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Web conferencing, voice and video conferencing, and other types of remote collaboration have become a mainstay in the modern workplace. Many of us still travel a lot to attend meetings, but we can be certain that rising fuel prices are also a fact of life.

The cost of travel is becoming more expensive. Travel also creates huge carbon costs to the environment. One 4,000-km (2,500-mile) flight for one person emits one ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) — which is equivalent to 14 percent of a home's electricity use for one year. 

So it’s actually a good thing that we’re doing more meetings online. In fact, one of the most significant ways that IT can help the environment is that it enables us to meet with each other online or in "virtual meetings."

Virtual meetings are live or "synchronous" interactive meetings in which each participant sits at their own computer or phone and is connected to other participants via the Internet and mobile devices.

Diagram of two people having a virtual meeting

I recommend using some handy online carbon calculators to estimate the cost of past or future flights. Terrapass Carbon Footprint Calculator and the Climate Care/Lonely Planet Calculator are both easy to use and show how quickly travel adds up.

Another one I like is the EPA Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, which translates CO2 usage (in tons) to equivalencies like barrels of oil used or percentage of a home's electricity use for one year to give you an idea of just how much those cross-country flights cost your organization and the Earth.

Meanwhile, virtual meetings just keep getting better and better. The expansion to mobile devices is probably the fastest growing area of online conferencing. For a view of what’s going on there, see Ginny Mies’s Video Conferencing Apps: Take Virtual Meetings on the Road.

The software for a virtual meeting can be either a application downloaded on each attendee's computer or a web-based application where the attendees enter a URL to enter the conference.

These applications can be anything from low-cost, purely Internet-based conferencing services like ReadyTalk to more complex multimedia applications like Citrix GoToMeeting. Both of those are TechSoup donor partners.

The multimedia applications allow virtual work groups to use the Internet to see each others' faces in small windows on their monitors, hear each others' voices on computer speakers, deliver presentations, edit files, and collaborate on whiteboards.

If you’d like to just try web conferencing, there are some free web conferencing services. Some interesting ones are:

  • Skype — the overwhelming favorite free audio and video calling service internationally. The free service is great for one-on-one meetings. The premium (paid) version allows group video meetings. So far, the Skype premium mobile phone app allows only group audio calls.
  • Vyew — a free browser-based web conferencing application that doesn't require users to download any software. Vyew features a one-click screen, file sharing, whiteboarding, and a screen capturing tool that enables the user to reproduce their screen and share it with up to 20 web conferencing participants. The service provides 10 MB of storage space for up to 20 participants, who can be reminded of their upcoming web conference with email invitations.
  • Powwownow — a free web conferencing application that allows participants to see the presenter's desktop. There is no VoIP (voice capability), but the presenter can sign up for free "Enhanced Access" conference calling services and have everyone pay separate phone charges. In addition, the presenter can view the names of the participants on the left-hand side of the screen.

Here are some other TechSoup nonprofit virtual meeting resources:

There are many other software and web-hosted conferencing services available, plus programs like Second Life, where nonprofit activists meet regularly in places like TechSoup's Nonprofit Commons. Explore the options that will work best for your organization — not only to lower your travel and fuel costs but to lower your carbon footprint too.

Image: Virtual meeting (Shutterstock)