March 01, 2020
It’s vital to have a working setup for video meetings when you’re part of a distributed team. It basically comes down to inclusion.
I’m Per Enström, and I’ve been on a distributed team for the past year and a half. From the very start, the entire team has done its best to make sure that everyone is as involved and present as possible, and by now it has become a way of working that we’re used to. It’s vital to have a working setup for video meetings when you’re part of a distributed team. It basically comes down to inclusion.
If video conferencing doesn’t work adequately, remote workers will not participate as much.
Team members who find it difficult to keep up during meetings and have a hard time making themselves heard are team members not being utilised to their full potential. Poor conditions for remote meetings impact your deliverable.
10 commandments to make video meetings as good as they can be
With that said, here are my ten commandments for making video meetings as good as they can be. Many of them are based on teams where one group is in the same place and one or more participants dial in remotely, but a lot of my recommendations can be applied to fully digital meetings. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully it’s a way to turn your meetings up a notch.
1. Come prepared
Decide which meeting service to use for the meeting before sending out the meeting notice. If you leave this out, there is a serious risk that meeting participants will be scratching their heads when meeting time comes around.
Also, make sure to book a meeting room that has the technical and physical conditions needed to have a good meeting. Camera, microphone and speakers are important. But don’t forget physical conditions such as good lighting and good sound attenuation. The same of course goes for your home office or the kitchen table.
2. Know your tools
Once you prepare yourself by deciding what service to use and making sure all the equipment you need is available, it's time to learn how to use it. Fiddle with how to share your screen and switch your microphone, speakers and camera well ahead of the meeting. You should also know exactly how to use the technical equipment, meaning you should know which cables to plug in and what needs to be turned on.
If the meeting is more interactive and not just communicative, you can also use digital tools to simulate tools we are used to using in the real world. One example is a service called Miro, where you and your team can put up post-it notes, make notes and add pictures, all on a digital whiteboard. The benefit here is that those participating remotely can keep up (it's basically impossible to keep up with actual Post-it notes being put up on a board if you’re watching via camera), but you also get immediate documentation of your exercise.
3. Keep order during the meeting
One point that many would do well to remember even for meetings that are not held remotely is to keep order during the meeting. Have a clear goal and purpose in mind for the meeting. At the beginning of the meeting, it's also a really good idea to introduce all the meeting participants, especially if not all of them are visible in the picture.
Something that is especially important when there are remote participants is not to speak all at once, or to have multiple discussions going on at the same time. Voice over IP programs are often optimised for reproducing one voice at the best possible quality. As soon as more than one person is speaking, audio compression and other technical details make it very difficult to make out a single person's voice. If you are wearing headphones you do not have the same ability to focus on one person as you do in real life.
4. Always show, and always see each other
As I mentioned in the introduction, most of this comes down to including those participating remotely in the best way possible. The easiest way is for everyone to always see one another. If you are sharing some kind of material – a PowerPoint presentation or similar – it is important to make sure the program you are using supports showing participants at the same time.
Communication is so much easier if you can see people's body language
If possible, it's great if you can have two screens: one for presentation purposes and one for meeting participants, but that is far from possible in all cases. That's why it can be a good idea not to use the computer that is connected to a meeting TV for presentation purposes, but for the person who is presenting to connect to the meeting as well (with their audio turned off) and to share their screen from there. This way, everyone can see both the participants and the material being shared.
One reason it is important to always see each other is that communication is so much easier if you can see people's body language and who is speaking. If you cannot see the remote meeting participants, it's easy to forget that you need to keep all of these meeting commandments in mind. For those participating remotely it is also much easier for them to make themselves heard if they can raise their hands so that other people see them.
For these reasons, for those sitting in the same room it is particularly important to use an external camera and not just the laptop camera. It happens far too frequently that the meeting host will start the meeting with their computer and camera turned to face all the participants in the room, only to turn the computer back towards themselves once the presentation starts, as a result of which remote participants only see that person.
5. Remote first
To the extent possible, you can try having all meeting participants connect remotely, including those physically sitting in the same offices. This way everybody will be participating in the meeting on the same terms. Of course, this assumes that you have the ability to sit apart, in separate telephone booths or meeting rooms. Holding meetings remotely in open office landscapes or in cafés is not something I recommend.
6. Have good Internet service
This is a very simple point that people often overlook in today's wireless society. Wifi is good, but often unstable. This is why you should always use wired Internet, if available. If you don't have access to a wired connection, you should still learn which conference rooms have better Wi-Fi coverage and which ones poorer coverage.
7. Participate remotely yourself sometimes
If you are not usually one of the remote participants, try participating remotely now and then. It's fascinating how much insight can be gleaned by sitting in someone else's seat. Then you’ll see where the biggest pain points are.
8. Show the setup
Especially if your organisation holds long meetings, or conducts entire workshops, it can be a good idea to take a photo of the setup the way the people in the room see it, and to send it out to the remote participants. Hopefully this helps those participating remotely see the relationship between camera and screen, helping them gain a better understanding of why people look off in another direction when they talk.
9. Think about what you’ve got running
Things are constantly coming up and demanding our attention in our daily lives and working lives. These interruptions come from all over, especially the digital world. We receive email notifications, meeting reminders, Slack notifications, etc. Before you join a meeting as the meeting host, it is important to turn off all of these communication channels.
This is especially important if you are using your computer microphone and speakers for the meeting, in which case remote participants will hear all your email notifications loud and clear. However, be careful not to reflexively turn off the sound on your computer when you get a notification, because if you do so it will suddenly become impossible for remote participants to make themselves heard (especially if you violated the fourth commandment and cannot see those participating remotely).
10. Wrap up the meeting properly
In ordinary physical meetings, it is common for meetings to be ended somewhat informally, and for participants to linger and mingle for a while before everyone packs up. This is an important communication forum, but when you are holding a remote meeting it is important to be clear about when the meeting is over. Those participating remotely cannot participate in the unofficial communication, and they don't appreciate just being disconnected. So conclude the meeting, say goodbye to the remote participants and then shut the meeting down.
And that's where I want to conclude this article. I hope it has given you some new ideas about how to better include people who are not all in the same place.