How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Telecommuting

CareGroup CIO John Halamka takes an in-depth look at the policies and technologies necessary for supporting flexible work arrangements.

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Using a local phone system to initiate a multiparty conversation works well for a small number of participants, generally about three. For a large group, numerous services are available such as Reservationless conferencing from Intercall or Ready Conference. "Free" conference calling (it's a toll call for participants) is available from freeconference.com and instantconference.com.

Video conferencing is a bit more complicated. I evaluated the following technologies:

  • Windows: Polycom PVX software, using H323 and SIP teleconferencing protocols over IP.
  • Mac: Xmeeting, an open-source H323 and SIP teleconferencing tool, iChat via H264.
  • Ubuntu Linux
  • : Ekiga, an open-source H323 and SIP teleconferencing tool.

My first observation about video conferencing systems is that poor video can be tolerated, but audio must be nearly perfect for the technology to be useful. Polycom has figured that out and seems to preferentially use available bandwidth to ensure the quality of the audio.

I used the Windows-based Polycom PVX software to connect via H323 to a Mac running Xmeeting. It worked perfectly, offering "good enough" video from my desktop Logitech Fusion camera and headset microphone. The Mac side running Xmeeting provided barely passable audio and passable video. Although not an H323 solution—and therefore not interoperable with existing corporate teleconferencing systems—iChat via Bonjour using the H264 protocol provides much higher quality audio and video on a Mac than the Xmeeting H323 approach. IP-based teleconferencing (as opposed to ISDN teleconferencing, which I'll touch on momentarily) worked on these machines without any configuration hassles or incompatibilities.

The positive aspects of H323 are that the standards are mature; I did not encounter any firewall issues; and cross-platform communication worked among all the computers and operating systems I own. The downside is that video takes a lot of bandwidth, and it can take teams of engineers to get H320 and H323 working.

My experience with H320 ISDN teleconferencing, which requires a series of digital telephone lines, is that it can be quite finicky. Typically when I do ISDN teleconferencing to existing corporate ISDN-based teleconferencing systems, the engineers on both sides of the call need 30 minutes to ensure equipment compatibility and get the connection working. I've had many ISDN teleconferencing presentations fail completely, be interrupted mid-presentation and have variable quality during the course of the call.

My second experiment involved connecting a Mac running Xmeeting with an Ubuntu Linux laptop running Ekiga. Although bandwidth should have been sufficient, I found that the Linux laptop did not perform the audio or video tasks well. This could have been because the laptop has low-powered graphics hardware and only a 1.06 Ghz core solo processor. Many other folks I've spoken with have found that Linux does not seem to be an optimal platform for high-end, real-time audio and video applications at this time.

The bottom line from these experiments is that PolyCom seems to really have a business-quality desktop teleconferencing solution that enables me to connect with collaborators using H323 protocols. Xmeeting came in second place with its barely passable audio quality and passable video. Ekiga was not usable for business purposes, although it may suffice for casual chat. I recommend reserving video for just those situations that require face-to-face contact to build relationships, such as an initial kick-off meeting for a project or the first-time meeting with an important collaborator. Instead, use audio teleconferencing and the Web-based presentation sharing tools I describe in the next section of this story to facilitate conference calls.

Cisco's TelePresence Technology

To test Cisco's TelePresence technology, I had a virtual meeting with Marthin De Beer, senior vice president of Cisco's Emerging Markets Technology Group.

TelePrescence creates an easy-to-use teleconferencing environment with crystal clear audio and video. The picture is true 1080p, and there's no pixelation. It's better than any HDTV broadcast. The codecs provide such efficient compression that only three megabits/second is required for such a high-resolution image. If the bandwidth is lower than 3 megabits, the image automatically shifts to 720p, which is still HDTV resolution without any visible degradation of image quality. All images are life size, so your eye perceives the conference as truly in person.

The sound system is similar to a home theater, and all the sounds on the transmitting side are perfectly replicated to the receiving side. A person speaking on the right side of the room sounds like a person speaking on the right side of whatever room you're in.

In all my other teleconferencing experiences, there is a palpable delay between when the speaker talks and when the recipient hears the voice, which makes the conversation feel a bit like it's happening over a walkie-talkie: One person talks, then another person talks. It's not like a real-time, interruptible conversation. Cisco TelePresence uses high performance dedicated hardware codecs to eliminate latency.

TelePresence is just a Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) phone call. It's no different from a cell phone call. Just pick up your IP phone and dial. It's so easy to use that even a CEO can do teleconferencing without assistance.

Of course, such a high-quality system does not come cheap. The Cisco location in Boxborough, Mass., that I used for my virtual meeting with De Beer was outfitted with a $299,000 unit that creates a room-size TelePresence experience. De Beer was using a $50,000 corporate unit at Cisco's headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif. Cisco is working on a $15,000 home office unit that will function over standard broadband. The company is also planning a consumer-level version that will cost less than $5000. If I can achieve real-time, easy to use, perfectly clear teleconferencing on my home Sharp Aquos HDTV for under $5000, I'd be able to meet with anyone, anytime around the world.

De Beer and I discussed uses of the H264 technology. Currently it's designed for meetings which bring people together without them having to travel, which makes everyone involved more productive. In 2007, I flew 166 times, mostly to give presentations and short speeches that required 12 hours of travel for one hour of interaction. If a room is set up with H264, I could avoid traveling to give speeches altogether.

H264 could also be used for large group presentations. This YouTube video shows the technology projected on a transparent film, which makes it look holographic:

Cisco uses the technology to manage remote workers. De Beer's executive assistant works in Texas, but the desk outside De Beer's office has an always-on TelePresence unit of her virtual presence, which shows her working in her office in Texas on a monitor. This means that De Beer's and any Cisco staff member can walk to her virtual desk outside his office to speak with her anytime. De Beer will soon have two offices, and through the magic of TelePresence, she'll be in both simultaneously. I can certainly imagine a virtual company with virtual cubicles staffed with virtually present employees.

--John Halamka

Next: Collaboration Tools: Blogs, wikis and more.

Technologies, cont.

Collaboration Tools: Blogs, Wikis and other group publishing systems; Forums, Chats, Social Networking Tools; Presentation Sharing/Remote Desktop Tools

I tried a host of collaboration tools—including blogs, wikis and online forums—that have potential usefulness for virtual teams. The beauty of these tools is that you don't need to be in an office to use them. All you need is a Web browser and Internet connection.

A blog is a Web-based content management system specifically designed for creating and maintaining short articles. Although blogging is not a real-time collaboration tool, it is a remarkable way to spread information. Each day, I write 1000 words on my blog, GeekDoctor, for 3,000 daily readers. Although I don't use my blog specifically as a tool to support flexible work arrangements, it is a remarkable way to stay in touch with all my staff and customers. Instead of writing a broadcast e-mail or posting to a listserv, I can describe all the details of a strategic initiative in one structured document that everyone can read. I have found that blogging has replaced many meetings, phone calls, newsletters, and e-mails because every stakeholder, onsite or working remotely, is on the same page. As an external relations tool for communicating information, proposing ideas or marketing concepts, it works extremely well. Blogger, WordPress and TypePad are leading blogging sites.

A wiki is software that allows users to create, edit and link webpages easily. Wikis are often used to create collaborative websites and to power community websites. They are being installed by businesses to provide affordable knowledge management and are extremely useful for a community of authors to create shared documentation. At Harvard Medical School, the information technology department uses the open-source software Twiki as an enterprise wiki infrastructure that supports over 300 knowledge repositories authored by departments, professors, IT staff and clinicians. Having knowledge about commonly encountered problems, policies, reference materials and contact information on a wiki is a real asset to remote workers: It gives them access to institutional knowledge from anywhere in the world.

A forum is a threaded discussion with multiple participants. It is not real-time. Participants can read and respond to entries any time. At Harvard, we created our own threaded discussion forums that a diverse group of geographically dispersed participants use for strategic-planning activities. Forums are good for ongoing discussions between large groups of collaborators who want to engage in a dialogue asynchronously. The downside of forums is that they can take a lot of time to read through. As such, they have not been that popular in general. However, Harvard Medical School has used forums to support its strategic-planning initiatives and to ensure that multiple stakeholders can comment on proposed initiatives. My IT group has not used forums specifically to support remote workers in our department, but collaborators have used forums to continue their dialogues after hours. Consequently, the tool makes sense for supporting flexible work arrangements.

Chat is a real-time, synchronous discussion group with many participants that typically requires specialized chat software. I have not found a business use for chat rooms. It seems that chat has been largely replaced by instant messaging. For example, Google's Gmail includes IM with the ability to invite multiple people to a chat. However, all must be online to participate in the discussion. Forums can be more convenient than chat because the parties involved in the discussion don't have to be online at the same time. We've used multiple party IM to bring together a virtual group of IT workers spread across many locations to respond to problems, but we've not used "old fashioned" client-based Internet Relay Chat to support flexible work arrangements.

Other types of group document collaboration tools include Gobby, which enables multiple authors to edit a document in real-time. Document repositories such as Microsoft Sharepoint, Documentum and home built intranet portals support group document sharing. I've used Sharepoint as a document repository to coordinate the nation's healthcare data standardization process at HITSP. Sharepoint has become an important document repository for my teams, both onsite and offsite, to ensure we all have access to working documents, project plans and budgets.

Social Networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo and MySpace encourage users to interact through chat, messaging, e-mail, video, voice chat, file sharing, blogging, discussion groups and more. To test the value of these services for collaboration, I established accounts with Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo and Second Life. Although I initially did not see the business value in Facebook, it has become an increasingly important way for ad hoc groups to form, exchange ideas and launch innovative applications. Recently, the CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center created a fundraising site using Facebook's Causes application. Hundreds have joined, and contributions are flowing. At this point, we're using Facebook for collaboration with external customers and are relying more on Sharepoint for internal collaboration, though we could use Facebook to create ad hoc work groups to help remote employees stay in touch and refine ideas. LinkedIn and Plaxo have been primarily a way for individuals to maintain contact with me without requiring a specific corporate affiliation. Many high-tech employees transition every few years, but social networking sites enable them to stay connected since their networking identity is not tied to a corporation. We've found LinkedIn and Plaxo are more useful for contacting external collaborators than internal groups. Our e-mail, listserv and Sharepoint applications are the choice of our remote workers.

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