I know what you’re thinking. “We use email, social media, instant messaging – what else do we need?” Well, for starters, if you’re one of those offices comprised of fifteen programmers spread across the world who communicate and organise themselves and their projects digitally, you’re at a disadvantage. Working physically alongside people can often be beneficial, but sometimes, the closest we can get is through video conferencing.
In the first 24 hours after Google’s VOIP service launched, one million calls were placed. Of course, most of these were probably test calls placed so people could go “hey, Tony! It’s just like Skype, but with a different logo, and in Gmail, right?”, and then hang up. But it proves a point – Google experiments, but will very rarely launch something it doesn’t have the utmost faith in. Voice calling is dominated by Skype, with telephones being manufactured and built into keyboards specifically for this. In fact, it’s probably why 99% of office workers who aren’t receptionists are buying headsets.
But does that mean we’re communicating well? Do we lose the tone of voice, or the ability to physically show someone an architectural model because we’re using webcams instead of sitting there in the office with them? Some things tend to get lost in the transfer, and unfortunately it’s usually the personal side to a business. Businesses, large ones at least, are not the most personal of entities to deal with. Large, faceless corporations, often have an automated telephone network and a bored set of people on the phones. If we apply the same “once removed” strategy to our internal communications, are we really a team, an empathetic, tight-knit motley crew of people able to hit the big numbers?
I find that although I can show someone a design for a website, or a bit of content, over the web, it doesn’t always mean they’re entirely following what I’m saying. Technology is fallible, and if we return to the example of the network of programmers, what happens if the Skype network goes down? No VOIP, no face-to-face or voice-based communication, and half the meaning in human speech is lost the second their thoughts hit the keyboard. Unless, of course, they send little vlogs to one another by YouTube, but if that ends up being the case they’re probably doing more video editing than programming at that point.
VOIP is a useful tool – it doesn’t require our fingers, and this means we can often keep working, take down notes, or surf to the site they’re telling us about without having to avoid multitasking. However, if we continue to rely on communication via digital channels and phase out the good, old-fashioned phone call, doesn’t all business conducted become less human? I agree it’s a rather philosophical concept for a Monday afternoon, but realistically we need to take a look at the way we’re talking to each other. I speak to a client on the phone, or face-to-face. We understand each other better, there are no mixed messages. This is preferable when you’re meeting for lunch on a work day, but if you’re meeting to discuss a £5m contract, it’s crucial.
I’d love to try the Google VOIP system, though I’ll be waiting a while as the UK aren’t getting free calls unless it’s to the US or Canada. However, when it does go free, and it will have to if it wants, in true Google-style, to stomp the competition flat and dance on its digital corpse. Skype must be shaking in their boots right now, either that or they know something we don’t.