As the COVID-19 pandemic makes more-and-more companies decide to go partially or fully remote, it is a very appropriate time to share experience and advice on what can help teams remain productive in this new situation.
I worked remotely for a wide variety of clients in the last couple of years and learned a lot about what the key components of a remote collaboration are. One key ingredient to efficient remote teams is doing meetings right.
Some say remote teams should only communicate asynchronously (via chat, email and documents) but for most, especially for those who only recently switched, setting up conference calls with multiple participants regularly will be inevitable. And it’s harder to do right than most people think.
Probability of "technology works": 50%. Probability of a video call working with video and audio both ways: 50% * 50% * 50% * 50% = 6.25%— Márton Salomváry (@salomvary) June 6, 2016
There is complicated technology involved in videoconferencing, participants might have different cultural backgrounds, use diverse hardware and software equipment and will dial in from less-than-ideal surroundings.
Therefore it is imperative for everyone to aim for the Perfect Conference Call and hope you will only have minor glitches. Below is my advice on how to do accomplish this.
✋ Only meet if necessary
The best meeting is the meeting that did not happen, keep their numbers low, find other ways to sort things out.
👥 Keep the number of participants low
Inviting more people to a conference call drastically increases the chances of failure. Think twice before inviting someone. Will they really contribute? Do they really benefit? Can they get quickly briefed before or after in writing instead?
If you are invited to a meeting and have doubts whether your participation is useful, decline politely. Don not hang around just because someone invited you.
Also do not invite people as “optional”. Be explicit to avoid spending the first few minutes discussing “whether we should wait for X to join”.
⏱ Be 5 minutes early
Get ready to dial in 5 minutes before the announced start time. This allows you to get comfortable in whatever space you use and test whether the equipment is ready for joining. If you think turning on your laptop at 9:59 for a 10:00 meeting will be fine, you are wrong. You will be late and being late is not only impolite, it wastes everyone else’s time.
If the conferencing tool allows joining early you can even take the opportunity and have bit of small-talk with your colleagues.
🔥 Have a backup plan
If you are a participant, know what alternative ways are available for connecting. Most conferencing solutions allow joining using a good old phone call in case the fancy app refuses to work.
As an organizer of a remote meeting be prepared that a key person will not be able to join due to technical difficulties or they disappear half way through the meeting. If the issue persists for a minute or two, cancel and reschedule for another time. Do not make others wait for someone’s network connection to recover.
👩⚖️ Have a moderator
Just like at offline meetings, it is useful to have a person who keeps track of time, reminds people to stick to the agenda, facilitates moving conversations to another channel and reminds people to mute their microphones.
🎧 Use headphones
Even though smartphones and laptops nowadays have decent audio quality and feedback protection for voice calls, using headphones (preferably with built-in microphone) is still the best way of preventing other participants from hearing their own voice back through your connection. Furthermore headphones help you to hear and understand them better and cut you off from distractions.
If you are typing on a laptop while in a call, it is essential to use an external microphone as the internal ones are notorious at picking up and relaying keyboard noise to the other participants.
💻 Know your equipment
There are a gazillion audio and videoconferencing hardware and software, it is not unlikely that you will have to face something unknown in your next meeting (even if you have been working for the same company for a while). Be sure you have the necessary software installed, be that a desktop or mobile app or a browser extension.
Check whether you need to sign in or sign up to join in advance. If you need to use a corporate account expect going through a multi-factor authentication before. This is more likely if you are signing in from a new device or a location you have not used before.
If you need to use a VPN, be sure it is working.
📶 Do not use a Wi-Fi connection
One of the unsolved problems of the 21st century is stable and reliable wireless networking for everyone. If you have cabled network connection available, prefer using that. If you do not, consider buying one, they are cheap and a great investment preventing choppy audio, frozen video or dropped calls.
If you are using your home or office network, it is also useful to have your phone set up to be used as a personal hotspot to have backup if your primary connection goes down.
🔇 Mute your microphone
Whenever you are not talking (especially when for longer periods) turn off your microphone. Nobody wants to hear you breathing or coughing, your phone notifications or fire engines passing in front of your house.
When you want to talk, don’t forget to unmute yourself :)
🤫 Keep your environment quiet
Be sure your environment is as quiet as possible. If you have your family or kids around, ask them to avoid distracting you during meetings. If your home-office has a door, close it. If you have windows open to a busy street, close them.
Prefer not to participate from a café or bar or a busy street. If you really must, try to find a quiet corner.
If you have your camera on, sit in front of a neutral background. People walking behind you does not help. You think your cat walking into the scene is funny? It might be funny once, but it’s more of a distraction for the others.
🏢 Use good quality conference rooms
When some of the participants dial in from a regular office meeting room and some others remotely, keep in mind that people sitting at various distances around a laptop results in a terrible experience for the remote people. They will struggle following the conversation since laptop microphones are designed to pick up the voice of one person sitting directly in front of them, not conversations from a room full of people.
Combined speaker-microphone devices are available for phis purpose, make you employer buy one for each conference room used for remote calls.
Conference rooms often suffer from general poor acoustics, most common is reverb. This can contribute to call quality problems and even though reducing sound reflections does not cost a fortune, it is quite common. If you office suffers from this, prefer smaller rooms where the acoustical problems are usually less apparent.
👔 Be disciplined and polite
Like in other situations, do not talk while someone else it talking, do not cut others off and only interrupt if absolutely necessary. Keep in mind that even if in real life some of this is acceptable, in an on-line situation the slight delay in picture and sound and the drastically reduced meta-communication small “deviances” can be highly disruptive.
👖 Wear pants
You never know when you will accidentally turn on the camera instead of starting screen sharing. It is strongly recommended to wear at least a shirt.
How does your team do amazing (or terrible) conference calls? Do you have something to add or disagree with? Get in touch, see below how!
Does your software development team struggle with remote work? You can hire me for an hour, day, week or more time of consulting.