Video conferencing is growing in popularity and is no longer just something for large corporates, with web conferencing now making it accessible to smaller companies too. In fact, data from IDC shows that a third of UK SMBs are already using it – and this figure is predicted to double over the next five years.

Naturally, cutting travel costs and saving time are key drivers here, but do these benefits come at the expense of quality? It’s an important question and one that can only be answered by looking at the evolution of virtual team communication over time – and by putting virtual teamwork to the test.

The passive aggressiveness of emoticons

In a day and age when teams in companies of all sizes work on multiple cross-organisational projects, having the tools at hand to allow virtual teams to work effectively can be business-critical. Over the last 10 years this has usually been achieved through a combination of e-mail, phone calls and conference calls – with instant messaging and online project management tools as later additions.

However, studies have shown that a reliance on “lean” communication channels such as e-mail almost inevitably leads to a loss in quality of communication, erosion of trust and ultimately team breakdown. Anyone who’s ever been angered by a smiley face in an e-mail, because it was “clearly passive aggressive”, will be able to imagine how team spirit can suffer under “lean” conditions.

Reintroducing a face-to-face element to virtual teamwork appears to be the logical conclusion. Video conferencing claims to do just that. But does it work?

Over the last two years, we at Brother have been discovering HD video conferencing as an everyday tool (rather than something for special occasions), to speak to our design department in Japan or sales office colleagues all over Europe.

It works for us – cutting through what used to be long e-mail conversations and allowing us to work more closely with colleagues overseas. But is it just us, or could video improve teamwork in any organisation? We decided to ask the experts.

Extreme virtual teamworking – the experiment

To find out for us, a research team at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany carried out an experiment that examined the impact of video on virtual teamwork (and put our webconferencing system OmniJoin through its paces!).

The experiments simulated typical, conflict-prone group decision-making processes, comparing e-mail/phone with video collaboration.

The Fraunhofer team found that the meeting experience in a video conference is profoundly different from phone calls/e-mail:

  • People are more engaged and participate more: 70.2% of participants said the willingness to engage in the team discussion and contribute to it was greater when using video conferencing
  • Discussion is more open because you can see others: 59.6% said visualisation of the object of the discussion and on-screen visibility of all participants (being able to see who wants to speak) allowed a more open discussion
  • Meetings are more relaxed because communication is more personal: 73.9% said the direct and personal communication through video led to a more positive and relaxed working atmosphere. 91.5% said a positive and relaxed working atmosphere was important to them when tackling complex team tasks.

The research team also unearthed a rather interesting effect video has on the way people work.

Use of e-mail and phone leads to high degrees of division of labour, re-enforcing internal hierachies and leaving little room for discussion, whereas video conferences resulted in a more collaborative approach. The surprise for us was that the meeting with video usually took about as long as the same communication with phone/e-mail – we’d expected it to be shorter.

At least for a one-off meeting, the difference between video collaboration and phone/e-mail lies more in the quality and acceptance of the work:

  • Video enables collaborative working; with phone and email the task felt more divided than united: 81% of participants said that working by phone and e-mail only resulted in division of labour
  • Decisions reached via video conferencing felt more like joint decisions: 73.9% said they felt the decision reached during the video conference felt more like a joint decision than the one reached via phone/e-mail
  • Meeting outcomes are better: 43.5% said the results of the teamwork were better when working over video conferencing than when working on the same task via phone and e-mail. The remaining 56.5% said the results were comparable in quality.

In short, video conferencing enables virtual teams to really work as one team – with input from everyone, proper discussion and joint decisions. But the impact of this on productivity is not immediately obvious and will be most acutely felt by the teams themselves. Which is why we predict that the move towards video will be driven from the grassroots – early-adopter teams and BYODers, who just want to make virtual teamwork work.