In the grip of a climate crisis, demand for video calls is soaring


Have video calls suddenly become cool? Walking around the average office used to reveal people tapping on keyboards and speaking into phones. Today, you’re more likely to see colleagues talking to screens filled with smiling faces in rooms booked out specifically for a video call.

Even meeting invites have changed. Where there was once a list of telephone numbers for every imaginable country with a passcode to get in, there is now just a single button to press to join a video call.

For years, video conference systems have lurked in the background, largely ignored as a worse version of a conference call. But after years of being the target of frustration and Cisco has predicted that video traffic, fuelled by conferencing and streaming services, will grow ninefold between 2017 to 2022 to a point where it will account for four fifths of all internet traffic.

The demand for video calls is so high that one in every two companies are making around 2,000 video calls per month, according to data from Forrester.

So what is driving this massive increase in video calls? Perhaps it’s because all human beings prefer to see people’s faces when they conduct business with them if they can. But ask those observing the rise of faces on screens and it seems three major influencers are at play: people have become comfortable with using video calls socially, they want to show off to everyone that they’re working hard, and perhaps most importantly, people want to cut down on their carbon footprint.

Fred Mazzella, founder of car-pooling service BlaBlaCar, is using video conferences to reduce his personal carbon footprint from something approaching 100 flights per year to up to five. Even any speaking engagements are now fulfilled through live streaming rather than flying to the destination.

He believes more company bosses want to take action on the environment, but also that nobody gets much out of flying around the world to see the inside of another office if they don’t have to.

Younger workers who have grown up making video calls via social apps on their smartphones are the ones driving the change, Mazzella says.

“Nobody likes getting up at 4am to get to an airport to spend a couple of days in meetings without ever seeing a place. It’s not travelling, it’s just moving where you work,” he explains. “It’s good for the environment and everyone’s work-life balance.”

Not everyone has bought into the hype that the resurgence of video calls has created. Rob Campbell, strategy director at advertising agency R/GA, believes the environmentally friendly argument tells only half the story.

It hides what he calls a “dirty little secret”. Executives seeing one another on the computer screen is an opportunity to show each other they care about the environment – even if they don’t – and demonstrate how busy they really are.

“I think a lot of people will say they’re cutting down on carbon footprint – and they probably are – but it’s also down to people wanting to show people that they’re in the office. They want to be seen to be busy,” he says.

Whatever the reason, the rise of video calls is probably going to make our working lives easier – and more accountable. Unlike an informal face-to-face meeting, a video call can easily be recorded and used to mine minutes and meeting notes.

Chintan Patel, chief technologist at Cisco, claims this additional recording function will make video calls far more useful than a normal phone conversation or a traditional meeting.

“Videos are a record of what was agreed and can be shared with colleagues. But because they’ve been recorded, that means they can be transcribed and even translated,” he says.

As companies obsess over productivity, video communication is only going to gain more traction. Expect to see more links to ‘join’ and far fewer safe-cracking pass codes and instructions on how to dial in from Uzbekistan.

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