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The Early Impact of Desktop Videoconferencing on Meeting Activity: A Case Study

Christina Sue-Chan

November 1993

OTP-93-09 Ontario Telepresence Project

The Early Impact of Desktop Videoconferencing on Meeting Activity: A Case Study


In April 1993, desktop videoconferencing technology was installed in INDIGO, a university-based, government-funded organization mandated with the task of facilitating the transfer of technology from academia to industry. The Ontario Telepresence Project was charged with the task of studying the effects of this technology on the working habits of employees in INDIGO.

INDIGO was the first major field trial of the desktop videoconferencing technology. It is a small company with two sites 100 kilometers apart in southern Ontario. Seven employees were equipped with a simple desktop videoconferencing system which had the added feature of providing a virtual window to the exterior of the building housing the two offices.

The original purpose of one of the research studies was to examine the impact of the technology on employee productivity. The attempt to devise metrics for assessing employee productivity proved problematic. Studies conducted on the service sector and knowledge-worker industries that have assessed the productivity gains resulting from the introduction of information technology have shown little improvement and even decline in productivity even though more money is being spent on technology each year (e.g., Due, 1993; Blackwell, 1992; Stiller, 1988). This seeming "productivity paradox" (Loveman, cited in Due, 1993), can be explained in two ways.

Productivity studies have traditionally occurred in manufacturing industries, where there are tangible, concrete units of inputs and outputs. This manufacturing concept of productivity, defined as outputs divided by inputs, cannot be applied directly to service or knowledge-worker industries since the outputs of these industries are intangible; hence, traditional economic measures of productivity, when applied to the service and knowledge-worker sectors, yield paradoxical results as noted in the productivity studies.

To solve the dilemma of measuring knowledge worker productivity, organizational researchers suggested a management-by-objectives system based on the goal setting theory of Locke (1968). In this system, the productivity or performance of employees is measured in terms of their ability to achieve the performance goals set for them at the beginning of a given performance period. Given the short duration of the study and the confidentiality of information on employees' performance requirements and expectations, an assessment of the impact of desktop video conferencing on the employees' ability to achieve their performance targets was unfeasible

Related to the problem of intangible service sector and knowledge-worker outputs, the actual work of these types of workers can, perhaps, best be described as a series of processes rather than as discrete units of output. Thus, for, example, employees of INDIGO spend a significant portion of their daily work day meeting, formally and informally, with co-workers to share information, resolve problems related to work tasks, provide social support, make decisions, plan upcoming activities, and so on. All of these activities help them to achieve their performance goals which, in turn, allows them to achieve the goals and objectives of the organization.

The approach taken for the productivity survey discarded the traditional manufacturing concept of productivity. Instead, an attempt was made to assess the effectiveness, efficiency and quality of business processes in INDIGO. This conceptual framework was used by Bell Canada in 1988 when it began its productivity improvement program which focused on quality improvement as well as traditional efficiency and cost improvement components of productivity (Armitage and Atkinson, 1990).

Time constraints led to a focus on only one of these business processes. Studies have shown that managerial level employees spend most of their time in meetings (Kiesler and Sproull, 1992). It was reasoned that the meeting process was the most critical process for INDIGO employees' achievement of their performance targets and hence, for INDIGO's accomplishment of its goals, objectives and mission to facilitate the transfer of technology from academia to industry.


The study sought to determine the effectiveness, efficiency and quality of the meetings held with and without the desktop videoconferencing technology. For the study, the effectiveness of meetings (i.e., are meetings appropriate for achieving a given communication objective) was determined by comparing meetings using desktop videoconferencing technology against those not using the technology on the following dimensions:

1. The percentage of meetings generating initiatives;

2. The number of decisions made in meetings

The efficiency of meetings (i.e., are meetings conducted in such a way that their objectives are met) was assessed by comparing meetings using desktop videoconferencing technology against those not using the technology on the following dimension:

The percentage of meetings achieving their stated objectives

The quality of meetings (i.e., do participants believe that the content and process of the meetings are in conformance with their expectations) was assessed by comparing meetings using desktop videoconferencing technology against those not using the technology on the following dimension:

The percentage of meetings achieving outcomes conforming to participants' expectations

Additionally, the survey also sought to ascertain the nature, formal or informal, of the meetings for which the technology was being used and whether for two specific types of problems, work task and morale problems, the usage of desktop videoconferencing in meetings to resolve these two types of problems had any impact on successful problem resolution.

