Finding alternatives to travel between multi-campus sites for both administrative and academic purposes, and research collaboration with other institutions, can create substantial savings both in money, carbon and human terms.
Business travel in universities and colleges is a large contributor to the environmental footprint of the sector, but doing something about it can be difficult as the issues are multi-factored and much travel is essential for both academic and administrative staff, not to mention students.
There are many collaboration tools to choose from. This guide is primarily looks at tools to support what might be termed room-based conferencing and associated desktop tools that extend its reach, as well as the wider issues around 'greening' events through remote attendance and amplification.
Collaboration and videoconferencing (or VC) technology is generally believed to have green credentials, however its use is still not as widespread as it might be. This guide looks at the steps needed to make the right technology a usable alternative to physical travel for different kinds of meeting.
Successful use of videoconferencing and collaboration tools is as much about organisational issues as it is about technology. It must be embedded as part of an institution’s overall strategy for enabling communication. It needs a budget, strategy and relationships to other strategic areas such as travel and flexible working policies.
But technology matters too. Today it is possible to mix and match voice, instant messaging, video and file sharing. It's important to choose ‘the right tool for the job’. Collaboration technology covers simple desktop web tools like Skype that enable one-to-one meetings, or software solutions that allow you to join wider meetings from your desktop. At the other end of the scale, there are complete, boardroom-style videoconferencing suites and 'tele-presence' solutions that provide a high quality immersive experience.
Is videoconferencing really green?
What about the carbon emissions from making, shipping, hosting and running VC equipment? Do they outweigh the saving from less travel? Yes, says one study.
“Using the example of a studio in the Welsh Video Network (WVN) higher and further education project, a university or college needs to generate sufficient use of the equipment to save approximately 826 miles of car travel per year in order to offset the CO2 emissions caused by the ownership and hosting of the equipment.
At less than seventy miles per month this would appear to be achievable just from one meeting per month that saves a 70 mile round trip. For a minimal videoconferencing installation, the mileage saved would need to be of the order of 119 miles per year.”
Geoff Constable, how green was my videoconference? - Welsh Video Network and Aberystwyth University
At Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor, many of the 200 or so internal VC meetings that took place in 2010 directly replaced travel to another of the college’s three campuses. If half of these meetings replaced a trip by road, 8,000 miles and 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide would be saved.
Webinar: reduce travel through videoconferencing and hybrid events
To identify the potential savings in carbon, cash and time from using collaborative technology, you need to identify the size of the ‘problem’ it could solve. There are several things to consider, in order to measure current costs and potential savings, and to identify whether collaborative tools (and what type) may be suitable.
Examining the points below may help to identify quick wins.
- What types of physical meetings does your institution regularly hold that staff may need to travel some distance to, and which could be to some extent replaced by videoconferencing or other tools? What type of tool would be right for each type of meeting? There are two broad types of meeting, which may be suitable – internal management/administrative meetings, and research meetings/collaborations with other organisations
- What is the usual size of these meetings? Knowing the number of people involved will help you track costs, as well as suggest the best type of tool. For example, executive desktop systems are all-in-one devices that sit on an actual desktop and are a cost-effective solution for small-group meetings among managers. Small or one-to-one meetings could also easily be carried out by a lower cost (or even free) desktop solution used on a PC or Mac, like Skype, Blackboard Collaborate or WebEx. Regular, large meetings may be more suited to a large videoconferencing suite
- How far do the attendees have to travel? Take an average to give you an idea of costs that might be saved
- How often do these meetings take place?
- Where are you? Geography and physical set up is important. If you are a multi-campus university, for example, staff may have to travel regularly between campuses for meetings. If your institution is geographically isolated, staff and collaborators may have to travel long distances for work or for research meetings. Simple desktop solutions may mean some staff could work more flexibly from home
Having a strategy is key. Get organisational commitment and support to champion the use of collaborative technology. Make sure your strategy is linked to related areas of university policy such as travel plans and budgets, and flexible/remote working policies for staff.
Identify priority areas where it could be used; for example, internal/administrative meetings for multi-campus institutions or research groups working across different institutions. Set targets for its use so you will be able to measure uptake and highlight expenditure and savings.
