Let video take the strain

HISTORY will be made tomorrow when close on 1,000 people from around the world gather at various sites in Europe and America for what is claimed to be the world's first full-scale video conference attended by fee-paying delegates.

The advantages of this innovation are immense: for companies there are substantial savings in air fares and travel time, while there are the environmental benefits resulting from reduced energy consumption (or there would be if the aircraft flights did not take off anyway).

But the real revolution will come if video-conferencing is seen as an effective way of dealing with what is potentially the most serious issue affecting the modern workforce: what is commonly referred to as the long- hours culture.

Research out last week from the Institute of Management and the management school at the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology indicates that, while working hours are starting to dip, more than a third of managers claim to work more than 50 hours a week and a similar proportion report working at weekends.

It is increasingly widely acknowledged that such habits are unsustainable in the long term. "Burn-out" is no longer something that only affects City whiz-kids. Employees from many other supposedly less pressurised business fields are also starting to feel the strain from not having enough time in which to carry out tasks, from being bombarded with information and from having to travel extensively. But still many organisations think nothing of sending valuable employees on international journeys for what can often be a few hours of meetings. True, travel broadens the mind. But it is not as if the people taking part in such jaunts have much opportunity to see the sights. Typically, they will experience nothing more than the inside of a taxi on the way to the airport or station, the plane or train itself the meeting room and, if they are lucky, a room in a luxury hotel.

There will, of course, always be occasions when face-to-face contact is needed. First meetings with new colleagues or clients and encounters seen as potentially "difficult" spring to mind. But for routine business meetings, particularly those at which all the participants already know each other, the video-conference should do fine. And it should be seen as a great advance over the conference telephone call.

Tomorrow's event is not a breakthrough in terms of offering a new technology: video-conferencing has in fact been around for a while and is used to a varying degree by many organisations with operations split by long distances. But if the noise generated by BT, which, of course, is motivated by more than altruism in this regard, makes executives think about the wasted time and the effect on the health of their supposedly "most valuable assets" it will have been justified.

Just as it is now being acknowledged that another BT enthusiasm - teleworking - has business benefits beyond enabling companies to appear kind-hearted towards certain employees, so it should be realised that video-conferencing is another instance of technology having the power to, in BT's phrase, make us work smarter rather than harder.

Now, some will say that they cannot rely on a technology that is in its infancy. But that is like saying - as many executives undoubtedly do - that they do not use computers because sometimes they break down.

If organisations are serious about valuing their employees and getting maximum value from them, they must embrace this and any other technology that takes the drudgery out of work.