Measuring your Covid KPIs

A friend of mine has been noting several of her family’s key performance indicators (KPIs) during the Covid Times. Things like how many minutes her family collectively naps and exercises each day, or the number of days they have cooked dinner together (vs. getting takeout) or total episodes of Tiger King they have watched. At first I thought it was very cute and clever but now I think this idea is worth a closer look. After months under lockdown, we all need some solid data to measure how we are holding up under the strain. And you all know how much of a data nerd I am.

This week the NY Times published its own instructive “pandemic rules”. The piece included accounting for the number of close contacts, managing your exposure “budget” and keeping higher-risk activities as short as possible. All are worthy goals.

Here are a few more of the ones that I have discovered from my wife and I being under lockdown.

  1. Number of bottles of wines remaining before resupply. Early on in the Covid period, we didn’t venture out for anything. I wanted to order at my favorite wine shop and pickup at the curb. Their website was terrible and it took forever to find things that would have taken me about 15 minutes if I was shopping at the physical store. Thankfully we aren’t big drinkers but we will eventually have to restock.
  2. Rolls of toilet paper remaining on hand. No more needs to be said of this.
  3. Instacart fulfillment wait times. When we began in March, we already were big users of Instacart for grocery delivery. Orders which were usually filled within hours of completing the carts suddenly took days or even a week as newbies jumped on board this system. Thankfully they have gotten things back under control and now are back to a few hours to fill.
  4. Teenage eye rolls per day. Thankfully we are empty nesters, otherwise the first metric might have to be adjusted. But hearing from parents of teens who are sheltered together more has been interesting. Some teens are finding out what mom and dad actually “do” during the work day instructive, and perhaps are more sympathetic when sharing the communal “office.”
  5. Number of Zoom minutes consumed by non-work activities. As Zoom has become the de facto connective and social tissue of our lives, its use varies depending on our social needs.
  6. Steps. We have always tracked our daily step count, but finding places to walk where you aren’t dodging folks can be tricky.
  7. Proportion of non-masked people encountered. Across our region this varies by place, time of day and other factors. Hard to have any hard and fast rules here. But we both are using them as much as possible when we are out.

If you have suggestions on other metrics to determine progress, do share in the comments.

A brief history of lightbulb manufacturing

Given that we are all at home, I was thinking the other day of some of my favorite museums that I have visited during better times. As long-time readers might remember, I am a big fan of the Henry Ford Museum outside of Detroit. I was reminded of all the treasures in their collection when the news broke this week that GE was finally selling off its light bulb division to  Savant, a smart home company. GE had this division for more than a century, and it had been losing money on it for several years.

The light bulb is an iconic product for the company that was founded by Thomas Edison. But the real innovation happened not when Edison came up with the initial invention, but about improvements to how they were made. Back in the 1880s, glassblowers were able to create a bulb every 30 seconds if they got good at doing them. Moving forward thirty years, engineers had developed machines that could produce perhaps ten or twenty bulbs a minute. But that wasn’t fast enough, particularly as electrification was growing quickly.

It took a master glassblower working with a mechanical engineer from Corning to come up with a truly novel idea. A heated ribbon of glass went through a machine that could stamp out hundreds of bulbs per minute. The resulting equipment literally replaced entire factories, and this is what is on display at the Ford Museum. (Parts of Edison’s Menlo Park lab are also on display there too.) Of course, this machine also put legions of glassblowers out of work.

A GE engineer would go on to invent the LED bulb in the 1960s, which was the eventual undoing of incandescent bulbs. Actually, there were LEDs before this time, but they only output infrared light. This invention figured out how to output visible light, and sixty years later we have LED bulbs that can output thousands of colors controlled from our smartphones, from Phillips and Savant, the company that acquired the GE lighting assets.

Check out some of these innovative LED designs that I came across online. And if you ever get the opportunity to visit the museum, you will find it a delight and well worth your time.

Family tech support questionnaire

As we become more reliant on technology to support our sheltering-in-place, we realize that many older folks are not quite digital natives and don’t feel comfortable with the now-common computing tasks that many of us have jumped on to handle our lives. And that means that more and more of us have become forced into the de-facto family tech support role. As someone in my generation (60-something) who has been a tech family support nerd for more than half of my life, I wonder how many of you are experiencing this situation?

Supporting our non-tech savvy relatives has gotten harder because now so many of us depend on tech to get through the day. The stakes are higher, and the lack of digital literacy can have much higher consequences these days. So to help you out, let’s start by taking stock of the dimensions of digital literacy that you might encounter.

