Koenig: Moving toward a virtual office

Looking at the best way to conduct meetings from outside the office

In 1999, real-time desktop communications tools were becoming a reality, with the Internet as the primary pathway. But the Internet wasn’t designed to provide security or privacy. I recognized a need for a communications application that could guarantee security from desktop to desktop.

I decided to build a software capability that would facilitate secure collaboration with a variety of features. After making such a decision, most companies would begin designing the product. But I paused to evaluate the intricacies of the collaboration process, which was too important to simply mimic. So, I conducted extensive behavioral research to ascertain how well an electronic tool could replicate various meeting activities.

My first step was to separate meetings by type. Most meetings can be classified into four types: discussion-only, discussion and document, document-focused, and presentations. These meetings typically occur across a desk, at a table, in a conference room or in other settings.

According to MCI’s “Meetings in America” report, employees spend 37 percent of their time in meetings. About 11 million meetings occur in the United States daily. Moreover, 82 percent of all meetings held in the office are two-person meetings.

In your experiences, how many one-on-one meetings have you had compared with larger meetings? Yet most online meeting providers overlook the most common real-world meeting situation and instead offer a product that isn’t conducive to the dynamic small-team environment.

I also found that a meeting becomes less effective with more participants because it is more susceptible to interruptions. Have you ever had someone enter a meeting and warn that a phone call may force the person to leave? Based on human nature, at least one participant feels guilty proceeding with the meeting and it’s usually placed on hold until the person returns. Or the meeting may continue, but upon this person’s return, another participant feels the need to stop and provide a recap.

In comparing in-person behavior to online meetings, I considered the number of participants, behavior characteristics and nature of meetings. After I identified these factors, I determined the parts of a meeting that can function electronically and still flow as naturally as they would in face-to-face meetings. For example, providing real-time audio and video in a desktop collaboration product permits each participant to see and hear others as clearly as in an in-person environment, which is important for all meetings.

I also identified what meeting aspects can’t adapt to electronic form. Certain situations require a live setting simply because it’s crucial to visually experience nonverbal communication. In a deposition or during labor negotiations, for example, direct contact is necessary to observe body language.

Likewise, during this behavior study, I discovered aspects of a meeting that software could enhance through electronic meetings rather than a live setting. What happens when you have an important document that needs to be reviewed by several executives? How many rounds of edits take place, and how much time do you spend?

I found that the process could be simplified using electronics, resulting in increased efficiency and more responsiveness from participants. With a desktop collaboration tool, you can invite each person you need to review a document into an online meeting and display the document on everyone’s computer screens to view, edit and discuss.

Another gem I discovered was the ability to ask people to join a meeting on-the-fly. If you have a question, you can simply invite someone to join the online meeting without going through the hassle of checking schedules and booking time. Earlier I described how interruptions sometimes paralyze live meetings. By comparison, interruptions can be minimized in an online meeting. If participants need to leave the meeting for a phone call, they could do so without interrupting the meeting. And they could read what they missed in a common text chat area, where meeting notes are recorded. Additionally, incorporating such features as instant messaging and secure file storage can streamline work and allow people to multitask during meetings.

Most importantly, I began to understand the power of incorporating security features directly into a product’s design. For example, the information shared during an online meeting can be secured by allowing the software’s primary user to set access limitations on these documents.

Therefore, unlike in-person meetings during which someone could be invited but not intended to view sensitive information, a desktop collaboration tool can account for previously granted permissions and determine who views the documents within the meeting.

This in-depth research was time-consuming but crucial to the viability of any product, especially in the government sector. After conducting my research of real-life business communications, I learned that I needed to develop a desktop collaboration tool that imitates in-person meetings. I also learned that security is mandatory for such tools, especially for government agencies.

In conclusion, the way we conduct business evolves, and technology products that work to improve communications will never become static. Furthermore, as our nation’s workforce becomes increasingly mobile and wireless, one of the most pressing issues for government is the need to secure communication methods. Therefore, industry experts must continue to push the envelope and develop more innovative and powerful tools. With thoughtful research and forward-thinking ideas, even the most unconventional communication methods can be secured.

Koenig is president and chief executive officer of VIACK Corp., which makes products that allow secure business meetings and communications over the Internet.

High-tech meetings

A report by MCI indicates that tools that were not used extensively five years ago, such as e-mail, have widespread acceptance today. The survey asked what technologies business professionals have used in the past year.

E-mail: 97%
Wireless phone: 80%
Audioconferencing: 78%
Instant messaging: 62%
Web conferencing: 44%
Videoconferencing: 40%
Webcasting: 33%

Source: MCI’s “Meetings in America” 2003 report

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