Until we get the COVID-19 pandemic under control globally, we will be travelling and meeting in person a lot less, if at all. Let’s look at tools that are used for real-time collaboration and how to use them to get as close as we can to the face-to-face meetings that are going to become rarer or impossible.
We have at our disposal video conferencing, audio conferencing, messaging, and other collaborative platforms, and we will be using them more often and more intensely. Now is a good time to share some tips on how to get the most out of what’s available.
What’s so wonderful and rich about meeting in person? If we understand this, we are in a better position to emulate it remotely.
Each person can look wherever they wish, maintaining eye contact, or gazing on whatever interests them in the room. When this ability is missing because of a fixed camera angle, it can be frustrating – you don’t get a sense of the room and the activity of the different participants. Dedicated hardware video conferencing systems from companies like Cisco and Polycom may zoom in on the person speaking to emulate this to some degree, but it’s not the same as people controlling their own gaze. Some of the web/mobile tools like Zoom will enlarge the video of the person speaking rather than maintain a set of tiny images to help. You may have noticed that filmmakers will start with a wide scene and then go in for close-ups. This is so you have in your mind the entire context. You’ll feel like you’re closer to the experience.
When meeting in person, the sound is perfect; there is no delay or echo, with sounds correctly located spatially. High and low frequencies are there, which helps us identify individual voices and sharpen our perception of the speaker’s location. It’s easy to know who is talking and their tone. If this is missing – think old-fashioned speaker phone with old-fashioned voice quality – all the voices are mixed up in a fuzzball of sound. The voice might be chopped up by the echo-canceller, and a lot of the character of the voice is missing. The participants will spend a lot of their mental energy working out who is talking, rather than what they are saying or how they are saying it. It’s excruciating.
If your company can afford it, Dolby™ now has voice conferencing units that place each person’s voice around a table. So even though it’s not video, you get the directional cue that makes it clear who is speaking. I’ve used these, and they’re a revelation. The popular Polycom “flying saucer” conference units often have the option for high fidelity voice – use this option when you can. Zoom and Google Hangouts, for example, have prompts to show who is speaking, which can help, and, if there is a quality internet connection, can provide good voice quality.
When we see other people with our own eyes, movement is smooth and natural, detail and nuance in movement are easily detectable, and we perceive things as solid and in three dimensions. This is important for understanding body language, and this non-verbal communication is very important when making difficult decisions, like judgement calls or job interviews, that aren’t 100% based on facts. Current video systems don’t do this well. Without these cues, people will use the audio to try to deduce as much nuance as possible. Any meetings where emotion plays a role will suffer if video is poor, and even more if the audio is poor.
Information on a whiteboard, projector, or bits of paper is easy and natural for people in the room to share. Thankfully, plain old email, and newer tools like Google Docs/Drive, Office 365, GoToMeeting and Hangouts make it quite easy to share content during conference calls. In my view, we don’t use the collaborative editing features of these web-based tools like Google Docs enough. When properly used, they are very powerful and save endless versions emailed back and forth; and in my experience, working collaboratively and remotely leads to better results when creating content as a team.
So, when we meet in person there is rich information across every sense, and we can direct our senses to whatever interests us in the room. We take this for granted when we meet in person. When we can’t meet in person, different kinds of real-time collaboration systems inevitably degrade or remove parts of this natural richness, which forces us to compensate. This takes mental effort (increasing cognitive load) and reduces focus from the content and purpose of the meeting. If we haven’t met the participants before, this is even harder, as we are trying to understand them as people with vital cues missing or smudged, as well as process and respond to the meeting’s content.
Immersive telepresence systems attempt to minimise these degradations by having high-quality video and audio as well as large screens, so participants are life-sized, and the setting emulates a meeting in a board room. Companies like Cisco, Avaya, Polycom, Huawei™ (pictured), and others sell these systems. They work well, and use them if you can. They are expensive, so generally they are used by larger companies, and even then, they are often heavily booked and hard to access.
Given that all types of remote collaboration will lose some of the advantages of face-to-face collaboration what can we do to make the best of the situation, especially when using commonly available options?
How to get more out of video and audio conference systems
Get the best quality you can. Unless you are using a top-end system with specially-designed microphone systems, use headsets like Jabra or similar wherever possible. Wired headsets will perform better than current wireless technology if you have a choice, despite the popularity of wireless options. Dialing into a conference bridge with a handset and headphones is almost always better than handsfree, which I avoid generally unless it’s a sophisticated system with proper audio engineering (e.g. Dolby, Polycom, Cisco). You may have noticed when dialing into a large meeting all the remote participants on the conference bridge are clear and easy to understand, but people in the room are much harder to hear properly. And always, always mute when you are not speaking. If you are dialing in, do not put the call on hold to answer an incoming call, as there is often call-hold music that all the participants on the call will hear until you finish your call.