For the study, a meeting was defined as,

Any situation in which two or more people are talking or exchanging words interactively

Formal meetings were defined as,

Meetings that are held to achieve a pre-set or pre-established purpose (i.e. determined prior to the start of the meeting)

Informal meetings were defined as,

Meetings with no pre-set or pre-established purpose (i.e. not determined prior to the start of the meeting)


A questionnaire was designed and distributed to survey participants in late August 1993. At the time of questionnaire distribution, INDIGO employees had been using version two of the videoconferencing system for two weeks since its installation in early August 1993. Prior to the installation of version two, the employees had been using version one of the system since April 1993. All questionnaires were hand delivered to employees in the two sites. Completed questionnaires were returned by mail to the investigator. The questionnaire appears in Appendix B. 7 of the 8 staff members of INDIGO completed and returned the questionnaire. The 8th staff member served as a pilot subject for the questionnaire. Given the small size of the survey population and the constraint of surveying a real-world organization, the questionnaire was kept to a 20 minute time limit for completion. Hence, in no way are the results generalizable to the population of all service sector or knowledge workers as a whole. Statistical analysis is in the form of frequency counts for this case study.


1. Formal Meetings:

1.1 The most frequently cited type of meeting activity using desktop videoconferencing reported by respondents was for information sharing (86% or 6 of 7 respondents) and discussion (57% or 4 of 7 respondents). Other types of meeting activities using desktop videoconferencing included brainstorming (1 respondent), planning (1 respondent), negotiating (1 respondent) and clarification (1 respondent).

On average, each respondent used desktop videoconferencing (version 1) for 7.67 of his or her meetings. Only 2 of the respondents reported using version 2 of desktop videoconferencing for meetings (each had 1 meeting using the system). It must be noted, however, that the 2nd version of the software had only been in place for about 2 weeks when the questionnaire was administered and many of the staff members were on vacation.

1.2 Desktop videoconferencing did not appear to improve the effectiveness of formal meetings. When asked to compare their meetings that used desktop videoconferencing with the ones that did not after the videoconferencing system had been installed, for those meetings called to generate initiatives, only 14% (1 of 7) reported that 51% to 100% of his or her meetings that used desktop videoconferencing generated initiatives while 71% (5 of 7) reported that 51% to 100% of their meetings that did not use desktop videoconferencing generated initiatives. Similarly, prior to the introduction of desktop videoconferencing, 71% (5 of 7) of the respondents reported that, on average, less than 10 decisions were made in their meetings called to make decisions. This number rose to 86% (6 of 7) respondents when these decision making meetings used desktop videoconferencing.

1.3 For formal meetings, using desktop videoconferencing also did not seem to improve the efficiency of the meetings. While 71% (5 of 7) of respondents reported that 51% to 100% of their meetings achieved the meetings' stated objectives prior to the introduction of desktop videoconferencing, only 29% (2 of 7) of these respondents reported that 51% - 100% of their meetings using desktop videoconferencing achieved the meetings' stated objectives.

1.4 On the quality dimension, the presence of the desktop videoconferencing system in the employees' meetings also appeared to alter the quality of the meeting. 43% (3 of 7) respondents reported that 51% - 100% of their meetings prior to the implementation of desktop videoconferencing achieved outcomes conforming to their expectations while only 29% (2 of 7) reported a similar percentage of meetings using desktop videoconferencing conforming to their expectations. When asked about the meetings in which they participated that did not use desktop videoconferencing after the system had been installed, 57% (4 of 7) stated that 51%-100% of their meetings achieved outcomes conforming to their expectations.

