In an effort to be lean and effective, government agencies are striving for “the office of the future.” Videoconferencing and teleworking, once seen as niche and highly technical, are now making real headway in public sector use.
Video appeals to public sector organizations that wish to reduce travel and real estate costs, support environmental efforts, introduce distance learning, improve productivity, better recruit talent and increase interagency collaboration. Video is taking its place as part of an integrated communications model that includes email, phone, instant message and live meetings, making it possible to choose the ideal mode of communication for any situation.
The environment is a key factor in the uptake of videoconferencing. Governments across Canada and around the world are reacting to the changing climate. In September 2007, British Columbia, for example, announced it was taking measures to mandate greenhouse gas reduction targets and provide legal tools to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Travel reduction and teleworking through videoconferencing were cited as weapons in the government’s arsenal to combat climate change.
The surprising strength of videoconferencing is that although it tends to be deployed with a single purpose in mind, often travel reduction, it often opens the door to new opportunities. For example, one senior government executive uses video conferencing for frequent meetings with his direct reports all across Canada. From Ottawa he is able to reach out in a meaningful way to his team, and can do so with increased frequency without additional travel.
But videoconferencing has become much more than a tool to reduce travel expenses and the accompanying carbon emissions. It allows for greater collaboration and an enhanced work-life experience, and not just for senior staff. Today, the simplicity of videoconferencing helps to make teleworking a real and meaningful prospect in the public sector.
In sight, in mind
Until now, teleworking has faced a number of obstacles. There’s an instinctive concern from many staff that teleworking reduces the opportunity for recognition and advancement. A survey of US federal government managers conducted by the Telework Exchange found that the greatest inhibiters to telework programs remain fear of not having control over employee activities and productivity concerns. This fear comes from the idea that “out of sight is out of mind.” But, according to the Journal of Corporate Recruiting, by 2009 one quarter of the world’s workforce will work remotely, either at home, in small offices, or as mobile workers. How can these two notions be reconciled? By using technology to ensure teleworkers never have to be out of sight.
With today’s videoconferencing technology, and the emerging use of telephones with video capacity, the teleworker is no longer a faceless voice across the phone. Instead, a teleworker can remain a trusted and contributing member of the team. According to a survey conducted by Tandberg and the global research firm RoperASW, 90% of people feel video builds higher trust than other forms of communication, and 81% say it reduces confusion and misunderstandings that can stem from phone, email or instant messages. Far from being a career hurdle, teleworking can enable government staff to find a better work-life balance and maintain personal priorities while maintaining productivity.
In fact, videoconferencing can actually improve productivity by helping to accelerate decision-making. Agencies are better able to share knowledge between subject matter experts in disparate areas. Or, in the case of recruitment, to seek out experts no matter where they are. Organizations are using their existing videoconferencing capabilities to eliminate the roadblock of geography and simply employ the best individual for any job.
In fact, the Public Service Commission uses videoconferencing systems for executive recruitment as part of its mandate to assist in interagency shared services. This may be the most exciting impact of video conferencing in the public sector – it is enabling collaboration between agencies as never before.
The speed and efficiency of inter-agency videoconferencing can be a powerful tool. Imagine a hypothetical epidemic due to contaminated food. Very quickly, experts across the country would need to collaborate, including a variety of agencies: Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Border Services, Agriculture and others. Visual communications would allow these multiple agencies to quickly communicate with a degree of clarity not available in simple voice or emails, but also simultaneously share necessary notes, diagrams and charts. And, in the case of a pandemic, videoconferencing can protect workers and permit collaboration even when travel is restricted or experts are under quarantine.
But it will not stop there. With the move from collaboration within an agency to interagency collaboration, the groundwork is now being laid for an entirely different realm of government communication and services.
Over the next five years, today’s investments in videoconferencing infrastructure will find a new killer application: putting a face on government. Video will serve as an opportunity to deliver service and connect directly with the public.
Today’s investments in videoconferencing are having an impact. They could give rise to a Canada were every citizen is just steps away from Parliament Hill and every government executive and elected official is within a virtual arm’s reach of his or her constituents. And that’s an investment worth making.
Boris Koechlin is president of TANDBERG Canada. He has been a leader in the visual communications, telephony and voice-over-IP industries (firstname.lastname@example.org).