More of us are now working from home, and more of our kids are having to finish their school year from home too. That presents all sorts of opportunities and problems, and at the center of both are web conferencing and video chat technologies. Understanding how they are used and setting up basic rules, figuring out your collection of tools, and setting up separate work/school areas in your house will determine if your family will be productive and if you can survive your “sheltering in place” during this COVID crisis.
Even Bill Gates is spending most of his time on video conferencing (check out this interview with TED’s head honcho where he plugs Microsoft Teams several times during the first few minutes).
I have been using a variety of conferencing systems over the years, and help produce a several-hundred person webinar for the American Red Cross monthly. Here are some tips from these experiences.
1. Each family member needs to establish their own “broadcasting protocol,” for lack of a better term. If Mom is online, does that mean that Dad can’t interrupt the call? Or that the kids can’t wander in for a visit? The old rules of not having a child interrupt your work meeting no longer apply. I put together a podcast with Paul Gillin about some of these old rules last fall here.)
The number of memes showing various family members caught in states of undress have certainly proliferated. Clearly, set some ground rules about what, when, and what to wear when on a video call, or when video is and isn’t appropriate. Figure out where each family member is going to be using as their “studio” so that everyone can have their own space. A friend of mine has noticed that all the professional news anchors who are now broadcasting from their homes has given him a chance to view their room designs. It certainly isn’t “design on a dime” but it at least injects some new interest in their broadcasts.
Another thing that I have seen in the past couple of weeks is a more relaxed use of the video conference. “Sharing” dinner over a conference call link in lieu of being at the same dining table. Celebrating a work milestone with drinks from everyone’s home office, rather than in person at the local bar or conference room. Doing homework together over a conference line. You get the idea. Be creative and figure out what works for your situation.
2. Video is nice, but having solid audio is key. That brings up my next point. I don’t want to minimize the importance of video. As you know, I mostly work alone in my office. In the past weeks I have wanted to connect more via video, to see my family and friends. Video is an important connector in these times of crisis. But if your audio gear is subpar, you need to address that now. No one wants to listen to bad audio. Your laptop’s audio gear might not cut it, and if you are going to be doing a lot of conferences, invest $50 to $100 in a decent external USB mic.
3. Understand you’ll need some minimal production values, for both personal and work purposes. Have an agenda, have a conference call leader, prepare the presentation ahead of time, set up a call sheet of who speaks when. And check your audio setup to make sure folks can hear you clearly. These things are also important for calls to family and friends too. While having a “coffee talk” freestyle type of meeting is nice, once the novelty of seeing everyone wears off, you should make the calls more structured. Also, if you are going to share your screen, prepare it ahead of time: don’t have everyone looking at your email inbox or have your messaging client pop-ups enabled during your session.
4. Use calendar invites with care. Google’s calendar invite automatically adds its own Hangout link: that is great if that is what you want to use, but it is confusing if you have some other tool in mind. Remember that some other automatically generated invites (such as from Zoom) don’t automatically adjust for time zone differences. And speaking of which, start your meetings on time, please.
5. No single tool will work for every family member, or even every situation. We are fortunate that we have so many products that are available, and many of them are free of charge: Zoom, Webex, Facebook Messenger, Facetime, Google Hangouts/Meet/Duo, WhatsApp and Skype are just a few of the services. If you look at this list (and there are dozens more products that I didn’t mention), they come to the party from different places: video telephones designed for 1-on-1 calls, video-enhanced text messaging, video collaboration tools designed for supporting sharing stuff (files, URLs and chats), video-enhanced social networking and video training tools that are designed for a somewhat different collaboration.
Figure out what works for you, based on your prior experience, what your contacts/peer groups are using and if your business already supports one of these for work-related calls. Zoom has been in the news a lot because it is very easy to setup (including these simple recording features shown here) and because a lot of schools are setting up distance learning classes using it. But if you want to run meeting longer than 40 minutes with more than two people, you’ll need the paid version, or try out Webex, which has a free tier for this situation. Also, if you are concerned about Zoom’s cavalier attitude towards privacy, you may want to choose something else.
So it is possible that your kids might use Facebook Messenger/Whats App, you will use Zoom and your spouse will use the office’s Microsoft Teams. That’s okay. Realize that each family member is coming from a different experience and comfort level with these tools. Remember that our kids have grown up with various digital products but may not be used to using them productively under present circumstances. You may want to monitor their use, depending on their age and what kind of parent you are too.
Video calls now have a heavy lift and have to support your work life and your family’s social life. As we spend more time at home, we need to stay connected with loved ones and work colleagues and figure out how to become more productive.