Video Calls, Hardware, and Conference Rooms for Remote Meetings
9 minutes, 17 links
Updated March 23, 2023
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When it comes to A/V setups there’s no one-size-fits-all configuration that’s best for remote teams—your setup depends on whether your team is fully distributed or has a hybrid configuration.
Remote meetings via video should be stable, reliable, accessible, and not get in the way of getting work done. Video calls will be as good as the tools you invest in, including video conferencing software, hardware like cameras and microphones, and physical spaces like home offices, conference rooms, or meeting booths. When it comes to software, Wirecutter recommends Zoom as the best video-conferencing service after comparing 19 different options (it’s what we use at Holloway as well). Hardware and physical spaces are trickier, and will depend on the size of your organization, budget and needs.
Remote employees who have a dedicated home office with a door that can protect them from home life, can choose between having a microphone or a headset, depending on how likely it is that background noise will impact the calls they attend. When background noise can be an issue, using a headset optimized for calls (not music) like the Plantronics Voyager will make the experience for both parties much better. If headsets aren’t feasible, you can also consider using noise-canceling software like Krisp. (See more detail on home-office setup in Setting up Your Remote Office.)
importantRemote companies will want to plan for some form of stipend or other way of reimbursing employees for any necessary equipment or other supplies they need to work from home. In some states, this is legally mandated.
Hybrid Office Requirements for Remote Meetings
Most companies are not fully distributed; in these cases, what companies need to consider is a configuration that works for both co-located and remote workers. Stack Exchange wrote about their challenges creating a space for a 50% distributed team in 2015. With the rise of open offices, HQ employees find themselves scrambling for conference rooms to meet and remote workers play “conference call bingo” while the meeting starts.
When you are considering conference room and remote setups, focus on creating the best possible environment for synchronous collaboration. Can people hear each other well? Can they see everyone’s facial expressions? Is all information equally accessible to everyone who will participate in the meeting, either in the office or remotely?
cautionTrying to cut costs in your hardware and conference rooms will impact your hybrid teams’ productivity and workplace experience. Five minutes spent fighting with hardware on a five-person meeting translates to almost half an hour of wasted time and for distributed teams, the A/V setup becomes the equivalent of a physical office, so it’s worth giving it an equal amount of attention.
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importantIf you use Zoom as your video conferencing provider, you should consider enabling Zoom Rooms for your conference rooms, which makes it easier to book conference rooms with Zoom links, join Zoom meetings, and share screens with anyone in the meeting. Zoom also provides a thorough hardware guide that is compatible with their setup and may also work with other software providers.
To make any conference room work well for video conferencing and synchronous collaboration, consider investing in the following.
Your conference room should have a camera that allows remote participants to see everyone clearly. Instead of mounting it on top of the display, consider mounting it under the displays so when meeting participants look at the display screen, remote participants experience eye-level contact instead of a sense of looking down at the room. Wide-angle cameras allow you to capture the entire room, and some have variable zoom. Ultimately, the size of the room will determine what kind of camera you should get and you may want to try a few and get a remote worker to give you their perspective on placement and video quality.
There are some 360° cameras available in the market (for example, Owl Labs and Kandao), but—at least at Splice—we found that people would rather look at the display screen when someone was talking or there was a presentation displayed instead of the camera, making it a worse experience for remote workers because it seemed like everyone was looking away from the camera. At the very least, be prepared to experiment a bit and figure out what works for everyone on your team.
For collaboration with remote individuals, consider having two displays—one where you can see people’s faces and another one for presentations and screen sharing. Before you add dual displays, be sure to examine if your video conferencing software and hardware support it. Chromebox for meetings supports dual monitors, and Zoom Rooms also supports multiple displays with different configurations.
Small and medium rooms can get away with integrated microphones and speakers like the HDL300 system. Larger spaces for training or all-hands meetings may need professional-grade speakers which can be ceiling-mounted and calibrated for the space.
importantSound is complicated, and we recommend that anything beyond a small conference room is set up by professionals, or you’ll end up paying for it in team productivity.
Just like with speakers, small rooms can get away with integrated mic/speaker setups that are high quality. Microphones should be omnidirectional, meaning they can pick up audio with equal gain from all directions. Podcast and studio microphones are not the best choice for conference rooms, or you’ll find yourself having to move the microphone depending on who is speaking. Depending on the ambient noise and acoustics of the room, sensitive microphones can provide a degraded experience for remote employees by picking up background noise. MXL microphones are professional grade and specifically designed for meetings.
The distributed Splice engineering team are big fans of The Catch Box, which isolates background noise in shared conference rooms, and ensures people can’t talk out of turn. It isolates background noise when there are chatty folks in the NYC conference rooms, and also ensures that people can’t talk out of turn. Whoever is in possession of the cube has the word. It was also very useful during all-hands meetings to ensure questions were heard by remote and in-person participants equally.
Acoustic treatment for conference rooms is the ultimate upgrade for distributed team experience. By treating room surfaces with different materials, the diffusion and absorption of sound of the spaces is improved, resulting in better sound capture for microphones and improved participation for remote workers when they’re easier to listen to as well. If you’re interested in room acoustics, here’s a thorough room acoustics guide.
importantPhysics are complicated, and you may do more damage to the acoustics of a room by going DIY, so consider hiring a professional for this as well.
Rooms designed for remote collaboration should consider the camera and display placement. Tables with a triangle-like shape are better than rectangular tables because they allow for everyone’s face to be exposed to the camera. Circular tables aren’t ideal, since someone may end up with their back facing the camera, leading to a poor experience on the other end of the call.
Remote Whiteboarding Sessions
Remote work breaks down when we try to mirror physical processes in the virtual world. Instead of trying to skeuomorph our way into collaboration, we should focus on the outcomes of any process we use and find alternatives that can help us achieve these outcomes.
Whiteboarding is the process of drawing on a whiteboard on a wall (typically with dry-erase markers) in order to visualize ideas or concepts. It can be used to demonstrate or explain something to other people, or more collaboratively as a tool for brainstorming and coming up with new ideas.
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