Why it’s virtually certain we prefer meeting in the flesh

British Prime Minister David Cameron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte take part in a video conference session. Photo: Jerry Lampen/AFP/Getty Images
British Prime Minister David Cameron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte take part in a video conference session. Photo: Jerry Lampen/AFP/Getty Images
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VIDEO-conferencing might save time and money, but workers still prefer to meet face to face when doing business, a study has found.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh discovered that business people were often put off using video-conferencing technology, despite the potential benefits, because they like to get out of the office and meet colleagues the old-fashioned way.

A study of virtual conferences found they had considerably smaller costs and carbon output, compared with real equivalents.

One international, three-day online event for 260 delegates, held by a global IT and services company, saved £160,000 and 280 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions compared with such an event in real life.

Another virtual conference, held by a university and involving 62 delegates, saved almost 35 tonnes of CO2 and cost almost £80,000 less than a real-life equivalent. Most savings were made by cutting out air travel.

However, the researchers found businesses are slow to adopt virtual meetings because many people prefer to meet face to face.

An analysis of attitudes towards virtual meeting spaces, such as Second Life, showed businesses thought they could be useful in some instances, for example training staff in practical skills.

But the perception of business travel as a perk of the job remained an important barrier to more widespread use.

Dr Dave Reay, of the University’s School of GeoSciences, who supervised the research, said: “While people are becoming very comfortable with communication tools, such as smart phones and Skype, technology can only take human contact so far. Virtual meetings will never replace all face-to-face meetings, but with money tight and carbon emissions rising, they can certainly play a greater role.”

A spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses said he thought there would always be a role for the traditional meeting. “I think people are starting to do as much as they can online, and a lot of that is to do with the fact that the cost of doing things online is dropping considerably.

“I remember when video- conferencing was very, very expensive, but these days we have all got it set up on our desks.

“That said, of course there are certain times when you have to meet people and talk to them face to face, particularly if you are meeting new clients or sitting down to thrash out the fine points of a deal.

The spokesman added: “The traditional meeting isn’t going to die, that’s for sure.”

However, he also pointed out that business travel was often really fun only for “people who don’t have to do it”.

He said: “Actually it often involves getting up early, hardly seeing your family and getting very tired.”

Dr Richard Dixon, director of WWF Scotland, said there was a “very real appetite” among big businesses to reduce the number of flights they take, with research showing 89 per cent of FTSE 350 companies expecting to cut business flights significantly in the coming decade.

“Staff who think they are going to hang on to this ‘perk’ are likely to be in for a surprise,” he said. “For many companies, travel is a major contributor to their carbon footprint.

“Cutting travel saves money on flights, hotels and unproductive travel time. In the current economic climate, and with increasing carbon accountability, looking at alternatives to flying is an easy win for businesses.”

The study is published in journal Carbon Management.