COVID-19 is forcing us to be better at remote work
As more and more employees work from home in the COVID-19 timeframe, the woes of remote meetings and work from home (WFH) scenarios are top of mind for both end-users as well as IT professionals. Remote work is not a novel idea, but because of the current crisis, most companies went fully remote overnight. As a result, the scale at which people are doing it now, and the type of work that users are handling remotely is overwhelming. Both end-users and platform vendors are learning a lot from this experience. This post will highlight some essential tips, tricks, and best practices to help users be more effective and productive with online meetings and video conferences.
Video conference hardware requirements
One of the top issues facing users while joining remote meetings is poor audio and video quality. Audio and video quality issues can be caused by a myriad of different factors such as poor network bandwidth, incorrectly configured UC platform software, etc. (these will be discussed later in the post). In fact, because of the complex task of diagnosing precisely what may be causing problems with any conference call, Unify Square has developed PowerSuite software to help IT quickly troubleshoot and remediate call issues. Perhaps the most straightforward factor for the end-user to influence though is hardware. Verbal and visual cues ensure proper communication of ideas that happen naturally in face-to-face on-site meetings.
To mimic real-life interactions, it’s crucial to invest in the right hardware. Testing out the equipment before meeting start time is good practice to ensure there are no interruptions during the meeting. The two significant components of hardware requirements that users should keep in mind are the headset & microphone and the videoconferencing camera.
Headset and microphone
The level of noise in your home/space you’ve chosen to conduct your meeting can play a significant role in audio success. You should find the quietest section of your home or coffee shop. If you can’t avoid extra noise, you should procure a good headset and microphone that eliminates background noise/echo that may interfere with the conversation. Either invest in a proper headset and microphone or ask IT for help. While selecting the right headset/microphone, also keep in mind compatibility with your software. Some platform vendors especially certify particular hardware for use with their platforms.
Test your video image quality before the meeting starts. Such a ‘test’ doesn’t even necessarily require the UC platform – your computer OS settings will allow you to see what your camera is seeing. If your video seems pixelated or grainy, consider upgrading your webcam. If possible, get a camera that offers 4K video conferencing. The more lifelike the image/video quality, the more it feels like you are in the same room as your participants. Talk to your IT team regarding camera upgrades if what you’re using currently is not producing good quality images and hindering your communication. Similar to your headset set up, you should factor in platform compatibility and certification into your camera choice.
Video conference platform requirements
When it comes to your video conferencing platform, there are a plethora of options from which to choose. Conferencing platforms provide high-quality video quite often coupled with an impressive set of collaborations features. No matter which conferencing solution works best for you and your company, each has its own set of compatibility requirements and feature restrictions. It’s important for you to be aware of these to avoid any technical interruptions during your online sessions.
Understand the software compatibility of your platform, or platforms (many organizations purposefully utilize two or more different conferencing platforms), so you can connect to meetings easily. Make sure you have the downloaded app, the proper browser version, and OS upgrades. Also, ensure that correct settings (e.g., check to see that your video is turned off by default…you can always manually turn it on after entering the call) are in place before starting or joining sessions. It’s also often helpful to know how many participants your platform supports before planning large meetings.
All of the internal meeting tips still apply for external meetings. If you are scheduling meetings with someone outside your organization, there are a couple of additional items to consider. First, you need to communicate any access codes or configuration issues to your guests to help them easily join meetings. Communicating any hardware & software requirements ahead of time will get rid of glitches or delays during the session. Second, please be aware that meetings with guests may have limited features or restricted use of feature sets such as screen-sharing and other collaboration features.
So, plan for these in advance and confirm the required setting before the start of the meeting. Similarly, before accepting any meeting requests from other organizations, make sure you are familiar with the platform requested for the conference and understand the requirements and compatibility issues of the platform, if it’s different from what you usually use.
Network bandwidth is a crucial determinant of your online meeting experience. No matter how sophisticated your video conferencing solution is, it can deliver on its high-quality promise and advance feature capabilities only if your network bandwidth meets the minimum requirements for your solution. For example, if you are using HD video capability or conducting a meeting with 100 participants, know that you will likely need more bandwidth. Some of the main problems due to connectivity issues include choppy audio, video lag, video freezing and pixelation, and unexplained delays. Here are some troubleshooting ideas that can help you minimize these interruptions and video/call quality issues.
Working from home can be tricky due to internet connectivity issues. You may need to upgrade your home network bandwidth to ensure a quality call. If your home internet is maxed out (either due to provider/router limitations or due to the strain of other WFH users), a good strategy is often to NOT turn on your video during a call. Video transmission requires extra bandwidth and will result in lousy video and audio. If your home network bandwidth is at par with the platform requirements, there are a few adjustments that you can make to improve the quality of your sessions.
First, you can try relocating your work setup closer to your Wi-Fi router or moving your router to higher ground. You can also use an “old-school” wired connection instead if that’s an option. Second, you can try adjusting the network or bandwidth resolution settings on your device or software. Most endpoints have a maximum bandwidth setting that’s not necessary. Lowering/changing your device or software settings is hardly noticeable and can immediately improve your call quality.
