no pain: saving time and money with 'virtual meetings'

May 30 2005 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Telecoms giant BT has saved itself £128 million a year by tackling its 'meetings culture' head on, replacing face-to-face interaction with video and web-based conferencing.

Research carried out at BT by technology charity SustainIT and the University of Bradford has found that, on average, each avoided meeting saves the company a minimum of £432 in travel costs, accommodation fees and people's unproductive travel time.

By eliminating almost 300,000 face-to-face meetings, the research estimated that BT has saved over £128m in the past year alone. Moreover, some 1.5m return journeys have also been avoided - a major bonus for staff that might otherwise be travelling the length and breath of the country for just an hour-long meeting.

Like many other organisations, BT realised that a heavy meetings culture often interrupted the flow of the working day, necessitating additional travel and often meaning an earlier start or later finish for already time-pressed staff.

But it found that conferencing generally requires less time investment in terms of participation. Two-thirds of BT users said their last call lasted less than an hour, making it easier for busy people to attend, and ensuring minimal draw on precious resources.

It also emerged that conferencing has a major impact on meeting quality and effectiveness. Because conferences can be set up and held virtually in an instant, the company has found that decisions can be made much more quickly than if everyone had to meet face-to-face.

Similarly, if documentation needs to be shared, web conferencing allows anyone with a PC and a phone line to see the same documents in real time.

The majority of conferencing at BT is done via audio conferencing, which makes use of conventional voice telephony. Video conferencing Ė used when some form of visual support is essential - is generally conducted from a dedicated videoconferencing suite.

And mirroring the growing trend towards more flexible working practices, BT has found that an increasing number of staff are also attaching videocams to their PC, allowing face-to-face contact from home.

While managing the cultural shift created this change in working practice has a major challenge, BT has worked with employees to encourage take-up of conferencing via e-mail campaigns and a comprehensive education programme, including training sessions and user material.

As a result, almost three-quarters of staff now say that it has become an essential part of their job, and a similar number believe that conferencing had increased their work performance.

Another significant impact of the move to virtual meetings has been a reduction in the time many staff spend travelling outside conventional working hours. As a consequence, some fifty seven per cent of BT staff told the researchers that use of conferencing technology was having a positive impact on their work-life balance.

"It saves huge amounts of time both in terms of travelling and because meetings tend to be more focused. Things get done quicker because a conference call can be organised weekly rather than holding monthly meetings," said one employee said.