Overall, there appeared to be reluctance on the part of the employees to use the newly developed desktop videoconferencing system for formal meetings. Fully 71% (5 of 7) stated that they used desktop videoconferencing in less than 50% of their meetings, with 2 of these 5 stating that they used the system in less than 25% of their meetings.

2. Informal Meetings:

2.1 Desktop videoconferencing was not often used for informal meetings. 86% (6 of 7) of the respondents reported using desktop videoconferencing for less than 50% of their informal meetings, with 4 of these 6 individuals cited usage rates of less than 25% of their informal meetings. It is significant to note, however, that once desktop videoconferencing had been installed, it did seem to be used to solve work task problems. 43% (3 of 7) of the respondents noted that of the meetings that solved work task problems, 75%- 100% used desktop videoconferencing. Only 1 respondent noted that 75%-100% of his or her meetings to solve work task problems did not use desktop videoconferencing after it had been installed. For resolving morale problems, employees reported using desktop videoconferencing meetings less frequently. All employee who responded to this question reported that they used desktop videoconferencing in less than 50% of the meetings they had to overcome morale problems. Of these employees, 67% used desktop videoconferencing in less than 25% of their meetings to overcome morale problems.

Graphs of employees' responses appear in Appendix A.


The INDIGO employees' perception of the impact of desktop videoconferencing technology on their formal and informal meetings appears to support the argument that simple desktop videoconferencing did not immediately improve the efficiency, effectiveness or quality of the formal meetings and are not used as a means of helping employees to informally resolve morale problems. This conclusion, however, is belied by the comments of those same employees. When asked what videoconferencing technology allowed them to do that they could not before its installation, the employees responses were, in general, positive.

One employee stated that (s)he experience "the feeling of more interactivity while communicating." "In an open-air environment, I don't think the full benefits of video-conferencing are employed here...I see its potential and think it's excellent...and look forward to the future when teleconferencing is used to its full capacity." This comment alludes to one of the limitations of the study. The field trial occurred in an organization with two field offices. In one of the offices, 3 employees share a small, open office area while 2 others are located in offices adjoining the area. All employees in this office can communicate with each other, even without desktop videoconferencing, simply by raising the level of their speaking voices. Additionally, during the study period, the employees at one site were absent for approximately one-half of the time; hence, the primary purpose for which desktop videoconferencing is employed, distant communication, was not necessary.

It would seem that INDIGO employees were aware of the potential benefits of the technology despite the constraining circumstances of an open office environment and proximity to co-workers. Other benefits mentioned by employees are as follows:

"see people and their expressions to comments, etc."

"more accurately gauge each other's understanding and [I] can tell if each other have any reservations about decisions or plans...use video to show documents to identify them, indicate position of changes or fields, etc...saved some travel time to [the other site]."

"I can now see what someone is talking about as they can hold up the piece of paper and show me instead of trying to verbally describe it"

"whisper instead of shouting across the room to get someone's attention...sit at my desk (and therefore find files) when discussing reports, etc."

"[videoconferencing] allows me to handle more tasks in a given time period....I can consult my staff on issues having them virtually appear sitting across from my desk. In an hour, I can hold important but brief conversations with each member of my staff as individuals and in groups of three without having them leave their desks. I can also hold staff meetings between [this site] and [the other site] more often without requiring travel."

When employees were queried about what the videoconferencing system prevented them from doing, most of the negative commentary related to the technical limitations of the 1st version of the software. The functionality of this first version was deliberately limited in order to adjust the functionality of subsequent versions after feedback from users of the first version. In this way, users would be given a sense of "ownership" of the desktop videoconferencing system since their comments would be used to improve the software.

"It prevents me from working on other things while I'm talking to someone. It also prevents me from easily cutting off a long-winded person."

