Recently, I had the chance to chat with Michael Frendo, Executive Vice President, Worldwide Engineering for Polycom, about a subject important to both of us: the future of communications in a virtual world. Polycom makes the phones that inhabit conference rooms around the world, as well as video and other “voice and content solutions,” for organizations worldwide, so they’re in the virtual communications trenches everyday. Michael has thought a lot, accordingly, about how we humans can best adapt to the new world of mixed virtual and face-to-face communications we live in. Our conversation follows.
Nick: What’s the best thing about the virtual communication world we live in now? What’s the worst thing?
Michael: The best thing is that doors have been opened to experience and you can see places in the world that you could only dream about seeing before. You can travel anywhere without leaving your desk/office. With virtual communication, you can communicate across time zones, have a flexible work schedule and be more productive. It’s far better than sitting in traffic. Last summer, the Texas Transportation Institute estimated Americans spend 42 hours a year sitting in a car on their way to and from work. Couldn’t those 42 hours be better spent innovating, ideating and creating?
Not only does virtual communication open the doors to more flexible work experiences, but it can be a benefit to the employer. That flexibility will also translate into opportunities to hire the best personnel, no matter the location.
Nick: And the worst thing?
Michael: The worst thing is that as an industry, while we’ve made the technology far easier and consistent than it has been, it’s still too hard. We need to make it drop-dead simple for all users. There’s also a bit of isolation involved. A shared experience is always preferred. If you’re watching a great movie in a theater with friends, the experience is different than if we both streamed a movie separately on our tablets. We also need to sometimes turn virtual communication off. Yes, you can work with people all around the world, but as it turns out we aren’t generally all awake at the same time without time shifting.
Nick: How do employees and teams create a sense of connection and esprit when they don’t meet face to face?
Michael: I’ve stopped saying “it’s nice to finally put the face with the name” when meeting someone in person because I already know so much about them by using video. It’s not just about sharing content on the screen, it’s about making a real life connection with someone without sitting at the same table. I can read facial expressions, share jokes and learn about them simply by seeing tchotchkes in the background – pictures, places they’ve visited, etc. You begin to develop a rapport with them. Video is much more personal way to interact than that of a disembodied voice on a conference phone. Personally and professionally, I’ve grown closer to my colleagues because of video.
Nick: Let’s dig a little more into video conferencing. Obviously, it puts the visual field back in, the part that an audio conference leaves out. But why doesn’t it feel like being in the same room — what’s still missing?
Michael: It’s fair to say that nothing completely replaces face-to-face communication. Face to face in the same room is still the best way to connect with other humans. I think key things that are missing in videoconferencing are the cues that our peripheral vision and other senses pick up that are harder to integrate into a video call – like someone’s subtle perfume or sharing the same food or the sense that someone next to you is leaning away from the conversation and has checked out. But part of that depends on the quality of the video and audio – and the set up in the room. If you’re on a small screen, it’s harder to see the expressions. If you have larger screens in a conference room, you either look at the video screen, or at the people or a person in the room. We argue that a 360-degree-view of all participants is extremely important in communication. You can see all participates and read each one to ensure they’re engaged. That’s so critical to being productive and ensuring everyone is on the same page.
Nick: If you can’t be physically present, how can you wow the other people in the room? How can you be charismatic? How can you be powerfully present despite the physical absence?
Michael: There’s very little difference here in how you project versus being in person. Start by making sure that your environment isn’t distracting and that what you are wearing conveys confidence on video. There’s a reason broadcast journalists wear what they wear to look good on the screen. Look at the camera – that’s where you’ll deliver eye contact.
Nick: Great tips, thanks. Now, here’s a question I’ve been dying to ask you: why do people tend to shout on video conferences?
Michael: The same reason our grandparents shouted on the phone – they are trying to compensate for what feels to them as a physical divide. Like, “that microphone can’t possibly be catching what I’m saying here.” Once you get used to it, it feels more natural, and the yelling stops. The microphones are very sensitive. Someone on the far end can pick up subtleties including a deep sigh in the back of a long conference room.
Nick: I’ll try to stop sighing so much, thanks. What’s the most effective combination of virtual tools to communicate an important idea to your team?
Michael: The communications industry is much like the energy industry. While we’d like to think there is one cure-all for our nation’s energy needs, the reality is we need all sources at this juncture to exist. Communication is a lot like that. If you’re on a video call and the picture fails, you can still talk. If the audio fails, you walk. High quality video is nothing without exceptional audio quality. So having an experience that’s exceptional for all members on that call is integral. Second, having a solution that easily allows you to share content and work on a document simultaneously is a major need. It’s so much easier to be able to share and work on a document together as opposed to emailing updates back and forth because it’s less time consuming and there’s little issue around version control. So in short, it must be a combination for your meetings to be productive.
Nick: What does the future hold for the workplace in this sense — will we continue to be virtual, and how will that change? Will we all have holograms of ourselves?
Michael: I believe video will get more and more pervasive, and everything about it will become much simpler for us to use even as the quality becomes more and more like being there in person. I’d love to be able to transmit a hologram of myself to my dev team in Austin, Texas. Only I’d make myself taller so they’d be a little more impressed.
Nick: Thanks, Michael.
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