Before you commit to anything, get advice and talk to everyone who will be involved:
- Administrative and academic staff: what do they want and how might they use the tools? Make sure your plan and the type of tool proposed will meet their needs
- Manufacturers and suppliers of videoconferencing equipment: get a range of quotes and ask them to supply information on carbon and energy usage. Can energy-saving features, like partial or complete standby or shutdown modes, be built in? This may cost more but may save money in the longer term. Ask for quotes for ongoing maintenance, and whether trialling equipment is possible
- Peers: ask your colleagues in other colleges or universities about their experiences with VC and other collaborative tools
- IT and networking staff: videoconferencing equipment will have to run on the network and get across the firewall that they administer. They will also need to advise on compatibility with any existing equipment
- Estates and facilities department: if you are planning a videoconferencing studio suite, where can it be set up? Dedicated spaces are best, to avoid noise and interruptions
Janet offers impartial technical advice on equipment and issues related to videoconferencing within the Janet community.
A good outline plan, together with the figures you have gathered when ‘defining the size of problem’ will also enable you to identify the level of funding you might need, and explain to those holding the purse strings what savings could be made over the longer term.
As well as a reduction in carbon, videoconferencing and other tools can offer more flexible collaboration, a better work/life balance and more equal opportunities for staff, as well as efficiency and timesaving.
A survey of 92 staff from the University of Bradford found that ‘virtual’ meetings reduced stress and time travelling (75%), allowed better control of time (61%) and made it easier to stay in touch with colleagues (39%).
“We’ve removed the ‘fear factor’, and shown people that they can make their working lives easier by minimising travelling to meetings. They also find it very effective in getting routine and detailed business done efficiently, in arranging short notice meetings, and gaining access to senior members of organisations with full diaries.”
Ian Jakeman, ICT service manager, HEFCW (Higher Education Funding Council for Wales)
Easing university merger
Managing the merger of University of Wales, Lampeter, Trinity University College Carmarthen in 2010 to form the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, involved many meetings between the three institutions. As the two campuses are over 50 miles apart, this highlighted the value of VC for facilitating those meetings, and how it would be important for reducing future inter-site travel.
On the back of this experience it was decided to develop new facilities to cope with the increased future demand, ranging from desktop equipment for one-to-one conferences and facilities suitable for small meetings through to boardroom-sized suites.
There is a lot of choice, ranging from free, easy-to-use desktop collaborative tools to full boardroom-style telepresence suites. Your research may suggest that investing in a blend of different tools to suit different contexts and needs may be the right way forward. Some of these, like Skype, are completely free, whereas a full suite set up in a custom room is a considerable investment.
If you have planned, sought advice and set a budget, this step becomes less daunting as you will be making an informed decision. Beware of being led into purchasing equipment and features that you don’t really need, and stick to your budget.
Visimeet for research
The NExT Institute brings together particle physicists from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the universities of Southampton and Sussex, and the Royal Holloway University of London. It is part of SEPnet (the south east physics network) using the Janet Visimeet collaboration system (which was developed from Access Grid) for a range of research work and administration.
“Visimeet is really helping the development of our discipline because it is enabling much more, and much faster, dialogue and discussion between experimental and theoretical particle physicists.”
Dr Alexander Belyaev, Director of the NExT Graduate School
Emerging collaboration technologies
New video collaboration technologies and tools come onto the scene all the time. One promising looking approach is that provided by Vidyo. The strategic technologies team at Janet are exploring the use of Vidyo, which is already being heavily used at CERN.
Encouraging uptake of new and improved facilities should be part of your strategy, as communication with and training users is critical for success. Staff may need support and reassurance when faced with new technologies, so plan in training and familiarisation sessions.
Staff may have had negative experiences with videoconferencing technology in the past, especially if it was poorly chosen and set up and they received little support in using it. The technology has also moved on, so a new experience may be far more positive. Make sure help is always on hand if users need it, in the form of documentation and staff who understand how it all works.
Videoconferencing at Jisc
Jisc itself is making a major investment in videoconferencing and related collaboration technologies as it takes advantage of its move to new offices.
“Making it really easy for people to collaborate from wherever they are is a core objective for Jisc. We really understand that if the kit is not there and ready to go without the need for IT support, then our people will not want to make use of it. ”
Maggie Stephens, director Jisc group infrastructure
Jisc have equipped all meeting rooms with VC end-points and set things up so that the equipment is simple to use.
