Organizations today can purchase videoconferencing systems
that offer everything from immersive full-room experiences to connectivity
through a tablet, with crisp visuals, sharp sound and all the requisite
accouterments for conducting productive business. But if employees don't know
the systems are available, don't know how to schedule or use the equipment, or,
absent a rare mandate, refuse to use it, then organizations won't realize any
of the cost-saving or productivity-enhancing potential of optimally deployed
and managed videoconferencing systems.
That's the situation that Stamford, Conn.-based audio and
electronics firm Harman International is addressing with a program launched
Feb. 18 to increase use of dozens of onsite conference rooms throughout the
world that offer video equipment. Without a mandate or even new policy language
to encourage videoconferencing, but armed with strong senior management
support, an internal marketing campaign that extols the financial and social
benefits and a new system from Sabre meant to ease conference room bookings,
Harman hopes to generate significant savings by replacing travel for one-day
meetings with virtual conferences.
"Believe it or not," said Harman director of
global corporate travel Sally Abella, "I think that once our employees
experience a videoconference and how easy it is to make that connection,
they're not going to want to get on a plane."
Equipped But Empty
Videoconferencing isn't new to Harman, which among other
products manufactures JBL and Infinity audio systems and operates dozens of
offices worldwide. In 2011, Abella said she was approached by representatives
from Harman's information technology department, who informed her that the 58
videoconferencing units they had purchased—48 in conference rooms and 10
mobile—were barely touched. The equipment was used during less than 3 percent
of available Harman working hours, she said.
Harman also has a mature managed travel program, with more
than $20 million in total travel and entertainment spending in its most recent
fiscal year and travel consolidated in 16 countries with Carlson Wagonlit
Travel. The company also mandates pre-trip approvals for business travel, a
process that requires employees to provide a rationale for the trip. As a
result, Abella captured and analyzed travel data for internal meetings at
corporate campuses where videoconferencing equipment had been installed.
"Harman had roughly 15,000 room nights in the cities
where we have campuses in the last fiscal year," which ended June 30,
2012, she said. "In one city where we have a facility near our German
campus—just one city—we had 3,000 room nights. We also realized that our
average trip nights for domestic travel was 1.3 days. That's an indication that
our employees are jumping on an airplane, flying to their destination, having
their meeting, staying in a hotel and flying back the next day."
Costs for such travel added up quickly, Abella said.
"With the air and hotel, and this is just the booking, we're looking at $5
million. That does not even include the ground transportation, meals,
productivity out of the office or dealing with jet lag. It doesn't even think
about how employees are balancing work and life, because it's very difficult to
travel these days."
Marrying desires for less internal meeting travel and more
videoconferencing seemed natural, but it wasn't quite that simple. Harman's
procedure to reserve videoconferencing facilities was housed in its Microsoft
Outlook email system, a process that Abella characterized as complex and
"It was very confusing," she said, "because,
for instance, in locations where we have multiple rooms—in one campus we have
five or six videoconferencing rooms in different buildings—it was very
difficult for the host to determine which is the right room for the employee
they'd like to invite."
Harman in the United States and five European countries uses
Sabre's GetThere as its online booking tool, and at a client event Abella was
introduced to Sabre's new remote conferencing product. Released in July 2012,
Sabre Virtual Meetings among other capabilities enables users to make available
internal videoconferencing rooms for booking online.
"I thought it would be perfect," she said,
"because, one, the employees did not know these rooms existed, two, they
did not know how to reserve these rooms, and three, it's new technology: 'How
do I make that connection? I'm afraid I'm going to set a meeting and it's not going
to work.' "
With Sabre Virtual Meetings, users can book
videoconferencing rooms—listed in the tool with detailed descriptions and
directions to find them, Abella said—through a tab within the GetThere display
or, for those travelers not able to use online booking, the corporate intranet.
In the next few weeks, Abella said Harman intends to add to the GetThere
process a prompt to enter a reason code for the trip and to consider
videoconferencing when that reason is for an internal meeting.
But doing so won't be mandated. "We have proposed a
change to our policy that one-day internal meetings should be done by
videoconference," she said. "It hasn't been established yet because
we're wondering if employees will say, 'OK, we'll have a two-day meeting.'
Abella secured senior management support for the initiative,
culminating in a Feb. 20 email to employees from Harman chairman and CEO Dinesh
Paliwal that highlighted the potential of the initiative not only to cut travel
costs, but also to help redirect spending to more fruitful types of travel or
"We have had meetings and communications with our
company leaders, and they have agreed to lead by example," Abella said.
"We're pushing hard with our chairman's message, inviting employees to
attend training, reaching out to employees who have multiple room nights in
certain Harman campus cities and asking them to jump on the bandwagon and start
using the virtual meeting idea for internal meetings." She said Harman
managers designated to approve planned employee travel also have been
encouraged to suggest videoconferencing where applicable.
Harman used other emails and messaging within GetThere to
promote the initiative. "We shared with employees the fact that we did
have 15,000 room nights, and this is how much money we're spending,"
Abella said. "We're not saying that we want 100 percent of our meetings to
be moved to virtual meetings, we're saying that [videoconferencing] gives us
the added benefit of being able to meet with distant colleagues face-to-face
virtually, but as our CEO mentioned, without the cost, the lost productivity or
the fatigue of travel."
Abella hopes to increase Harman's average length of stay for
domestic trips, which would be indication that one-day trips are being replaced
by videoconferences, and has set a goal of reducing by 10 percent year over
year in the Feb. 18-June 30 period the number of room nights at hotels close to
Harman campuses. "That's a very achievable goal to reach, I think, and I
hope to exceed that," she said.
Abella plans close monitoring of bookings at those hotels,
and employees who do so when traveling for an internal meeting will receive
what she called the "soft hammer approach. We'll go to them and ask if
this could have been done by virtual meeting. We'll report to each Harman
leader about how their employees are embracing the videoconferencing
And they will embrace it, Abella predicted. "I don't
think we need to take a hard approach," she said. "If we market this
correctly, show the benefits to them as individuals and a company, and show
them the bottom line as it relates to redirecting spend and cost savings, then
we won't have to mandate or put in a policy revision. Our employees embrace new
technology, and they're not afraid of trying new things."