A pilot campaign on promoting Alternatives to Travel ran from June to December 2012 in 5 University of Bristol departments, this included the provision of online support materials, offers of individual or group training and limited provision of headsets and webcams to get people started using virtual meetings technologies.
The campaign was initiated with an email sent from the Head of Department (or sent on their behalf) to all staff to promote the pilot (with reminders sent out in September/October). The emails were supported by a series of posters which were provided to departments to put up in public areas such as coffee areas, lifts, backs of toilet doors, etc.
The uptake of training and requests for equipment was disappointingly low; there were ten formal training sessions undertaken during the six month pilot across the 5 departments. The low awareness of the pilot may be due in part to poor timing for the promotion, the first emails were sent out in late June which may have coincided with the start of staff holidays/research leave, etc and reminders were sent out in September/October which again may have clashed with the start of the new academic year. However given increasingly busy workloads and pressures on staff it would always be difficult to find a good time to promote this sort of campaign. The email messages were backed up by posters which were distributed in public areas around the departments. Ideally there should have also been some general clinics/workshops arranged for each department rather than relying on individuals or groups to request these, however again with competing demands on staff attention these proved too difficult to arrange.
Reactions and feedback from those undertaking the training and/or offer of equipment however was very positive:
- “Thank you for all your assistance …Everything worked out just perfectly!”
- “The chap who came and set up Skype for me was great! I’ve been using it regularly ever since.”
- “Thanks for all your help. One happy punter.
And we have a couple of examples where staff are regularly replacing face-to-face meetings with the use of virtual technologies.
A post pilot questionnaire was distributed to the departments at the end of pilot period in December, this repeated the questions from the original survey to see if or how attitudes and behaviours had changed within that period. We received 109 responses across 4 of the original 5 departments (unfortunately the Graduate School of Education were not able to distribute the survey in time for inclusion) this equated to just over an 8% return rate across the 4 departments and therefore a slightly higher return than the pre-questionnaire (which perhaps could be attributed to when in the academic term the survey was distributed). Of those 109 responses:
- 77% had participated in a virtual meeting during the past 12 months (as opposed to 63% in the previous survey)
- The majority of these took part in virtual meetings every few months
- The most popular virtual meeting solution was still audio conferencing, followed by videoconferencing and instant messaging
With regards changes in attitudes towards virtual meetings:
- 47% said that they enjoyed travelling as part of their work (26% disagreed and 24% were neutral)
- 40% thought that virtual meeting technology is reliable. This was a small increase from 38% from the previous survey
- 19% believed virtual meetings are difficult to set up which is slightly higher than the previous survey at 18%
- 56% believed virtual meetings are more convenient than face-to-face meetings. This was quite a considerable rise from the previous survey at 38%
- 63% thought communication is not as effective in virtual meetings, this was a slight decrease from 66% in the previous survey
- 37% thought virtual meetings were a good substitute for face-to-face meetings as opposed to 34% previously
Staff were again asked about specific examples where they thought virtual meetings could be used effectively, responses here included:
- Already use them in preference to F2F (face-to-face)
- As a replacement for frequent visits and co-tutoring students
- I am part of a virtual team and so already extensively use virtual meetings
- I have several PhD students based in other institutions around Europe with whom I keep in touch via Skype. This has been fantastic.
- We have discussed this for reviewing grants at a virtual meeting rather than flying abroad
- My work meetings will probably double next year and at least half of those could be done virtually
When asked for examples where they didn’t think virtual meetings could be used effectively, responses again included:
- Anything involving new ideas, new people, new collaborations… must have a prelim[inary] face-to-face at least
- External examinations/vivas
- Training on equipment or software
- When there is a large group of people
Comparing the responses from the pre-questionnaire distributed in February 2012 and the post-questionnaire responses in December 2012 there does appear to a growing sense of acceptance of the usefulness/role of virtual meetings. There are inevitably some differences of opinions in what virtual meetings can and can’t be used for; notably PhD vivas are cited in both categories. However situations that require meeting people for the first time or handling sensitive topics seem to be situations that still calls for face-to-face meetings.
On reflection a key outcome of this work is the finding that there are key custodians of travel services, and a relatively small proportion of high-mileage travellers. We propose that future work of this type should concentrate on a programme of targeted training directed towards very high-mileage travellers and/or departmental administrators and those involved in setting up and supporting meetings rather than directing a campaign at all staff.