Herewith is a simple questionnaire to give you some idea of how this will all play out in the time of the lockdown.

  1. Can your family members receive and read an email attachment? This is a basic requirement for many online activities, such as reading recipes and receipts from online orders, obtaining documents and other items. While you may be adept at email, your older generation might have difficulty.
  2. How often does your family member check their email? Many of our family members haven’t developed a regular email habit. This could be generational: older folks never learned touch typing and young ‘uns prefer texting. Without regular email scans, these folks can miss important notifications generated by their other online activities too.
  3. Do you and your spouse share a common email or Facebook account? Many elderly folks like to share accounts, but then who does what and when? If they don’t have a regular email habit, this makes the medium much less effective.
  4. Email isn’t the only connecting tech we all use these days. Does your family member use any common messaging app such as texting, Slack, Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp? This can be a great way to stay in touch with multiple generations if you can agree on a single family platform. I have seen families that can’t find common ground, which makes communication difficult.
  5. Does your family member own a smartphone and can they install a new app on it? Many elderly have older-model “dumb” phones that date from the last century and don’t do anything other than make and receive phone calls. That can limit their effectiveness. If your elderly member has a more modern phone but still  can’t install or configure apps, you’ll have to assign someone for that support role who is located nearby.
  6. Have your family members used Uber or equivalent ride-sharing services? One of the first uses for a smartphone is with mobility: having a ride-sharing service is especially important for those that can’t drive or who don’t have cars. I know plenty of elderly who love their Ubers just as much as millennials. But usually someone has to show them the ropes.
  7. Have your family members done any restaurant curbside pickup or meal delivery? Many restaurants are asking customers to order online or via their smartphone apps. Being able to do this in these lockdown times is a way to help bring a little variety into someone’s life, as long as the family health protocols allow for meal deliveries.
  8. Have you ever read any Twitter posts? Uploaded any Snapchats and Pinterest photos? Often the grandchildren pix are the first mission-critical app for my generation and the learning curve to figure out these social network services can be frustrating.
  9. As we stay at home more, the center of entertainment is the TV, and today’s TVs are really computers in disguise. Does your family member watch any streaming service on their TV, such as Netflix, Hulu, YouTube TV, etc.?  Do they know how to set it up? If not, you will have to support that activity. My own smart TV sometimes loses its network connection, and a hard power cycle is the easiest way to fix that. Something is wrong with that.
  10. Let’s talk about paying for various things online. For many elders, cash is still king. I recall how my dad would never leave the house without hundreds of dollars in his pocket. But these days, cash is often not accepted for fear of viral contact. So seeking non-cash methods is important. One of the first things one of my family members did was get help to set up her online bill paying. She liked it and was happy to be rid of the chores of finding stamps and printed checks. Your family members may not be interested in this process, or they may want to dive in further and use contactless payment cards and online payment processors such as PayPal and Venmo to make it easier to move their funds around and send birthday gifts to the grandkids.
  11. The next step is buying all sorts of things online, including groceries and medicines. You might have a lot of support work needed to help your family member figure out where to do their shopping and how to navigate the piss-poor user interfaces of Instacart and others that are barely functioning right now.
  12. The elderly are big library patrons and these days libraries have moved to their digital efforts. Can your family members check out an ebook from their local library, or purchase an ebook for their Kindle? Many elderly would still prefer printed books and newspapers, but can they order them online from their local booksellers?
  13. One of the more popular apps to virtually meet is Zoom, and it is certainly a lot easier to join in a Zoom than some of its competitors. But how about if grandma wants to run her own book club virtually on Zoom? She might need some help getting it all setup.

As you can see, there is a lot of technology to master and manage. Being the family IT support person has gotten a lot more complicated. And as we depend on tech to get us through these times, it can be frustrating for all of us to solve the issues. Just take a step back, see how much tech we have acquired over the years, and take a deep breath.

Tracking your browsing using HTML canvas fingerprinting

Every time you fire up your web browser your movements and browser history are being leaked to various websites. No, I am not talking about cookies, but about a technology that you may not have heard much about. It is called canvas fingerprinting.

In this post, I will tell you what it does and how you can try to stop it from happening. Beware that the journey to do this isn’t easy.

The concept refers to coordinating a series of tracking techniques to identify a visitor using what browser, IP address, computer processor and operating system and other details. Canvas is based on the HTML 5 programming interface that is used to draw graphics and other animations using JavaScript. It is a very rich and detailed interface and to give you an idea of the data that the browser collects without your knowledge, take a look at the screenshot below. It shows my computer running Chrome on a Mac OS v.10.13 using Intel hardware. This is just the tip of a large iceberg of other data that can be found quite easily by any web server. 