"interrupts my concentration at times - with a phone call, one can forward it on; people can see you're busy but with [videoconferencing], you have to wait and reply or wait for the icon to close down before you can continue with work. Not a big deal for the most part, just sometimes its a pain. But, again, I am glad it's here."

"My staff report that [videoconferencing] uses up computer memory limiting the use of large files in MS Word...[videoconferencing] adds more communications options beyond my telephone. They complement, do not interfere"

"Print my files, run programs efficiently, etc., etc.,...hide"

"less privacy (unless door is ajar)...interruptions in the middle of tasks; but yet I acknowledge contact by others if others are demoing for visitors"

The second version of the videoconferencing software has addressed the technical problems related to control over privacy. As noted previously, however, most of the employees did not have chance to discover to discover and comment on these improvements to privacy control.

Other comments made by employees mentioned limitations of the technology that are not as easily resolved. As in the case with other forms of video communications over distance using telephone lines, data transmission is not immediate. This results in communications that are not precisely "real-time". This problem underlies the following comment made by one of the employees:

"Compared to a face-to-face meeting, [videoconferencing] offers less ability to correct small misunderstandings or to hypothesize about contingency plans. I feel my ability to interrupt, and especially to interject, is much poorer, and therefore the exact details of our mutual action plan may be understood differently by each of us. The pace of conversation is slowed considerably."

Another issue related to technology usage in general was touched upon by another employee who mentioned concerned about the freedom to choose or not to choose to use the technology. While the study did not examine this issue specifically, future research on the impact of this technology on employee work habits must address the issue of choice, as stated by one employee who commented as follows:

"[There are no limitations] provided I am not told to have my monitor on all the time in which case I would feel very uncomfortable."

When asked how they would improve either the videoconferencing technology or its implementation, many employees commented on technical problems inherent in the videoconferencing system and in the office environment:

"[videoconferencing] is great! But only if a person has a private office (with a door). Staff in close proximity with others (open concept) distract others when TP is in use."

"call set-up time...codec delay"

"speed up [voice and video transmission]...see self and other people talking to at the same time"

"It would be nice to use the telephone and [videoconferencing] technology interchangeably...what I mean is to use the telephone, then if you need to visualize something, say "ok - I'll show it to you on the screen" then return to the telephone. You don't really need to see the other person in the majority of cases and sometimes staring at the other person while conversing for a prolonged period is awkward. (i.e., you are conscious of your every move - taking a sip of coffee, adjusting in your seat, scratching your head, etc.)."

Technical difficulties with the equipment and design problems are the principal reasons cited as limitations with the technology and can be interpreted as possible explanations for employees' dissatisfaction with their desktop [videoconferencing] meetings. Other possible reasons were not explicitly stated by employees. Research in the area of computer-mediated brainstorming and decision-making suggest that psychological process problem impede meeting performance, as alluded to by the commentator who mentioned being "conscious of ... every move" (e.g. Kiesler & Sproull, 1992; Dennis & Valacich, 1993; Paulus & Dzindolet, 1993). The discomfort experienced when this employee was constantly on view suggests a form of evaluation anxiety, one of the psychological process problems.

Other types of psychological processes which have been offered as impediments to productivity in meetings include production blockage (member contribution is blocked due to the need for turn-taking behaviour) and free-riding or social loafing (member contribution is disproportional, with some making no contribution). These processes have been used to explain why face-to-face (non-electronic) brainstorming groups generate fewer and less creative ideas than individuals working alone. When these processes are controlled for, as for example, in electronic brainstorming groups in which members do not meet face-to-face but rather, anonymously generate and share ideas using group decision-making software, the productivity of such electronic brainstorming groups have been found to be as high or higher than nominal groups' (individuals working separately and independently to generate ideas).

