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Pushing forward with a "multi-tiered travel alternatives" initiative to reduce carbon emissions, Microsoft Corp. installed nine high-end videoconferencing units in its top cities and plans to install eight more by the end of its fiscal year in June 2011. Curbing some travel by its 50,000 travelers since May with an initial launch of five suites, Microsoft estimated the units will cut at least 5 percent of trips between its top 10 cities, thereby reducing its $700 million in annual travel and entertainment spend and shrinking its carbon footprint, according to senior global travel manager Eric Bailey.
"This isn't an alternative to travel," Bailey noted during a ProMedia.travel/BCD Travel webinar. "This technology isn't necessarily replacing travel. If it took out 1 percent of our travel budget, it would be a positive return on investment. It isn't like we are saying that we need to cut 30 percent of our travel. At this point, we just need to start making some impact on it. Maybe reduce one out of five or one out of 10 trips."
After conducting a cost-benefit analysis, Microsoft's travel department determined that the greatest benefit would be in its top 10 cities, to which executives sometimes travel weekly. Those cities include London, San Francisco, Singapore, Seattle and Tokyo.
Microsoft opted for HP's Halo system "because of HP's commitment to have them interoperable with Microsoft Lync," the company's communications and collaboration tool, according to Bailey. Microsoft's IT group rebuilt parts and branded it internally as Microsoft IT Telepresence.
"We have a three-year timeframe on cost reductions, but we will see reductions before that," Bailey explained to The Transnational. "The goal is currently to break even because of the other benefits of the technology, which include carbon reduction, work-life improvements and faster product development."
During the webinar, Bailey said Microsoft is "putting a third or half" of the suites at headquarters in Redmond, Wash.
Initially, Microsoft began the project expecting "that technology is always going to save you money in the long term," Bailey said. However, as more users stepped into telepresence suites, an improved work-life balance became another reason to push for more rooms. At Microsoft, some employees take more than 100 flights a year, he noted.
"The rooms are booking up, and we haven't fully implemented yet," he said. "We are starting to get some positive feedback. Even if we didn't get all the money back from the telepresence [technology], all the other benefits will outweigh the cost.
"Even if you get the budget to go to Beijing, taking the time to adjust to the time zones over there and being gone for a week isn't something people necessarily want to do," Bailey continued. "A lot of those meetings are just sitting down for a couple hours with somebody. We're definitely getting interest from a lot of those people who say, 'I just want to be able to get more done; I don't want to sit on an airplane for so long.' They can get that done with a very effective meeting in two or three hours without going across the ocean. That is a great benefit, and also carbon reduction."
The "economic downturn helped" to shift the mindset of frequent travelers--a challenge Bailey presumed would be difficult especially with the company's sales representatives. Yet, most agreed that some travel "isn't a good use of time or resources," he said, adding that employees were "really starting to shift away from the old 'get in front of [clients] with the hand shake.' "
For travelers who say they prefer to attend face-to-face meetings to better gauge clients' or colleagues' facial expressions, Bailey found that once they experienced the technology, they were comfortable with it.
"We give a lot of freedom and control to the travelers, and we know that there are times when you need to travel," Bailey said. "Generally, people don't fly somewhere just to get on a plane and wait on a security line and sit in an airport for two hours."
One use of the virtual conferencing option, Bailey explained, could be to gather Asia-based employees in Beijing, for example, and Europe-based ones in Paris.
"You would have two sets so each of those [groups of] people would have a real meeting, but there also would be the virtual side of it," he said.
To increase adoption, the company inserted Microsoft IT Telepresence popup notifications within its online travel booking tool, allowing travelers to click a link to Microsoft Outlook to reserve the virtual conferencing rooms.
Microsoft employees also communicate via a Web portal for brief, internal meetings, Bailey said. Microsoft Lync allows employees to connect through their computer screens and share videos. Lync displays employees' availability to chat and can inform workers when someone is trying to reach them on their cell phone or office phone.
"Microsoft Lync is installed on everybody's computer within the company--we have 90,000 users active right now," said Bailey. "Your computer becomes your phone. All of your voicemail goes through your computer; all of your discussions. Everything is routed through your computer. Maybe I can have a quick five-minute conversation or instant message back and forth."
Lync also shares presentations "in real time" for groups and meetings, Bailey added. For other small meetings, Microsoft also uses Virtual Teleconference Endpoints in more than 350 locations worldwide.
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