Business Travel

How To Use Telepresence More Effectively

Telepresence systems — essentially super-powered videoconferencing systems which offer images at high enough quality to make medical diagnoses or closely read body language — are becoming increasingly common. But how can you utilise them for maximum impact? We’ve gathered expert advice on how to make the most of telepresence.

“As soon as you start using telepresence you realise you can have meetings in a way you didn’t have previously because of the quality,” said Professor Leon Sterling, Dean of the Faculty of Information and Communication Technologies at Swinburne University Of Technology, which uses telepresence for a wide range of research and committee activities across its five distributed sites.

Most of these ideas come from a panel discussion on telepresence at the Cisco Live event in Melbourne this week, where several recent implementers of new telepresence systems discussed what they had learned while rolling out their systems. While many of these hints are specific to telepresence, the same general principles apply even you’re performing more basic videoconferencing using Skype, Google Hangouts or FaceTime. These don’t offer the same clarity of image, but that doesn’t mean following the same guidelines won’t improve communication.

Realise that people may have been scarred by earlier teleconferencing experiences. The first wave teleconferencing systems were expensive and unfriendly, forcing users into uncomfortable rooms and offering fiddly, complicated controls. For some users, those bad experiences can reduce enthusiasm for newer systems. ANZ’s private banking division has rolled out telepresence systems (branded ‘Wealth Presence’) in six locations since September last year. While the potential to allow customers to chat with finance experts in other cities had obvious appeal, anti-teleconferencing bias was definitely an issue.

“We were a little concerned at first about how people would feel about it,” said Angus Gilfillan, chief operating officer for ANZ Private Bank. “People have had experiences with teleconferencing that weren’t that good. But we’ve had fantastic acceptance from our clients. It enables us to have very high quality conversations with them at any time across the country.”

Professor Sterling agreed. “The ease of use factor has to be there. Videoconferencing facilities used to be fiddly to set up.”

Pay attention to what you look like. “The body dynamics of people change,” explains Professor Sterling. “We’re on a learning exposure of how you know who you see and who you don’t see.”

It also pays to clean your desk or meeting room before a call. “The key thing is being aware of what’s in the background, and not having mess or people moving around,” said ANZ’s Gilfillan.

Make sure your environment is secure. Telepresence needs the same security options as any other business application, and can often draw on the same facilities. “We have to have utmost privacy and security,” said Gilfillan. “All the telepresence units within Private are behind the ANZ firewall. That said, we find that with clients security hasn’t really been an issue We have private suites around the country which are very much tailored to this. They see it as more secure than telephone calls because they know who they are talking to.”

Use telepresence to expand into remote locations. “It’s been a great win for the business: you have happier clients, you’re not spending as much on travel, and you have better utilisation of your staff,” said Gilfillan. “We’re looking at a couple of other sites, particularly in more remote areas. We might have said ‘Darwin doesn’t have great potential for private banking’, but now it could happen.”

Recognise telepresence can be addictive. Once you’re used to telepresence, other options can seem less appealing. “Real-time collaboration is the key for us in the [university[ sector,” said Chris Hancock, CEO of academic research broadband provider AARNet, which has built a centralised telepresence system to allow easy interaction between researchers at different member universities. “It’s not good enough to have latency issues or non-immersive environments. Once you have the quality you can have one or two day meetings and not blink an eyelid.”

Evolve is a weekly column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers. Disclosure: Angus Kidman visited Melbourne as a guest of Cisco.