Train yourself to always look at the camera. This is easier if the screen and camera are close to one another. Smart phones are great for this – and it’s easier if you have stand. For laptops, move the machine away a little so the difference between looking at the camera and the person’s face on the screen is smaller. And again, look at the camera as much as possible. The eye contact will really help your colleagues.
Good audio is more important than video :
We humans are very good at picking up nuances in voice, which can compensate when the video is missing or poor. In fact, there is some evidence that suggests poor video quality is worse than no video, and it’s better just to get voice right. Special conference systems usually have the best voice quality – especially dialing into a conference bridge. Web/mobile tools such as Skype or WhatsApp can go a great job if you have a good quality internet connection and use headsets rather than laptop or smart phone handsfree.
Large meetings :
If you must call a large meeting, ensure there is structure. This entails a pre-defined agenda, procedures for ensuring everyone gets heard, and clear outcomes for the meeting. This is good procedure for any meeting, but it’s especially important for remote collaboration as so many of the face-to-face cues are missing. Try to get to know people one-on-one before group meetings if you haven’t met them before (more on this later).
Ensure you have a good quality internet connection, one that is solid, fast, and with low delay.
Sometimes a phone hotspot is better than the in-building Wi-Fi, especially if you have the newer versions of 4G or 5G phones. If you aren’t sure, you can check your connection with tools like Speedtest. You can check the delay by looking at ping times. The higher the bandwidth and the lower the ping time—the better.
Redesign work :
Wherever possible, make meetings as small as possible so that the deficiencies in real-time tools are less of a handicap. If you must have larger meetings, encourage participants to meet each other beforehand one-on-one, even if over the phone or video calls. And encourage the use of messaging and workplace tools.
Messaging and workflow tools :
Tools like Slack, Dropbox, Google Docs, Trello or Office365 here should be embraced, as they help structure work among teams, whether those teams are in-person or working remotely. Use real-time methods like conference calls and video to support the work done on these collaborative platforms.
Getting to know you
When working remotely it’s easy to lose the sense of community and personality you get in a in your workplace, or the ability to size someone up when you meet them for the first time. How can we get some version of this remotely?
Normally, you’d like to meet someone for the first time face-to-face. That way you get a full impression not just of what they say, but their personality, body language, and other nuances. Looking them in the eye, can you trust them? Do you like them? Do they trust or like you? These assessments work best in person, and humans are very good at making them quickly. When you’ve met someone before, it’s much easier to work with them remotely. Your mind has formed a model of them and uses this to compensate for deficiencies in the collaborative technology.
In the current reality, we can’t meet in person. What do we do? Schedule a one-on-one video or voice call with good audio quality with key participants before you have a formal meeting if you can.
The good thing is that video or audio can work very well for one-on-one communications. Video generally has only one camera angle, which is fine as that is how we generally speak to each other one-on-one, and it’s especially effective if we can get the gaze right. What that means is you need to learn to look at the camera, not the video of the person’s face. A good set-up will ensure the camera and image of people’s heads line up as much as possible. Smartphones are ideal for this as their smaller size means the camera and video images line up very well. Always aim to get the best audio you can. It makes a world of difference.
In general, try to have as many one-on-one video or audio meetings with your key colleagues as you can, in addition to group meetings. It’s not quite the same as meeting in person, but it helps build that mental model of the other person. If time is tight, another way — which usually happens in face-to-face meetings where people don’t already know each other — is for each person to do a short introduction. This is good meeting practice in any case, but surprisingly, people often forget. If your video conferencing system can zoom in on the person speaking, this will work more meaningfully.
When people face a crisis there are usually some positive outcomes.
There are environmental benefits :
Usually the Sydney Harbour Bridge is a mess at peak hour, but driving to the airport the other day, the roads were a dream, as many companies have asked people to work from home.
Working from home is often promoted as a way to ease road congestion and pollution from cars, but it hasn’t been fully embraced. Maybe this crisis will show us, that at least for knowledge workers, we can work remotely a lot more than we do, which will take pressure off the roads, lead to less pollution, and also give people back time wasted commuting. It may turn out to be a valuable, if uninvited, large social experiment.
The crisis may advance the art and practice of remote collaboration and teleworking :
Clearing the roads is one thing, but if most of us are now having to work remotely, we are going to first adapt to the tools that exist and get better at using them. More than that, the entrepreneurs and engineers among us are going to be stimulated to improve the tools and invent new ones. Watch this space – I expect it to be exciting!