"Hello, who just joined?” – the 25-year battle for better remote meetings

Remote meetings have become part and parcel of daily business life. And yet, as we head into 2017, so many of us remain stuck in twentieth century technology – dialling in to audio-only conference calls with numbers and codes, and perhaps emailing out the slides if we want to share something visual with guests. What makes this even stranger is that we find dial-in conferencing so frustrating. Why are we struggling to move on from legacy dial-in and how can we overcome this inertia?

A brief history

Real-time communications between remote groups is nothing new. Native tribes in Africa, New Guinea and South America used drumbeats; the Ancient Chinese army and Native American Indians used smoke signals; and the British used chains of beacons from Plymouth to London to defend against the Spanish Armada. Even today, three puffs of smoke alert fellow scouts that the sender is in serious trouble, and the papal conclave uses ‘fumata bianca’ to tell the world of a new pope. 

Technology – from electro-mechanical to electronic to software – has clearly changed the game in modern day remote business meetings. Perhaps the most pivotal moment for the mainstream adoption of the conference call was the arrival of the so-called ‘reservationless’ meeting during the ‘90s. Users no longer had to book meetings in advance, specifying the exact time, duration and number of participants. Instead, they could hold meetings anytime, without reservation. Conference calling usage soared, reaching 165 billion minutes last year.

Can’t live with them; can’t live without them

The phenomenal growth of remote meetings makes sense. Business has become increasingly international, and yet it simply isn’t practical or cost-effective to keep jumping on planes. Email and instant messaging tools get us so far, but sometimes there’s just no substitute for a live conversation. Hearing someone’s voice adds an extra level of honesty, insight and nuance to a conversation, which in turn can foster better rapport and trust. People still want to do business with people.

So, we must surely all love conference calls, right? Not so much. Conference calls are widely perceived as cumbersome at best and downright painful at worst. Search for ‘conference call’ on YouTube and the top result is ‘A Conference Call in Real Life’ – a hilarious parody by US comedians, Tripp and Tyler, on the familiar frustrations: continually asking who just joined, late joiners, distracting background noise, or trying to figure out why guests can’t view their screen, to name but a few. Its 14 million viral views demonstrate how the frustrations resonate with so many of us.

Why not just use a more up-to-date tool?

Why do we continue to just put up with these frustrations? After all, there are numerous more capable software products that have come to market. Why are so many people still just dialling in to audio-only conference calls rather than using these latest and ‘greatest’ tools?

Risk aversion. Hosting conference calls is a highly risk averse activity and for many of us, this just doesn’t sit well with the laundry lists of features presented in leading web conferencing tools. It’s fine for more specialist users, such as company trainers or IT staff. They need these myriad features and if that means going to training sessions to feel comfortable, then so be it. By contrast, the mainstream majority shies away from the complexity and has neither the time nor inclination to attend training sessions. It’s not just that the features don’t add value; more than that, they detract from the value. Not wanting to risk looking foolish in front of clients or senior colleagues, they resort to the safety of the devil they know – dial-in audio and all its associated frustrations.

So, the mainstream majority are really the silent, suffering majority. What’s more, this has been going on for so long now that they’ve come to internalise these frustrations and have essentially given up on believing a better way might one day prevail. Enterprise buyers have followed suit and have come to see conferencing as a commodity. After all, how is one set of dial-in numbers and access codes better than any other?

Overcoming the inertia

What a poor state of affairs for something so important! It’s clear now why the inertia exists, but that doesn’t make it okay. What can be done about it? What can technology do differently to change the status quo and help the silent majority have a less miserable time. The following three approaches in emerging best-in-class products are now changing the game for the silent majority.

  • Suitably focused
    A one-size-fits-all approach – while understandably tempting – has been the underlying cause of the lack of technology adoption in the remote meetings space by the silent majority. The fundamental start point to changing this status quo is to recognise the silent majority needs a product that is designed specifically for them. They are the majority after all, so they’re well worth the investment.
  • All about the user experience
    The silent majority has neither the time nor inclination to attend training sessions on how to use a remote meetings tool. They want a streamlined product that just works, where they’re almost guided through the meeting experience. Important, mainstream features need to presented clearly and intuitively; specialist features should not be presented at all. For the silent majority, less – done well – is more, and so drives adoption and usage.
  • Plays nicely with others
    It’s only natural that in today’s world of easily accessible cloud tools and mobile apps, that people will naturally seek out the best tool for the job in hand. This is true across the categories in enterprise collaboration. The productivity enhancements justify the proliferation of tools; but the proliferation is an issue nevertheless. Increasingly, therefore, best-in-class tools will be those that are not just great at what they do, but also that integrate well with other tools that are great at different things. Category winners will play nicely with winners in other categories.

Conclusion

While people still want to do business with people, remote meetings are here to stay. And whether you’re creating a first impression or negotiating a multi-party deal, making everyday decisions or simply connecting with colleagues around the globe, they’re too frequent, and very often too important, to settle for the dominant status quo of frustrating dial-in audio conferencing.

The good news – finally – is that 25 years of conferencing pain need be no more for silent, suffering majority. Important, day-to-day remote meetings are no longer a commodity. That was premature.

Steve Flavell, Co-CEO and Co-Founder, LoopUp
Image source: Shutterstock/Pressmaster