The culture wars
For many, the transition to remote working challenged existing workplace culture. For some, there was little time to prepare a change management plan or engage in employee training to help make the best of the collaboration solutions chosen to help business survive the lockdown. "Everyone was forced to do a seven-year plan in two weeks,” said Wayne Kurtzman, IDC Research Director for Social and Collaboration.
Weeks later, and millions have become accustomed to using Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Cisco WebEx to collaborate with others. Microsoft recently confirmed it handled 2.7 billion meeting minutes in one day, while total video calls grew 1,000% in March. 200 million people were using Zoom daily in March to work, socialize and attend school. Video collaboration and classes have become part of our daily lives.
Our swift embrace of video meetings is not without problems. Network congestion can happen at home, in the broadband access network or within the enterprise or the hyperscale clouds hosting video apps. Consider asking your enterprise network service provider to run network analytics to identify where any congestion is happening.
With so many people confined to home, TV streaming has surged. So Netflix, Amazon Prime, BBC iPlayer and many more all cut the quality of their transmissions in an attempt to ensure enough bandwidth remains for companies supporting working from home.
Even so, if your household is full of kids watching Netflix streams, your wireless performance may suffer. Consider unchecking HD quality in your video app’s settings, and if you are still experiencing poor, choppy video, try using Wi-Fi boosters around the house, or plugging in an ethernet cable. Furthermore, many Wi-Fi routers let you prioritize application traffic in the little used QoS settings – one to ask your broadband service provider or company IT support team about.
Help from IT
Other headaches suffered by IT support have included VPN provision through internally-hosted infrastructure and employee-owned device/system support for your company’s chosen Virtual Desktop Infrastructure. After all, some on-premises configurations can require complex equipment configuration to enable remote access, which is a challenge when supporting remote workers.
Enterprise resources are also being stretched beyond design and bandwidth as larger numbers of employees attempt to use them. The latter is a problem for any SaaS provision, but when it comes to your enterprise VPN or VDI, it is the difference between productive working experiences and frustration. What happens when you can’t hold a virtual meeting because your VPN lacks the necessary bandwidth? Many Orange customers dialed up remote access capacity significantly overnight to support remote workers, as these business continuity case studies attest.
While the video stream may be protected by your private VPN and carried across your corporate network, remote working means no enterprise is in complete control. A OneLogin report claims 50% of UK remote workers have not changed their home Wi-Fi password in the last two years. Routers should be protected with unique passcodes, employees should have basic security knowledge, and equipment should be protected by the latest security updates. IT has a big responsibility here in terms of education and remote support.
Setting the scene
Whether a PC, Macbook, tablet or smartphone, your device must be running the latest operating system (OS) version and security must be updated. Furthermore, a video meeting will benefit from a good quality camera and a comfortable headset with a good quality microphone. A decent headset protects your family members from having to listen to your work-related conversation.
Not everyone has a home office, so find a place to work that’s comfortable and where you won’t be interrupted. Lighting can be important as most PC cameras don’t respond well to poor lighting.
Zoom, Teams and Webex all give you some control over the background you use in meetings. If appropriate, you can even have a little fun with these virtual backgrounds. One English filmmaker created a video background in which he brings himself a cup of tea.
Managing a meeting
Think about the nature of your video session: participants must focus on a bright screen and listen intently to absorb the information. They lose the intimacy of personal contact even while staring directly into other people’s faces and have no access to the non-verbal cues used to inform normal conversations. Video meetings take energy, strain eyes and stretch attention. It’s also quite easy to forget events during virtual meetings, as the physical and non-verbal cues you experience in real world meetings aren’t available to help boost memory.
Delegation helps, particularly if you are running a large-scale or all-hands meeting. You’ll want someone to handle the technological problems (muting people’s microphones when it isn’t their turn to speak, identifying Zoom bombers, facilitating document exchange), so you can focus on the task in hand. You may need to delegate other tasks, such as recording minutes or action points, to others in your organization.
Most video collaboration tools have an active speaker mode, which puts the person currently talking into the large window. That’s fine most of the time, but in busy meetings in which people are murmuring agreement or interrupting, it can become a chaotic mess of ever-changing windows. It doesn’t have to be this way – you can spotlight a video for all meeting participants in Zoom, Microsoft Teams and WebEx.
Another challenge, particularly in large-scale meetings, is how to break a meeting up into small groups for some tasks and bring them together again. Zoom and WebEx Training offer this, and Teams promises this as a future feature. Even in virtual space, breakout rooms can be a powerful tool when you’re trying to get your teams to work collaboratively to solve some kind of problem – though it will help to ensure someone takes ownership of reporting what happens in those rooms.
And because you are meeting virtually, don’t forget meeting best practices.
Meeting best practices
- Circulate agendas
- Take minutes
- Give all meeting participants a chance to introduce themselves and speak
- Build in time for short breaks
- Take a few moments to end the meeting, recap what has been agreed, thank participants and say goodbye – some may be self-isolating and this contact may matter to them
- Share meeting transcripts and action points after the meeting
Employee engagement is critical to any business, and social connections between employees is a crucial element of this, as Harvard Business Review reports. Face-to-face, one-to-one meetings may help you stay connected with remote teams.
While in a meeting, observe good etiquette such as muting your mic, use non-verbal gestures to show you are listening, don’t eat your lunch and avoid checking your email. You can get away with this in an audio call, but probably shouldn’t. Researchers at Stanford found that people who multitask can’t remember things as well as those who focus, so nurture a culture of focus and concentration.
Video in the new normal
At one point recently, 62% of employed Americans were working from home. We’ve learned how to use video collaboration technologies, and most enterprises have gone some way toward finding best-practice models that help them use these tools effectively. It is essential that we retain these tools and know-how. More than half of those companies who only recently began supporting remote working on account of the coronavirus pandemic say they will or probably will continue allowing employees to work from home.
Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.