In the past months, the entire world has realized very quickly that remote work and video conferencing is not the future, it is now. The tragic and far-reaching impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have become all too clear at this point, but there will also be lasting (and positive) impacts to the ways in which we interact with friends, colleagues, and clients in a safer and more efficient manner. We already knew that the future of business and communications was digital, we just did not know that future was going to become “now” so abruptly.
With this rapid shift, we have found ourselves relying heavily on video communications tools: we meet with clients, hold internal collaboration meetings, conduct staff meetings, stay in touch with family, and even have virtual happy hour gatherings online. Over the past few months, we have learned a lot about the ingredients for successful virtual meetings, or, more importantly, what makes for unsuccessful virtual meetings. In the following, I’ll share some of those lessons, tips, and tricks for making your next meeting a success:
There are many software tools available that effectively facilitate video/audio communications over the Internet, such as Zoom and GoToMeeting (plus various others). All of these tools are very similar in functionality, allowing video, audio, screensharing, in-meeting chat, moderator controls, etc. We prefer Zoom, which has become quite ubiquitous in recent years, but most options are sufficient.
When first joining a meeting that is hosted with one of these tools, a lightweight application is installed on your computer to allow you to join and share your video and audio. Your computer will usually ask you to approve the installation of this software by way of a security pop-up. If you are a MacOS user, you may be prompted to allow the software to access your microphone—be sure to approve this.
The Hardware and Environment
This is probably the most important area of consideration in terms of setting up a functional space for video-based calls. Below are a few recommendations:
- Headphones + Mic: If possible, use headphones and a mic, separate from those included in your laptop, tablet, phone, or other device. You will be able to hear the other participants much better with a set of earbuds and they will hear you much more clearly if you have a microphone that is closer to your mouth. Integrated laptop mics work in a pinch, but tend to sound hollow and pick up a lot of other environmental noise as compared to a separate mic. If you use an Apple device, the old style wired headphones with integrated mic work well in a laptop, or if you prefer a wireless/Bluetooth option, the Apple AirPods are a great solution. For a PC/Windows, there are countless other (low cost) earbuds with integrated mics available on Amazon.
- Camera: A good camera will allow better light transmission and higher resolution video during your calls. Most devices now have integrated cameras, but the quality of those can vary drastically. Some devices have 720p or 1080p webcams directly integrated, whereas others have much lower resolutions. The problem with integrated cameras tends to be the very small size of the lens: if the lighting conditions are not great, then the video suffers dramatically. If you have a desktop computer or dedicated workspace, investing in a quality webcam with a larger lens can make a big difference. I prefer the Logitech 1080p HD cameras, which use a USB interface. They have a much larger lens than integrated cameras and they offer higher resolution.
- Lighting: Anyone who has experience with photography knows that lighting is everything. The same is true for video conferencing. The primary consideration here is lighting of your face, which can be challenging depending on the room, windows, backlighting, etc. If possible, arrange your workspace so that your face is well lit and you do not have any bright lighting sources directly behind you, such as windows or lamps. These will cause the camera to auto-adjust the exposure and your face will be a silhouette. If you need additional lighting on your face, check out some of the small LED lights available online from companies such as Lume Cube or consider a simple desk lamp beside your monitor.
- Environmental Sounds: Dogs barking, kids screaming, trash collection, sirens, etc. These are all minor disruptions that we have all become accustomed to recently on video calls. It is hard to completely eliminate these sounds, but try to find a location that at least minimizes them as much as possible. In the next section I’ll discuss another option for cutting down the external sound distractions through better mic management.
- Use a Computer for Screensharing: If you are participating in a meeting that involves the sharing of slides, spreadsheets, etc., use a laptop or desktop computer with a large screen. Trying to read a spreadsheet on your iPhone is going to be frustrating!
- Log in Early: The computer gremlins tend to strike at the least opportune times, so it’s always a good idea to log in to your meeting a few minutes early. Often times, the software may hit you with an update or something else may go wrong, so jumping in early can help alleviate a little stress.
- Speaking: Remember that your voice is not going to sound as clear as it would in person, so it is important to speak clearly, loudly, and not too quickly. It is also important that everyone be diligent about respecting others that are speaking and not talking over each other. Unlike in-person meetings, if people are stepping over each other in an online meeting it generally results in no one being heard at all.
- Mute Yourself: When you are not actively speaking, it is best to mute your audio from the application (there is usually a little microphone button in the interface that you can click to mute yourself). This prevents unwanted environmental noise from leaking in from all of the participants while one person is attempting to speak—this can be very distracting on larger calls. It may seem like a hassle to mute and unmute constantly, but it makes a big difference in the effectiveness of the meetings. If you are using Zoom, there is a setting that you can enable which allows you to unmute yourself temporarily while holding down the spacebar (think of a push-to-talk button on a handheld radio).
- Stable Internet / Solid WiFi Connection: Video and audio streaming can hog significant Internet bandwidth, so it’s important that you have a reliable Internet connection (preferably a hardline, such as cable, phoneline, or fiber versus cellular). Equally important is the connection from your device to your router: if you can use a hardline connection with an Ethernet cable, that is always preferred; otherwise, make sure you are close to your router to maximize your throughput.
- Use Internet Audio: If you have a solid Internet connection and WiFi, connecting to the meeting using Internet Audio is the simplest solution versus using your device for video and a separate phone and dial-in number for the audio connection. In recent months, the traditional phone-based dial-in numbers for most of the online conferencing systems have been overwhelmed, but we have found the Internet Audio options to be very reliable.
- Sit Still: My final recommendation is to sit still, don’t walk around, go for a run, vacuum your house, etc. while on a video call. The motion generated behind you can be extremely distracting to the other participants.
It is worth mentioning the security aspect of these services, since the mainstream media has recently jumped on things like “Zoombombing”, and Chinese based servers, encryption, etc. Zoom has been the primary target of these concerns, simply because it has become so ubiquitous, but similar concerns apply to all video services. Here are some tips for ensuring your meetings remain secure:
- Always have a password enabled on your meetings.
- Do not publicly share meeting links that include the password “hash” (that long string of characters) in the link (such as on social media, etc.).
- Enable the Waiting Room and/or require participant registration for larger meetings.
Generally speaking, these simple precautions will prevent unwanted attendees from joining your meetings.
In the past couple of months, the world has changed dramatically, and while many of those changes have been tragic and detrimental to our daily way of life, there will also be positive outcomes particularly in the ways that we more efficiently (and safely) interact with one another, leverage technology for remote work, prepare for future disasters, and create more flexible work environments. Video conferencing is just one aspect of that shift, but it has undoubtedly become a part of our everyday lives and will likely continue to be from here forward.