As a rapid response to coronavirus, millions of businesses have set staff up to work from home. Video conferencing apps such as Zoom, GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts have seen record numbers of new users sign up over recent weeks.
However, as we move from crisis response mode into a more settled “new-normal”, this is a good time to evaluate the initial choices made. Did you opt for the right meeting technology? How is it working for you? What pinch points have you found?
While free consumer-grade tools might have served small businesses well enough in emergency lockdown, let’s check if they’re fit for purpose as the UK recovers and rebuilds over the coming months. Because, when employees are eventually allowed back into workplaces, we might find some elements of virtual working will fuel recovery better than slipping straight back into old practices.
In this article, we explore the ten factors small and mid-sized businesses might need to consider when choosing a video-conferencing service to meet your needs post-coronavirus.
1. Call size and scalability
Have you found your virtual meetings cut short or limited in terms of participants? Most free or basic options limit meeting size or duration. Going forward, think about the number of people you will want to connect to on a regular basis. Are you planning to host larger online events or webinars with customers? Will you need to deliver training sessions remotely to a dispersed sales team? Are you thinking about introducing a permanent flexible working policy? All these are good reasons to upgrade your platform to a paid or pro version.
2. Call quality and reliability
As we get used to working in lockdown, we’ve all been patient with dropped calls or poor connections. But in future, would the call quality you’ve been experiencing really come up to scratch? For mission-critical video meetings with clients, or difficult negotiations with suppliers? If you hold video calls with prospects, poor call quality and reliability can give an unprofessional impression. Frequent loss of connection during video or audio conferencing not only makes meetings last longer but the distraction can also dent your productivity.
3. Screen sharing
Have you tried to deliver a presentation over your video conferencing platform yet? How easy was it to share your slides or documents on screen? Just like with in-person presentations, visual aids make communication clearer, more engaging and more impactful. Just watching someone on screen for 20 minutes makes it hard to focus, hard to understand the detail and much harder to remember afterwards. Integrated screen sharing lets you present decks and share files in real time during meetings, without the need to email documents or tell people when to turn the page.
4. Chat and email
Away from our usual workplaces, one of the things we’ve all been trying hard to maintain is collaboration and email is next to useless for this. Remote conferencing tools with integrated chat are probably the closest we can get. Some platforms are more seamless than others, making it easy for people to switch between text and video without interrupting workflow. Chat is also a good way to gather questions during a presentation without stopping the speaker. Adding email into the mix might be useful for sales and marketing teams, who want to be as responsive as possible to customers.
5. Calendar integration
How straightforward has it been to schedule virtual meetings with your team? Are you still having to call or email people to find mutually convenient times before you can set appointments up? If so, streamlined calendar integration might be an important feature for you to look for if you upgrade. Some tools show you colleagues’ availability and make the scheduling process effortless. Being able to schedule, start and join a video meeting directly from your calendar means you don’t have to open a separate window or app and because participants receive “meeting has started” alerts, they tend to turn up on time!
6. Bring your own device
This might not trouble you much in lockdown – with most staff in one place on one device – but when we all get out and about again, you might need to think about device compatibility. In an ideal world, your guests, customers and prospects shouldn’t have to download an app or create an account before they can take part in your video call. Some services allow people to simply join from their mobile, tablet or laptop with a single click. It might seem obvious but it’s worth checking that your platform works just as well with Mac, PC, Android or iPhone – any device in fact.
While there’s always an element of risk with any online app, there are some simple steps you can take to maximise privacy in video conference platforms. Just look in your platform’s settings. If you’re using Zoom, there are some Zoom-specific measures. Evaluate the specific security requirements of your business and assess your risk tolerances before you choose a video conferencing provider. Ask providers about encryption, authentication steps, passwords and lockable meeting rooms. You’ll also need to make sure your own digital hygiene habits are robust too.
Research shows that within an hour of a meeting, most people have forgotten up to half of the information shared. Within a day, they’ve forgotten around 70 per cent, and within a week 90 per cent is gone. A lot of businesses are now recording important meetings as a standard practice, as a memory-jogger or for reference after the meeting. Recording functionality is also useful for virtual interviews, training new employees and sharing project developments with absent team members. Good video conferencing software will offer single-click recording from within the call.
9. Tech support
Many small businesses are starting a long and uphill phase of recovery and renewal. If you think remote meetings are a way for you to rebuild your business – by cutting overheads or driving efficiency – that makes video conferencing a mission-critical tool. If you’re using one of the free or basic software packages, technical difficulties could end up causing more downtime than productivity gains. Get a package with a good SLA or support contract: a helpline for your users to call if they’re having technical difficulties or someone to talk to if the tool keeps letting you down.
10. Price and ROI
Before the coronavirus crisis, data was beginning to show how companies can save thousands of pounds if employees spend more time working remotely. Some of the factors involved are:
- Reduced office space and utility bills
- Reduced travel time and increased productivity
- Staff retention through increased flexibility
- Fewer sick days due to better work-life balance
Best of the rest: useful web resources
Still not sure if remote working will work for you long term?
An online guide from NI Business can help you decide. NI Business is the official channel for business advice and guidance in Northern Ireland but much of their advice is relevant to SMEs everywhere. This guide covers everything from the pros and cons of having employees working from home, the types of work and skills best suited to home-working, technology, management and contracts.
Not sure which video conference software is right for you?
Remember that most comparison site publishers take an affiliate fee for including video conferencing packages in their reviews. They’re never 100 per cent impartial. It’s best to review a few sites, make a shortlist and try the software out for yourself. Here are three publishers that include a good spread of features and might make a good starting point: