Turn on Your Camera!

London, England; photo by the author

I’ve spent my entire career at globally distributed companies: Atypon had 5 offices in 4 countries (and now has 9 offices in 5 countries) and Smartling has 5 offices in 4 countries. Both have a contingent of telecommuters, too (telecommute—what a quaint word to use in 2018!). This arrangement was unusual 10 years ago but increasingly is common.

There are two exceptionally good—and practical—reasons for having a distributed team. The first is that local presence is both a requirement and a competitive advantage: you can’t support European customers from the West Coast; even the East Coast is a stretch. The second is that you need to go where the talent wants to be. Regardless of whether or not you like remote teams and telecommuting (a topic for a future post), they’re here to stay.

Recently, I read an article in Entrepreneur titled, “A Video Call? No Thanks.” The author’s resistence to video calls can be summarized as follows:

The last point aside (I think the author was being facetious, but if you feel that way you’re either working for the wrong company or in need of professional help), the article could have been written by me—a few years ago, at least. It’s well established that most people don’t like to be on camera, and I’m no exception. Applied to human beings, “multitask” is an insidious word and a concept that cognitive scientists say is detrimental to productivity, yet I still try to “multitask” (I’m getting better about not trying).

But these points are orthogonal to the purpose of video conferencing (VC), which is to bring participants closer together by reproducing the in-person dynamic to the greatest possible extent. Specifically, VC enables every participant to observe nonverbal communication. Many psychologists, most famously Albert Mehrabian, have made the case that we assign greater weight to body language than to the words others speak and the tone with which they’re spoken. Ergo, VC fills a critical gap when we’re not together; it has nothing to do with vanity or the desire to multitask.

Implementing VC capability and incorporating it into Smartling’s culture has become a passion project for me. The teams at Smartling spend nearly half their time in conversations with remote participants (prospects, customers, partners, and colleagues); VC therefore offers a rare opportunity to make a big difference without spending a lot of money.

We started by switching to Zoom for web conferencing. Zoom is easy to administer and use; has exceptional video and audio quality; and is only modestly more expensive than other web conferencing solutions. I particularly love the Slack integration, which allows any user to instantly start a Zoom meeting using a simple command.

The early adoption has been eye-opening. It only took three weeks to fully transition to Zoom from our previous provider, and in the first 30 days more than 90% of meetings held were video conferences. I don’t need to ask colleagues to turn on their cameras; doing so is automatic and has quickly become part of our culture.

What’s next? When we started this project, only one of our nearly 20 meeting spaces across the company was equipped with a video camera. Having everyone in a room join a VC on his or her own computer somewhat defeats its purpose, so we’re installing flat screens and video cameras in every meeting room, as well as in many executive offices.

By facilitating nonverbal communication, VC makes it easier to build rapport and trust, positively impacting three important drivers of growth: sales win rate, customer retention rate, and employee satisfaction.

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Chief Customer Officer at Brightflag. I write about issues relevant to and situations faced by SaaS companies as they scale.

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Kevin Cohn

Chief Customer Officer at Brightflag. I write about issues relevant to and situations faced by SaaS companies as they scale.