Meetings are a crucial part of any business, be it small or large, for profit or nonprofit. Recognizing the costs, both financial and environmental, of gathering people in one location for a face-to-face meeting, companies are exploring an alternative: meeting virtually. Green online meetings are designed to maintain the collaborative, dynamic spirit of an in-person meeting while greatly reducing the impact on the planet, cutting costs, and, in many cases, increasing productivity and efficiency.

To facilitate online meetings, a number of technology companies have developed applications and software that enable people to give presentations, ask and answer questions, solicit direct feedback, and share documents and files—all from a browser-enabled computer in your very own home or office.

Green online meetings vs. face-to-face meetings

What is the cost of a meeting? Ask anyone who has ever planned, supplied, or hosted a meeting of at least a couple dozen people, and they’ll tell you it’s not small. There is the air travel to the meeting city and the rental cars to the venue. Hotel rooms and conference rooms must be booked, and thousands of pages of paper printed: registration forms, handouts, publications, notifications. And then there are the miscellaneous, ever-present items: badges and nametags, food and beverages, even centerpieces for the meeting rooms.

Of course, these costs aren’t just fiscal. They are environmental, too. Flights and commutes are a significant source of carbon dioxide emissions: to fly five people on business class from Atlanta to Los Angeles, roughly ten tons of CO2 will be released, according to the Carbon Footprint Calculator at Sustainable Travel International. That’s the same amount of emissions from the electricity used by one home in a year. Hotels expend enormous amounts of water and energy to host their guests, and the waste of a face-to-face meeting isn’t negligible, either: according to MeetGreen.com, a typical five-day conference of 2,500 attendees results in the use of 62,500 plates and 90,000 cans or bottles. Not to mention all the paper waste, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation.

Green online meetings eliminate the travel, the hotels, even the paper. The environmental benefits speak for themselves. And while some may argue that collaboration suffers when people aren’t meeting face to face, existing and emerging technologies are helping people do everything virtually that they could do in person, from mark up a whiteboard to ask questions of a speaker in real time.

Technology options for virtual meetings

A green online meeting can take many forms: an audio conference using VoIP, an Internet-based video conference, or even a virtual collaboration via avatars. In essence, a virtual meeting means connecting with others—with voice, video, online chat, instant messaging, and desktop sharing—over the Internet. And whether you’re looking for a simple way to cut costs and reduce emissions or a robust application for hosting global meetings, today’s communication companies have something for everyone. Here are a few options to consider.

PGiMeet from Premiere Global Services offers a number of virtual conferencing solutions, from web, audio, and video conferencing to event conferencing and virtual event hosting. Netspoke, its web conferencing application, incorporates attendee mood indicators, which allow participants to show their agreement or disagreement, to raise their hand with a question, and to ask a speaker to speed up or slow down. Participants may also share applications and videos (via webcam) and record presentations to play back at a later time. PGiMeet’s audio conferencing tool, ReadyConference Plus, comes with a dedicated dial-in number and passcode and is now available for iPhone, iPod Touch, or BlackBerry, through the downloadable app PGi Mobile.

If your virtual meeting needs are smaller and your budget tighter, you might consider the browser-based web-conferencing tool offered by DimDim. You can host an unlimited number of web conferences for up to twenty guests at a time for free; a reasonable monthly fee is charged for larger meetings. Providing much of the same functionality as more expensive alternatives like WebEx and GoToMeeting, DimDim enables meeting attendees to view a presenter’s desktop and videos, listen to multiple participants via VoIP, annotate a presentation simultaneously, and send instant messages and broadcast their own audio and video. Inc.com named DimDim the best no-cost option for web conferencing in 2009.

Still think there’s no substituting for a face-to-face encounter? You can join companies like Intel and IBM in using 3D conferencing for your virtual meetings. The virtual world of Second Life, for example, lets people, via avatars, not only talk to one another and to groups of people, but also interact with them. In a Second Life virtual meeting, you can give or attend presentations, share documents, mark up whiteboards, and show and view videos—as with many other technology offerings in the virtual meeting space—but if you aren’t paying attention in a meeting, your avatar slumps over as if asleep. In 2008, IBM’s Academy of Technology held its annual meeting in Second Life, and the company estimates it cost one-fifth the amount of hosting a real-world event.

Green online meetings help companies brainstorm, collaborate, and make decisions without the costs to the planet, and the bottom line, of face-to-face meetings. No travel, no hotels, no waste—and no bad airplane food. It’s hard to argue with that.

See also:

Eco-friendly meetings

More resources

Carbon Footprint Calculator

Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator

PGiMeet

DimDim web conferencing

DimDim on Inc.com

Second Life work solutions

“The Virtual Meeting Room”