If you’re still facing issues, you can try closing bandwidth-hungry applications such as internet videos and file backups, relocating the headset to a different USB port away from your camera connection, and reducing the size of your browser.
You probably have a dedicated IT team to conduct regular network assessment at your office. Issues with corporate connectivity are similar to those faced at home. You can try troubleshooting steps as mentioned above for your home network, as long as you have the necessary permissions. If you still face issues, immediately flag your IT helpdesk and confirm the issue resolution in a test meeting before scheduling your next session.
Consistent issues with network bandwidth at work might need a deeper dive into your organization’s setup. Unify Square Consultants can conduct a thorough WAN and Wi-Fi network assessment and make recommendations, customizable survey locations, and reporting and analytics to help ensure your team is ready for business success with your organization’s system deployment.
Video conferences in Room Systems can frequently have the most complications, especially if you do not plan your sessions ahead of time. Luckily, the need for, and access to in-office Room Systems is simply not an issue now with WFH mandates. Nevertheless, as a reference point for when employees return to the office, here are a few tips.
Room Systems bring with them additional baggage and complexities. Most notably the broad set of different microphones, speakers, speakerphones, video displays in the conference rooms, complicated logins, and scheduling. It’s not always intuitive to know which connector to use for which device, causing delays in starting your session. You can avoid this by using a wireless screen projection for a fast and secure connection. Especially for essential meetings, a great best practice is to schedule a “test meeting” in the same room before your meeting. You can use this test meeting to trial-run all systems. If you find a room (or rooms) that frequently cause issues, then consult with your IT team to test connections, devices, and network bandwidth before starting the next meeting.
A more significant challenge for your IT Team is when different teams/users within your organization use different platforms. Multi-platform environments become harder to manage and negatively impact the individual user experience. PowerSuiteTM for Room Systems is a proven solution for Meeting Room management, especially in a multi-platform environment. In addition to actionable Meeting Room analytics, it provides 24/7 troubleshooting for Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Skype Room Systems.
Video conferencing solutions use text, audio, video, and file transfer during a meeting. All of these modes of communication may deliver information that can be highly sensitive and confidential. Users must be aware of any security protocols for their platform of choice, especially if communicating with external partners. You must ensure that you are using all security features built into your conferencing solutions. A recent industry survey found that 85 percent of companies believe embracing the cloud is critical to fuel innovation. However, the same survey also reports that only 40% companies have an approach in place to appropriately manage cloud security.
Zoom has recently found itself in the news quite a bit because of security concerns. However, they are working quickly to make changes to patch any vulnerabilities such as uninvited attendees, exposed email addresses, encryption, etc. In comparison, the other top-rated video conferencing platform, Microsoft Teams, likely has a leg up (in the short-term) regarding security issues thanks to its long-term enterprise security investments in Office 365. Whether you’re using Zoom or Teams, or any other conferencing platform, secure calls are of primary importance.
Video conference etiquette
Video conferencing has its perks but can have negative impacts on productivity as it cannot mimic real-life interactions. Some best practices and “etiquettes” can improve the effectiveness of remote meetings significantly. We recommend anything that mimics real-life interactions.
Always turn on video so that participants can see visual cues while talking to each other. Maintaining proper lighting can ensure crisp images that make it more lifelike. Make sure you look work-appropriate in your video. Dressing up for work can not only help you set the tone for yourself but also others.
Keeping your microphone muted when you’re not speaking is a good practice. This will help you to avoid disrupting the call or to ensure that background noises (e.g., sneezing, eating, etc.) do not inadvertently transfer to a call. Zoom has a handy “walkie-talkie” feature that allows users to have their call muted and briefly come off mute with a push and hold of the space bar.
In addition to using the proper hardware, avoid background distractions by taking advantage of virtual backgrounds and background blurs. Zoom and very recently, Microsoft Teams, offer virtual background capabilities, which can allow you to insert a customized still image or video to block out distractions or messiness in your home office. The Teams’ virtual feature is very new. While it allows users to choose from stock virtual backgrounds, it won’t allow you to upload images. For a quick workaround, just copy the files to the folders below and restart. Reasonably sized JPEG seems to be the best option – roughly 1mb or so.
- Windows: %AppData%\Microsoft\Teams\Backgrounds\Uploads
- Mac: /users/<username>/Library/Application Support/Microsoft/Teams/Backgrounds/Uploads
Collaborating online can be difficult. The collaboration capabilities included in most conferencing platforms can help you work better. Many platforms have features like screen sharing, whiteboards, breakout rooms, annotation tools, and chat capability that you should consider using. Knowing which features are available and applying them in your meetings can give every call that in-person feel, which is key to being productive. Many of these features, however, can also be security risks, so only use them after you’ve considered all of the security implications. If you’re unsure, check first with your IT department.
Online meetings can sometimes be less engaging than in-person meetings. As a result, applying excellent communication tactics is even more critical in virtual meetings. Start your meeting with an icebreaker, especially if meeting people for the first time. Talk slowly and clearly and vary your tone as you speak. Discussions can happen quickly in on-site face-to-face meetings, but for online sessions, you may sometimes need to encourage participants to engage more actively in conversations.