In 2003 when SARS first hit Asia, businesses introduced travel bans to protect staff and prevent the disease from spreading to uninfected staff.
At the end of 2019, Wuhan, a city in China’s Hubei province announced that it had discovered a new respiratory infectious disease, COVID-19 or what was first called the novel-coronavirus-2.
As it spread globally, businesses and governments worldwide began to issue travel advisories banning work teams and individuals, especially those who had been to China recently, from mingling and possibly cross-infecting each other.
As concerns and the number of infections grew, it began impacting more than just work travel. Global events like GSMA’s annual Mobile World Congress began to see companies like Amazon, LG, and Sony dropping out with the event finally being cancelled altogether.
But banning travel is one thing.
Businesses and employees still need to work and communicate with each other. While using the telephone is sufficient, there are solutions and vendors have developed tools that can make things easier.
Sami Ammous, Managing Director ASEAN at Avaya said that back in 2003, when SARS first hit, videoconferencing required the use of dedicated rooms and facilities; now nearly everyone has access to videoconferencing on their smartphone or tablet. “We are far more comfortable with the technology, it is easier and cheaper to use, and there are added features like session recording and document sharing, which has increased the benefits of videoconferencing,” he added.
FOR THE CONTINUATION OF BUSINESS IN TIMES OF EMERGENCY, COMPANIES MAY NEED TO ARRANGE FOR THEIR EMPLOYEES TO WORK REMOTELY. SEAMLESS COMMUNICATION IS THEREFORE ESSENTIAL TO ENSURING MINIMAL DISRUPTION TO BUSINESS OPERATIONS.
Charlie Chan, Chief of Enterprise Business Group, StarHub said that StarHub is receiving increasing customer requests for collaboration tools (web and video conferencing) and services that allow fixed voice communications for their employees to be contactable at their fixed line number while working remotely. However he cautioned that videoconferencing tools will not fully replace business travel as face-to-face deal negotiations and closures are still required.
According to Bryan Lee, Logitech’s Video Conferencing Category & Business Manager for South East Asia, the industry has moved from the expensive, complex video conferencing hardware systems, into cloud-based platforms on subscription models, such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Google Hangouts. “While videoconferencing cannot replace face-to-face meeting completely, but it is the next best option available,” Lee said, “On top of that, there are productivity and cost-saving benefits to consider.”
But understanding the real business needs is something often overlooked said Samir Sayed, Managing Director, ASEAN & Korea at Poly. He cautioned that too many organizations just try to just throw money at videoconferencing solutions without taking the time to figure out their firm’s actual needs.
Tech vendors aren’t the only companies supporting businesses affected by the travel ban.
StarHub announced that the SMB customers of StarHub would receive a free subscription to the softphone app of its cloud telephony solution, from mid-February until 1 September 2020. Chan said, “For the continuation of business in times of emergency, companies may need to arrange for their employees to work remotely. Seamless communication is therefore essential to ensuring minimal disruption to business operations.”
MOVING ON FROM VOICE
The problem with voice Lee said was that it often failed to engage as it lacked visual cues. This often let to attendees to do something else rather than concentrate on the person taking, When one is on video, there is a higher tendency for them to focus on the meeting, instead of multitasking.
But, Lee said, many companies are not equipped with videoconferencing solutions that allows them to seamlessly communicate within, and outside of their organisation. Solutions like Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google Hangout are some examples which allow internal and external communication.
When moving from a free to a paid videoconferencing solution, Ammous said that the suitability of meetings for a videoconference is driven more by the nature of the meeting than the number of people attending. “For instance, if you are providing training or a technical update, a session where only one or two people are speaking, then you can have a large audience attend the videoconference.”
Free solutions may work reasonably well for very small businesses, Chan said, but mid-sized businesses tend to use more sophisticated enterprise solutions like WebEx. A key differentiator of paid services is the ability to offer a direct call option for the audio connection, he explained. “While a web conference can be supported even over a poor network connection, a poor voice connection will result in ineffective and frustrating conversations,” Chan said.
Chan also cautioned businesses not to try to have too many attendees in a single call. “The practical limit is generally 15-30 users. Above that range, the effectiveness of the meeting drops significantly. Videoconferencing platforms generally will show only the speaker or up to about 6 parties. It is noted that the quality of the video streaming is dependent on the connectivity that the users subscribe to as the data consumption is more intensive. More often than not, users will disable the video for a better quality voice and/or document sharing experience,” he said.
But being a business means that security is always a business concern. Having a third party listening in on calls, the integrity of data as it is being shared or even where the data is stored are all common concerns.
However, enterprise grade videoconferencing solutions provide better security than those used by consumers. The moderator will have more visibility to which parties are on a call and some solutions also allow the moderator to kick out unrecognised individuals and lock a conference so that no one else can join. Some organisations have concerns about data sovereignty, as data on most cloud services are not retained in Singapore. For those customers, on-premise videoconferencing solutions can be obtained, allowing companies to retain full control of the conferencing environment.
IS IT HERE FOR GOOD?
But is videoconferencing here for the long run?
While there are signs that the technology is increasing its foothold in businesses, mankind unfortunately has a very short memory.
Going back to SARS, for example, while business travel was curtailed during the period the virus was active, it soon returned to normal levels once fears had died. Things could be different this time around.
Curbs on travel being issued by governments are increasingly suggesting videoconferencing as a replacement tool. A report by New Center from Korea, The Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, or KOTRA is helping Korean businesses keeping communication going with videoconferencing and KOTRA itself is planning to expand its video counseling software so it can hold up to 50 meetings at the same time. The US Center for Disease Control reminded businesses to ensure they have the information technology and infrastructure needed to support multiple employees who may be able to work from home.
CHAN ALSO CAUTIONED BUSINESSES NOT TO TRY TO HAVE TOO MANY ATTENDEES IN A SINGLE CALL. THE PRACTICAL LIMIT IS GENERALLY 15-30 USERS. ABOVE THAT RANGE, THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THE MEETING DROPS SIGNIFICANTLY.
Ammous from Avaya said that COVID-19 and SARS are similar in the way they impacted business travel as both saw companies lean on videoconferencing to handle disruptions to physical meetings. But he added that videoconferencing has come a very long way since 2003. It is lower cost, higher quality and easier to use on multiple devices.
The combination of the broader impact on travel and the ubiquity of conferencing solutions will lead companies to rethink their need for travel in general, and whether technology can become the preferred method of collaboration rather than a stop-gap measure.