For years the idea that videoconferencing can cut travel costs has been a strong selling point for the technology. Now that companies are seeking to cut their carbon footprints, with travel being a significant factor, the impetus to curb travel is only getting stronger.
Unified communications technologies are now making it easier than ever to implement videoconferencing, along with complementary technologies including web conferencing and instant messaging. Still, it’s rare that we see customers putting actual numbers behind the equation and detailing just how much travel they’ve avoided thanks to videoconferencing.
That’s why this ComputerWeekly.com headline caught my eye: “Virgin cuts travel costs by 20% after rolling out unified communications.” (Well that, and the irony of an airline cutting travel costs, although it turned out to be a different Virgin business unit.) As the story explains:
Virgin Media claims to have cut its travel and expenses costs by 20% after introducing technology allowing employees to communicate and collaborate more effectively from the office or on the move.
The company, which supplies broadband, TV and phone services, has invested in video conferencing and instant messaging technologies to link employees across Virgin’s 200 UK offices.
Virgin Media, which had a turnover of £1bn in 2013, says the move is saving employees up to five hours a week in travelling time.
The result is that employees are more engaged and have a better work/life balance, said Colin Miles, director of IT Infrastructure & Enterprise Services.
“People were having to work longer hours to maintain the same productivity, or productivity was dropping because people could not work the extra hours," he said. "Now we have found that people are more engaged through having the ability to conduct a lot more meetings remotely."
Microsoft, not surprisingly, is likewise using UC in part to reduce travel and has put some numbers behind its reductions, according to this recent piece in The New York Times:
On a single afternoon recently, Rob Bernard had a meeting in Kenya, one in Ireland and one in Finland — three countries and two continents in less than 24 hours.
But he never left his desk in the United States. “I’m able to do that digitally now, instead of physically, and that saves massive amounts of time, massive amounts of carbon emissions and makes me far more productive because I’m not trying to figure out all these time zones with my body clock,” said Mr. Bernard, the chief environmental strategist at Microsoft.
By using digital conferencing technologies like Skype, Lync and Polycom’s telepresence solutions, Microsoft says it has been able to reduce travel in its field offices by 59 million miles in the last fiscal year alone.
Such virtual meetings are the ultimate in green travel. “After all, the greenest business trip is the one you don’t take,” said Joel Makower, founder and executive editor of GreenBiz Group Inc., a media company focusing on the business of sustainability.
Good point, Mr. Makower. And while the story doesn’t detail how much 59 million miles not traveled comes out to in dollars, the IRS reimburses companies 56 cents per mile for each mile driven for business purposes. That would translate to more than $33 million. I know, many of those miles would’ve been by air. Just ball parking here, but a low-cost round-trip flight from Boston to LA would be around $490, covering about 5,200 miles, which translates to a cost of 10.6 cents per mile. Even at that rate, Microsoft saved more than $6.2 million – and you can bet flights to Kenya, Ireland and Finland would be significantly more expensive.
Driving Travel Costs Down, Productivity Up with Video and UC
Microsoft also has one of the few case studies I was able to find that puts any kind of number to the savings from videoconferencing and UC, even if it was vague:
Adventist Health System has saved millions of dollars in travel costs by using videoconferences to supplement in-person meetings. The healthcare organization anticipates additional savings as it increases the use of Lync for videoconferences.
The case study also quotes Mark Dunkerley, Messaging Services Team Lead at Adventist Health System, who points to another capability that UC brings to the travel equation:
Another valuable feature is the increased convenience in participating in meetings from remote locations. “Many employees travel and want to be able to join meetings when they’re on the road and view shared content,” says Dunkerley. “Lync 2013 supports this kind of mobile meeting participation very well. We have thousands of web conferences going on all the time—roughly 8,000 a month—and the ability to take part in these from a computer, tablet, or smartphone is wonderful.”
That, of course, leads to an entirely different discussion, which is trying to put a number on the productivity gains from all those web conferences. (To be fair, you’d also have to subtract the productivity losses for all the people who were busy checking their fantasy teams during some of those conferences – we’ve all been there.) That may be more difficult to get your arms around than travel.
But dollars and cents aside, eliminating travel is a very good thing from an environmental standpoint, especially air travel. The last word goes to Mr. Makower, from the NYT piece:
For all the efforts around greening business travel and commuting, however, the immense carbon footprint of air travel can erase many of these gains.
“At my 16-person firm here in Oakland, Calif., almost no one drives to work,” said Mr. Makower. “We have huge windows, so the lights are out. It takes us a month to go through a ream of paper. But the minute I jump on a plane to go someplace, all of that is meaningless.”
What are you seeing in your organization? Is video making a difference in your thinking about travel? In what situations does it substitute for face to face? Let us know your thoughts.