Even though desktop videoconferencing is a type of computer-mediated form of interaction and communication, the same psychological processes which have been shown to impede the productivity of face-to-face brainstorming groups may also impair the productivity of the employees interacting through desktop videoconferencing since the ability to see video images of each other may have the same inhibiting effects as face-to-face communications. Thus, for example, employees may still experience production blockage since only one person at a time can communicate and may experience evaluation anxiety since each employee can detect visual cues from the person with whom they are interacting and may engage in self-censoring behaviour.

Additionally, research has shown that decision-making groups using computer conferencing take as much as 10 times as long to make a decision as groups meeting face-to-face (Kiesler & Sproull, 1993). An absence of social cues and technical process problems related to time required for keyboarding messages are some of the reasons offered for this extra time requirement. While desktop videoconferencing does allow some perception of social cues, technical process problems are still a factor in slowing decision-making since turn-taking must be strictly adhered to and communications over distance is not exactly real-time (there is approximately a 1/2 second delay between the time of transmission of the auditory signal and its arrival and video images are very jerky).

Psychological and technical process problems which have been found to impair the productivity of brainstorming and decision-making groups, in addition to technical problems with the technology itself, thus provide additional explanations for why INDIGO's employees did not report improvements in meeting efficiency, effectiveness and quality.

Limitations of the Case Study

As mentioned previously, the timing of the case study was problematic. Employees at one site were on vacation for a large part of the period covered by the study as were some employees at the second site. Usage of desktop videoconferencing may have been limited by the physical non-presence of employees with whom employees still working could have communicated. The technical problems referred to by many of the participants were characteristic of the first version of the software only. Subsequent versions have improved functionality which may stimulate further and more frequent usage of the videoconferencing system. Additionally, given that the investigator was employed by an organization receiving funding from the field site, there may have been a problem with objectivity in this study. Time constraints prevented a comprehensive pre- and pilot-testing of the questionnaire instrument; hence, the reliability and validity of the measuring instrument is unknown. It could very well be that the measuring instrument was not measuring the constructs (effectiveness, efficiency and quality) it was designed to measure accurately and subsequent administration of the same questionnaire to the same or another group of employees may not elicit the same responses. Thus, the results of the study must be viewed with caution and should not be interpreted as anything other than a description of the early impact of desktop videoconferencing on the meeting activity of Indigo employees in the Summer of 1993.

Suggestions for Further Research

Additional studies of the employees using more advanced versions of the software and in office settings more conducive to appropriate desktop videoconferencing usage are needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn on the impact of desktop videoconferencing on meeting efficiency, effectiveness and quality. Research is also required to determine the types of office designs that would be more appropriate for this type of technology. The type of meeting activity - decision-making, information sharing, negotiating or discussion - most facilitated by this technology also needs further investigation. Lastly, a more detailed study of the effects of the psychological processes of production blockage, evaluation anxiety, social loafing and other social influences on desktop videoconferencing interactions is also needed. It is likely that the findings from this stream of research will provide important clue about the type of meetings that would be most effectively conducted using desktop videoconferencing.

The findings suggest that the technology is used more often for formal rather than informal meetings; yet, it is the informal meetings to resolve problems with work tasks that generated the greatest level of employee satisfaction with the technology. If, as one of the employees commented, videoconferencing technology could be used interchangeably with the telephone, then this would suggest that videoconferencing is more appropriately used for informal rather than formal communications, as is the case with the telephone. Again, further research must be done to investigate this possibility.


While there are many limitations in this study and conclusions cannot be firmly reached, results are suggestive of the potential benefits which organizations using videoconferencing technology can derive. It is very apparent that even though the employees of INDIGO could easily have been discouraged by the technical problems they encountered while using the technology and by the limitations on full usage imposed on them by the design of their office space, they were still convinced of the potential benefits of the technology and were looking forward to future revisions that would improve the technology's user-friendliness and functionality.

A key finding which cannot be ignored is that despite infrequent usage of desktop videoconferencing, when it was used for informal meetings, employees did report using it most often to solve problems related to work tasks. The implication of this finding should be investigated in future studies.


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