HTML Canvas has been around for several years, and website builders are getting savvy about how to use it to detect who you are. In the early days of the web, tracking cookies were used to figure out if you had previously visited a particular website. They were small text files that were written to your hard drive. But canvas fingerprinting is more insidious because there is no tracking information that is left behind on your computer: everything is stored in the cloud. What is worse is that your fingerprint can be shared across a variety of other websites without your knowledge. And it is very hard once to eliminate this information, once you start using your browser and spreading yourself around the Internet. Even if you bring up a private or incognito browsing session, you still are dribbling out this kind of data. 

How big an issue is canvas fingerprinting?  In a study done by Ghostery after the 2018 midterm elections, they found trackers on 87% on a large sample of candidate websites. There were 9% of sites having more than 11 different trackers present. Google and Facebook trackers appeared on more than half of the websites and Twitter-based trackers appeared on a third of the candidate webpages.

So what can you do to fight this? You have several options

  1. Make modifications to your browser settings to make yourself more private. The problem with this is that the mods are numerous and keeping track of them is onerous.This post gives you a bunch of FIrefox suggestions.
  2. Use a different browser that gives you more control over your privacy, such as Brave, or even Tor. In that linked post I mention the usability tradeoffs of using a different browser and you will have to expend some effort to tune it to your particular needs. I tolerated Brave for about two days before I went back to using Chrome. It just broke too many things to be useful.
  3. Install a browser extension or additional software, such as PrivacyBadger, Ghostery or Avast’s AntiTrack. I have already written about the first two in a previous post. AntiTrack is a stand-alone $50 per year Windows or MacOS app that works with your browser and hides your digital fingerprint  — including tracking clues from your browser canvas — without breaking too much functionality or having to tweak the browser settings. I just started using it (Avast is a client) and am still taking notes about its use. 
  4. Only run your browser in a virtual machine. This is cumbersome at best, and almost unusable for ordinary humans. Still, it can be a good solution for some circumstances.
  5. Adopt a more cautious browsing lifestyle. This might be the best middle ground between absolute lockdown and burying your head in the sand. Here are a few suggestions:
  • First, see what your HTML Canvas reveals about your configuration so you can get a better understanding of what data is collected about you. There are a number of tools that can be used to analyze your fingerprint, including:

    Each of these tools collects a slightly different boatload of data, and you can easily spend several hours learning more about what web servers can find out about you. 

  • Next, assume that every website that you interact with will use a variety of tracking and fingerprinting technologies
  • Always use a VPN. While a VPN won’t stop websites from fingerprinting your canvas, at least your IP address and geolocation will be hidden.
  • Finally, limit your web browsing on your mobile devices if at all possible. Your mobile is a treasure trove of all sorts of information about you, and even if you are using any of the more private browsers you still can leak this to third parties.


Figuring out data transparency

Those of us of a certain age might recall when Barbie could utter the phrase “Math class is tough.” A good example of this is how to figure out the data transparency in the time of the Covid.

One of my go-to sites is the Covid Tracking Project, which is a group of computer scientists that daily scrape and interpret the thousands of county health stats for testing and infection data. You might have noticed that for each state’s data summary they issue a letter grade for transparency. How they arrive at that grade is instructive, and we should all take a moment to understand the calculations. Even if our business isn’t involved in public health, it can help inform and improve our own transparency efforts.

Just look at some of the recent transparency disasters from last summer, when Facebook and Equifax couldn’t be trusted with showing the truth behind their numbers. We want to be more transparent, because that means we have the ability to create trust with our customers and partners. So let’s look at how the Covid Tracking Project assigns these grades to each state and US territory.

Their transparency grade uses16 different metrics. These include factors such as: is the state’s official health website the best data source and consistently updated? Does the state report patient outcomes, such as how many patients are on ventilators? Does the state break down the demographics into ethnicities, race and pre-existing ill patients? How about total hospital capacity for the state? For each metric, the data quality can vary and the details matter. For example: some states just report positive tests and deaths. For some states, you have no way of knowing how many negative tests were obtained, or how many of those who tested positive then went on to consume an ICU or ER bed or other hospital resources.

The transparency grades are calculated each day: I have noticed that the grade for my state, Missouri, has varied from A to C. Today Nevada, Nebraska and Puerto Rico all have failing grades.

