man taking photo of himself while scuba diving
PHOTO: Sebastian Pena Lambarri

Over the last 10 years, online meeting software has changed incrementally at best. We saw improvements to audio and video quality, security measures and hardware, but not much else.

During the same 10 years, the gig economy, globalization and better bandwidth have helped support and grow the number of remote workers. Ninety-nine percent of respondents to a recent Buffer survey of over 2,500 people said they would like to “work remotely, at least some of the time, for the rest of [their] career” and 84% said they preferred to work from home, with (no surprise) coffee shops and cafes coming in second.

How Technology Evolves

According to CSI research, most meetings today involve four to five people, with one or two collocated attendees, and the others remote. Large meetings, such as all hands meetings or webinars, only comprise a small percentage of meetings. Additionally, the smaller meetings are generally the way teams work: they prefer faster-paced meetings, where everyone can contribute and everyone can offer relevant data and content. To many this would seem like chaos, but it isn’t, as social conventions help keep most meetings running smoothly.

Twenty years ago you needed an engineer in the room to do a video conference. In this area, things today are better in many ways, many vendors are now offering one-click video conferencing, no more engineer needed (unless something goes wrong). 

For the past decade we have just been dealing with a first-order effect with video meetings. 

When adopting new technologies, there are first-, second- and third-order effects. Here's an example from older technology to help illustrate: We rode horses for many centuries until the invention of "horseless carriages" or cars in the late 1800s.

Cars offered the advantage that they could go further, faster. This is a first-order effect, using a new technology to do an old task in a better way. With all the cars popping up, people needed better roads to drive them on, and so the US highway was built. This second-order effect allowed people to take greater advantage of cars, once again allowing them to go further, faster. The third-order effect in this example is shopping malls. Shopping malls required both cars and highways before they could come into being.

Related Article: Are You Sure You Want to Schedule Another Meeting?

What's Next for Web Conferencing?

It is very hard to predict third-order effects when looking at a first-order technology. If we look at video conferencing, it is the first-order effect for meetings. Meetings were previously done face to face. But as businesses grow more and more global, the ability to work and collaborate with others remotely becomes more and more necessary. So web conferencing was born.

We have lived with the vagaries of web conferencing for many years. Missing out on the first 10 minutes of meetings due to technical problems is still quite common today. But over the last decade, vendors have fixed a lot of the friction in getting to a virtual meeting. But they haven't done much to help attendees get through the meeting.

What I mean by this is this: because web conferencing is a first-order technology, it allows meetings to be virtual, but restricts social behaviors of those in the meeting. It's not a true emulation of a face to face meeting. In many ways, today’s web conferencing is much like being in a classroom. One person presents content to the other people on the call. The meeting attendees can indirectly react, by posting a question or comment in chat (that the presenter usually sees later). Often all attendees are muted, except the presenter, so they can’t interrupt.

With the trend towards remote working, and most teams having remote participants, it's no stretch to see “remote-first working” as a second order effect for web conferencing technology. Three factors are driving this trend:

  • People from around the world can quickly and cheaply connect, collaborate and work online.
  • Cheap travel has made it possible to fly almost anywhere in the world for under $1000. This is important, because if you are going to work with a distributed team, it is best to meet them first in person. It allows you to build trust more quickly, and maintain that trust much longer.
  • Online banking has become more sophisticated, so individuals are able to send and receive payments from anywhere in the world.

Remote-first work often has all the processes inside the company (product development, marketing, customer service, HR, etc.) fully distributed around the world. Hiring preferences are not based on geography or location, rather the goal is to have 24/7 coverage. Use of asynchronous collaboration tools acknowledges the time differences between teammates. Centralized headquarters become a thing of the past.

Remote-first working means that people can get a good, high-paying job from almost anywhere. This includes digital nomads, as well as people who prefer to stay home with their families and communities. Although the trend is at just beginning, it can have far reaching social impacts.

Related Article: The Dual Rise of the Digital Workplace and Remote Work

Remote-First Working Gathers Momentum

A few vendors have recognized that very few collaboration technologies support the idea of remote-first working. Dosit (a remote-first startup company) uses mostly asynchronous tools to collaborate. One of these tools is Rumpus, from Los Angeles-based Oblong Industries — more on that shortly. Other vendors like Miro support an infinite canvas and integrated workflow. Bluescape also offers an infinite canvas. Forrester analyst Margo Visitacion said on a Bluescape podcast that, "even though collaboration has been around for many years, collaboration for its own sake is just noise. Without a specific purpose collaboration doesn’t have real value.”

“People want to be productive, but when collaboration tools provide a lot of overhead and forces them to interact in unnatural ways (death by PowerPoint) or an overflowing inbox. You spend more time managing those than collaborating with your colleagues. Today, collaboration is not all information is pushed out to other team members, but rather more of an interaction. Everyone has the same context for the collaboration, allowing people to work together at the same time, and see the impact, which allows teams to move from: Review, Action, Decision. Most information workers today work on average with 26 people a day, and these new tools allow you to keep that organized and focused. Where the workspace becomes the container for the work.”

Related Article: 3 Symptoms of a Fragmented Collaboration and Communication Ecosystem

A Look at How Oblong Technologies Supports Remote Teams

The team at Oblong thought long and hard about how to make remote-first collaboration work. They already had a robust first-generation video conferencing system in Mezzanine, but the system relied on location-specific hardware, meaning teams would have to participate in a call from a Mezzanine equipped room. This curtailed the mobility of collaborators, although the product did break through the practice of passing the microphone from presenter to presenter, allowing multiple people in multiple Mezzanine rooms to present, mark up and collaborate on the same item of content at the same time. 

I spoke with David Kung, vice president of Product Strategy at Oblong about how its solution for purely virtual teams, Rumpus, builds on insights gathered from the Mezzanine product. Rumpus focuses on the same goals Mezzanine did: sharing and collaborating around content, whether from one or many sources. But it frees collaborators from the location specific requirement. Rumpus isn't trying to reinvent the wheel with audio/video conferencing — it leaves that to the bigger players like Bluejeans, WebEx, Microsoft and the like, while it runs on top. In my demo with Rumpus, we used Zoom for the video and audio conferencing, and then ran Rumpus on top of that for the multiple cursor and content sharing (see image below).

Multiple people can make annotations on the content at the same time, as seen in the green and purple mark ups in the image below, which allows the conversation to flow naturally. No need to pass the microphone or give someone permission to be the presenter because everyone already is. As investor Brad Feld wrote, “This is another step in the Oblong CEO’s (John Underkoffler) vision of a new UI for always-on collaboration.”

demo of Rumpus collaboration software from Oblong Technologies
Rumpus screen sharing and annotation with multiple cursorsPHOTO: Brad Feld

Some of the challenges Rumpus (which is still in beta) still faces is how to use it in an educational setting, and most importantly, how to make it workable on a mobile device.

What Further Effects Will Online Meetings Have?

As I said earlier in the article, it is hard to determine a third-order effect when dealing with first-order technology. Even when you get a glimpse at the beginning of the second-order effect, it still can be hard to see. I imagine the integration of AI (which is already happening in video conferencing), and the ability to have a virtual assistant in a team meeting along with the other human team members is one possibility. Or the ability to merge disparate team meetings to support work with teams inside and outside the corporate firewall. Another option is finally being able to support teamwork across a wide variety of tools (i.e. we can still collaborate even though you are working in WebEX and I am working in Zoom), which is more possible now that cloud solutions have lowered the bar. 

How do you think third-order effects will manifest?

Editor's Note: The article was updated to correct the capabilities of the Mezzanine product.