Getting Video Conferencing Right

At MongoDB the current situation has forced us all to be remote and I know there are 100s of other companies that have done the same. Luckily we have the technology to continue to meet and discuss our work.

What’s the big deal? Starting the video conferencing software and jump into the conversation. It’s as simple as that, right? After spending uncountable hours in video conferencing meetings over the past 8 years I learned that participating on a call remotely is fundamentally different than having a face-to-face meeting.

The Setup

You need just 5 things: VC software, a good internet connection, a laptop with a camera, headphones, and good lighting. Some might argue having a good mic is super important and an HD camera makes every video call better. I don’t think they make a big difference. Concentrate on these 3 things:

A laptop with a camera – We want to see each other. We are social people and just speaking with a profile picture of someone feels strange. We want to see the non-verbal reaction to topics we discus.

Headphones – Without them: the mic may pic up the speaker and you get a weird echo. This was a given 5 years ago. Today the software is much better so it works probably 90% without headphones. There is still apr. 10% of meetings where it doesn’t work correct, so please wear headphones. I still prefer the cabled version. Sometimes the VC conference software has problems choosing the right mic or audio output especially with bluetooth. My cable headphones always work.

Lighting – The most underrated equipment for remote calls. In order to see people’s facial expressions during a video conference you need good lighting. You can spend a lot of money on this but it really just needs a lamp with a soft light bulb shining directly into your face. Installing some indirect lighting is a bit bigger investment but it’s also more comfortable for you.

Software – These days most video conferencing tools have all the essential features. The quality of the calls is similar. If there’s one thing you want to check it is support for showing the video feed of the other participants while you share the screen. Talking just to your computer while you don’t see your co-workers is super weird. Tools like Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, BlueJeans, and Google Chat (formally known as Hang Out) are all good for regular video meetings.

The Meeting

Doing 1:1 meetings is a straight forward thing. Both are engaged and you two don’t speak at the same time. It’s getting more interesting when more people meet virtually.

Everyone remote – If you have just one or two people participating remote and the rest of the meeting guests are gathering around a table in an office, there is one recommendation: Everyone dials in with their own laptop. Everyone should share the same experience. This way you don’t have side conversations that remote people can’t follow, you can see everyones reaction to an argument you’re making, and all are suffering from someone speaking while having audio drop outs due to a weak internet connection.

Don’t make the mistake that everyone books their own rooms and dial in with the office video equipment. It’s important that everyone is using the laptop camera. That automatically forces everyone to look at their screen and into the camera. This is much more engaging.

The tiled view – Some video conference tools offer the possibility to show all participants in the same size pictures. Choose that options. Default the person that is currently speaking is showing in large picture on the screen and everyone else in tiny pictures. I want to see the reaction of everyone that’s why I prefer that tiled view.

Mute yourself – If you’re 4 or more people in the meeting it’s a good idea that everybody but the current speaker mutes themselves. Simply unmute when you want to say something. Nothing is more annoying than having a meeting with the whole team and there is background noise from someone that you can’t identify.

Have a moderator – It’s often difficult for remote participants to jump into a conversation when there’s a pause. Especially because of the network latency. Someone else continues the conversation and you end up speaking at the same time. A moderator can assure that everyone’s opinion got heard. A good practice is to unmute yourself when you want to say something. The moderator sees that and will ask you for your opinion whenever there’s a pause in the discussion. Some video conference tools additionally offer the possibility of raising your hand virtually instead of using the “unmute hack”.

Pay attention – Don’t check emails, read chat messages, or browse the internet during a remote call. It’s not alright for face-to-face meetings and it’s not for your remote meeting. People can see that you’re reading something and are not fully concentrated on the call. Really, the chat can wait.

One at a time – If everyone dials in with their own laptop you probably don’t have the problem. But if you have a mixed meeting with some people remote and the rest in a conference room it can become a problem when people speak at the same time. The remote people can not follow 2 conversations at the same time.

You want to learn more about working remotely? Here’s a talk I’ve done:

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