“The other side of this approach is the use of the Visimeet client software, made available by our colleagues at Janet. Visimeet, which is available for PCs, Macs, iOS and Android, allows our staff to come into the office from wherever they can get an internet connection.”
Hector Peebles, IT support team leader, Jisc
Jisc is expecting that its investment in these technologies will result in both a reduction of staff travel and stress and in improved productivity.
Don’t sit back once you have everything installed. Continue to ‘market’ the benefits to the environment, the organisation and the individual. The perceived personal benefits to quality of life may be those that actually encourage the most use. Get senior managers to be your role models, and ask them to lead by example.
Staff surveyed at the University of Bristol, as part of a greening events project, reported that not knowing what was available or possible with virtual meeting technologies and equipment was an issue. So make sure you promote the service fully and clearly.
Removing cost barriers will also help uptake. Many institutions charge their staff to use VC suites. Removing these fees, as Warwick University has done, will help embed their use as the norm rather than an expensive hi-tech option.
Warwick’s strategy - promoting new VC services
- Remove all costs to the user, absorbing them internally instead
- Work closely with all departments to show them how VC can be used
- Manage all calls centrally
- Quickly expand the service to include portable VC equipment
- Flexible approach allowing the service to be adapted according to user needs
- Employ a dedicated VC specialist to manage the service
“Individuals and groups are keen to use videoconferencing once they have been supported in their initial use, and as long as they know that they can rely on the equipment and have a clear, reliable source of help and assistance.”
Geoff Constable, how green was my videoconference? Welsh Video Network, Aberystwyth University
These tools are not just about technology or reducing environmental harm. Maybe one of the most important gains to be made from a well thought out implementation of conferencing and remote tools is in the reduction on the wear and tear on human beings that the reduced travel and the ability to better preserve work life balance.
The gains here are likely to be so much greater if the strategy around conferencing and remote collaboration is linked to institutional policies around flexible working and equal opportunities.
Videoconferencing has allowed Olymbia Petrou, equality adviser in HR, Aberystwyth University, to participate in the steering committee for the Welsh women in universities mentoring scheme, and to provide actual mentoring to a colleague at another university.
She says she:
“couldn’t do it without videoconferencing. It allows me to do the school run, avoids the tinnitus I get from long drives, and has a ‘feel good’ factor in reducing carbon footprint and costs in terms of time, resource and travel.”
A major source of travel in the tertiary education sector is that related to attending events. These can range from collaboration meetings for research groups to major international conferences. The greening events team at the University of Bristol explored the estimated carbon footprint of the university’s business travel. The chief finding from this work was that although air travel accounts for 12% of the volume of trips, it accounts for 87% of the carbon emissions. In contrast, train travel accounts for 38% of journeys, but only 6% of emissions.
The project developed a useful event amplification guide, that gives pointers to the ways that events can be made available, either on the day, or subsequently, to those who do not attend in person. The options range from live streaming video through to event capture tools and approaches, and to hybrid events. The guidance from this work has been collected into a sustainable events planning toolkit (via the Internet Archive).
- Identify the size of the ‘problem’. Look at the types of meeting you hold, how often, how many people are involved, how far they travel and your institution’s physical set-up, in order to work out how much this is costing you in travel, and where obvious opportunities for replacement by VC might lie
- Plan your VC facilities by talking to all stakeholders first and getting plenty of advice before you buy
- Make a case for investment, based on potential savings and reduction on carbon emissions, personal benefits for staff, and increased efficiency for the organisation
- Make VC suites easy to access in terms of booking, flexible usage and cost, in dedicated rooms suitable for the purpose
- Support users with familiarisation sessions, formal training, user guides and on-hand help with the technology whenever they need it
- Continue to market the benefits of videoconferencing after installation and encourage core users to champion it
- Ensure staff know exactly what is available and what they can do with videoconferencing technology
- Make sure equipment is maintained and ready for use. It only takes one bad experience to put people off using the system
- Monitor equipment usage to see where problems and preferences lie: you may be able to adjust the service to better meet the needs of users
- Accept that videoconferencing won’t replace all face-to-face meetings and travel. Be prepared to look at new ways to enable amplified and hybrid events
This is one in a series of guides around green ICT. You may find also the following of interest: