A free videoconferencing tool belongs in any productivity kit, and not just for meetings. Used creatively, the combination of webcams and collaboration features can help you streamline other tasks and interactions in your workday, in ways you might never have considered.
Here are five extra ways you can put a free system to work for you.
Host Shorter, Smaller Meetings
At many companies, mammoth meetings with dozens of participants are the norm, yet managers and attendees alike complain that meetings are disruptive and ineffective. In BusinessWeek, consultants Bob Frisch and John Peck write that the ideal number of participants in a meeting where decisions are being made is just three to six people, a figure that fits in pretty well with the limits on many free videoconferencing tools. You can use such a tool to force yourself to keep the invitation list small.
Remember that online meetings needn’t be limited to just voice and video. By using collaboration systems like online whiteboards and screen sharing tools to provide real-time presentations, you can incorporate helpful visual aids into your meeting.
While you’re at it, try keeping the meeting length to a minimum. (Use your computer or mobile device’s timer to set a strict start and end time.) One study suggested that attendee attention span begins to drop off precipitously after the 30-minute mark.
Embrace the Virtual Office
A generation ago, companies were founded by close friends who worked together, often in a spare room or garage until they could afford proper office space. Today that formula has shifted. Companies are launched by groups flung around the world. In some cases, founders may never have met in person.
Web-based videoconferencing makes it easy to manage and collaborate with other workers no matter where they are. With a solid videoconferencing plan, you are free to hire employees and work with contractors no matter where they reside.
Train New Hires without Leaving Your Desk
So you have to show the new hire how to use the CRM system. How to download a pay stub. What PC LOAD LETTER means. Many an office worker knows the hassle of constantly answering emails or having to walk to someone’s desk to show the ins and outs of the business.
Videoconferencing is a much more convenient and efficient solution, putting you face-to-face with the trainee so you can more easily tell whether the lesson’s sinking in. You can use screen-sharing features to control a desktop remotely and show someone the ropes.
Some videoconferencing tools let you record your conferences, though these features aren’t usually available in free installations. Alternatives include tools like Applian Replay Telecorder for Skype ($30) to record your calls with one click. This can be useful for frequently asked questions that would otherwise require numerous one-on-one training sessions. Just upload your most common training scenarios to YouTube or another video-sharing site and point the curious in that direction.
Make Face-to-Face Interviews Less of a Hassle
Videoconferencing can streamline the interview part of screening prospective employees. Rather than setting up a phone screener and in-person interview, get them both done with a videoconference. This lets you see how poised the candidate is over what can often be a somewhat awkward communications medium..
Video interviews also make it easier for you to take notes about the candidate by typing them up right on the screen while you’re chatting. Just make sure you use a quiet keyboard.
Impromptu Security and Surveillance
One of the more clever uses for videoconferencing software requires no one on the other end of the line at all. Just set up a webcam on a computer at your office, initiate a video chat with that webcam from your house or mobile phone, and let the connection run.
The webcam works as a real-time surveillance tool, which you can use to keep tabs on the office after hours, keep an eye on the cash register, or simply play Big Brother at the office when you’re away. Note that privacy laws in most U.S. jurisdictions—as well as common decency—require signage [PDF] to be posted in businesses where video monitoring occurs in a semi-public space or an area used by employees.
The catch, of course, is that you need someone on the other end of the line to “answer the phone” when you first initiate your call. One easy way around this: Remote desktop or remote control software. Before you initiate the videoconference, just fire up software like Chrome Remote Desktop. When the call comes in, accept the incoming call on the remote computer through the Remote Desktop connection. You can then end the Remote Desktop session and let the video feed run undisturbed.
Citrix GoToMeeting gets gold star for sharing
This feature was inspired by Citrix, which launched a zero-cost version of GoToMeeting called GoToMeeting Free earlier this year. The company recently added several new features.
First is screen sharing. Users can now collaborate in real time via video while sharing their computer screen, which is great for both presentations and troubleshooting sessions. The service has been upgraded to support 25 languages (automatically loading whichever language your browser uses) and now works on Android phones. Finally, while GoToMeeting Free was formerly available only on the Google Chrome browser, it now works with Firefox as well—no additional downloaded software required.
GoToMeeting Free does have limitations, of course. The biggie: Only three users can join a conversation simultaneously (a common restriction among free, business-focused video chat services).
GoToMeeting Free is just one solution of many in this market. Whichever one you use, it’ll pay to think outside the squawkbox about what else they could help you do around the office.
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Christopher Null is a veteran technology and business journalist. He contributes regularly to TechHive, PCWorld, and Wired, and operates the websites Drinkhacker and Film Racket. Disclosure: He also writes for Hewlett-Packad's marketing website TechBeacon.