Without question, workforces are becoming more mobile and dispersed, reducing the window for team meetings where all key members can be physically present. Flexible-working policies, designed to reduce internal costs and to attract and retain staff seeking an improved work-life balance, add to the challenge. To be productive, they need to remain fully connected in to office functionality and able to communicate and collaborate as if they were in the same space.

It is no coincidence that Gartner has forecast that ‘telepresence’ (online meetings) will replace some 2.1m airline seats this year, and that by 2015 200m workers globally will be running video conferencing from their desktops.

Yet as more employees and contractors favour using their own technology and tools to manage their workloads, as seen in the growing ‘consumerisation of IT’ and ‘bring your own device’ trends, it is becoming harder for companies to manage the ways their staff connect and share with each other. To be fully inclusive, the software and services harnessed need to be readily accessible to all users, on all devices, in all locations.

Overriding restrictions

Existing conferencing tools don’t always allow this, because the content users want to share while connecting with colleagues remotely isn’t always accessible to them during an online audio or audio-visual meeting – especially if one or more of the participants are mobile. The more that users swap desktop PCs and even laptops for Apple iOS and Android devices, like tablets and smartphones, the danger is that they will drop out of the loop.

While online videoconferencing services have made versatile video connectivity a real option, they are really designed for ‘communication’ rather than deeper collaboration. For extended business use, conferencing services need to include secure file-sharing and shared whiteboard capabilities that enable organisations to mimic physical meetings to the greatest possible degree.

That means allowing remote team members to dial into their own PCs or laptops from any location if they need to, so that they can call up and tap into their full set of files and tools, enabling even the most spontaneous conference session to be maximised. So for example, if someone is connecting from a train, but they have left pertinent resources on an office machine, by activating their remote access ID they will be able to remotely access that machine and pull the content into play.

Beyond business

Next-generation web conferencing systems will be truly cross-platform, supporting users’ choices of access device and operating system. The potential of combining traditional conferencing capabilities with remote access, file-sharing and shared screen control, in a single, flexible and intuitive solution that’s accessible from any device, is immensely powerful.

For example, in the healthcare sector, it offers clinicians a chance to bring remote experts in on a difficult case –by providing them with access to the patient’s notes, any X-rays or photographic/video insight into the patient’s condition, so that they can discuss diagnoses and possible treatment.

It also paves the way for home-based rehabilitation, providing a means for hospital-based staff to remotely demonstrate exercises to a recovering patient after they have been discharged, and supervise them as they join in. In a teaching scenario, it opens up new possibilities for remote learning and extra-curricular school tuition, with every possible interaction scenario covered.

Marketing/design/advertising teams, meanwhile, could use the advanced collaboration facilities to brainstorm to a more productive degree, by allowing colleagues to virtually ‘reach through the screen’ and show exactly what they mean when suggesting a change to a design in progress.

Freedom through security

With robust security, provided through comprehensive encryption and other sophisticated anti-interception technologies, these sorts of facilities can be transformational – not just in allowing more staff at a company to work from home, or be more productive while travelling, but in enabling organisations to think more broadly about how they might employ and engage with talent in future.

Web- and video-conferencing tool vendors have long claimed that these scenarios would be possible, but it’s only now that the necessary level of sophistication exists to make it a reality. Real technology progress comes when tool vendors take time to truly understand how users work and the constraints that continue to limit them. Working without boundaries requires more freedom than suppliers have allowed until now, but happily that’s all about to change as the power continues to shift and users succeed in making their voices heard.