But wait, there is more. The project team also has a Slack channel and a GitHub public project where you can dive deeper into what is going on here. The former is used to address reporter’s questions and the latter is used to call out support or bug issues. The team also has taken pains to explain exactly what they are counting — for example, they look at where people are being tested, which is not necessarily where people first became ill. Every state reports these numbers somewhat differently: some use online dashboards or hyperlinked data tables, while others announce their stats at daily press conferences or via social media posts. The team has taken pains to double-check everything and annotate where things are ambiguous or unclear.

I should mention that the project relies on dozens of volunteers too: so managing all this collaboration is key. Clearly, there is a lot we all can learn from their excellent transparency efforts.

How to run a successful professional web conference

Now that we are sticking close to home, we are using web conferencing tools. No matter how tech-savvy you might be, running a great conference isn’t easy and will require a collection of people with various skills: part TV producer, part sound engineer, part professional speaker, and all sprinkled with a good deal of patience and troubleshooting. For the past several months, I have been on the production team of a rather large conference for the American Red Cross. We have a team of more than a dozen people that puts on this event every month, and lately has had several hundred attendees and multiple presenters. Every month we find and fix new and interesting problems, some technical, some social, some particular to Webex.

Before I give you some lessons learned from this and other web conferencing experiences, I want to relate an anecdote from this month’s call. I was talking to one Red Cross volunteer who was having trouble getting connected. When he told me that he was at a Red Cross blood drive and actually giving blood, I suggested that maybe he should just wait and watch the recording of the event. A few minutes later, he emailed me and told me that he had figured out how to tune in for the meeting. That is devotion!

Here are some suggestions so hopefully you can make your meetings more valuable and professional. You might also want to review another blog post that talks about more general collaborative techniques. 

  • Decide whether you want to display everyone on camera, run a live demo from someone’s computer or focus on the slide presentation. You can’t really do all three well, and switching from one to another can introduce issues. Pro tip: if you are sharing your screen, you’ll want to share it from a second monitor that is using a lower resolution. 
  • Simplify, simplify. Eliminate options to help reduce user confusion, and simplify the technical details whenever you can. Keeping things simple means less to go wrong. For example, we use two chat channels: the one built-in to Webex is for the attendees to ask questions (we don’t use the Q&A feature to keep things simple) and we have separate Microsoft Teams chat sessions so the production team can communicate with each other as issues arise during the session.
  • Use a consolidated slide deck. Give a deadline when additions/changes will be accepted, thereafter the deck is locked. This means someone will be the lead producer, who will advance the slides for everyone. On Webex, there are three different ways to share your slides: “Share the actual PPTX file” (recommended), “Share Application,” or share your entire desktop. Pro tip: with this latter method, you will want to turn off notifications on your computer — Focus Assist settings should be turned off in Windows or Notification Center set to Do Not Disturb with Mac. 
  • Assign roles with care. The more you can segregate these roles and spread among different people, the better the overall experience for your attendees.It also allows the production staff to focus better and provide a better attendee experience. We typically have at least six people that run each webinar:
    • the host, who acts as a master of ceremonies and keeps everyone on schedule.
    • The lead producer, who sends out meeting reminders and calendar invites, advances the slides, does audio checks, and is charge of everyone else during the event. The producer also posts a recording of the meeting and chat sessions to the various online repositories.
    • The secondary producer, who troubleshoots problems for attendees and presenters and responds to emails during the event about production and connection problems.
    • Two chat monitors: one as backup, one who will read the questions aloud and direct the appropriate person to answer them during the meeting at specific points.
    • A graphic artist, who whips the slide deck into shape visually.
    • In addition to these roles, there are several others that work in the background. We all report to a team leader, who is ultimately responsible for organizing each month’s speakers and does final review of all of our materials prior to the meeting. We also have note-takers who organize the after-action report and follow up with any promises made during the meeting.
  • Rehearse. All presenters should have a sound check prior to the start of the meeting. We usually do this the hour before the meeting: given that we have so many presenters, we want to make sure they can be heard clearly. This is usually where the problems happen, so resolving these early is key. We usually recommend to use a headset with its own boom mic and not to use a speakerphone. Also, rebooting your PC just prior to the meeting is a good way to clear out problems. Presenters should also rehearse moving from slides to live screens and back: the transitions can be tricky under certain endpoints and web service providers.
  • Put together several documents to help your production staff: these include a sample timings sheet with speaker, topics and start and ending times, a contact sheet of everyone’s phones and emails, and other production details.

As you can see, there is a lot of work to produce a quality web conference. Feel free to share your own tips here as well.

The art and science of mathematical modeling

With all the talk about “flattening the curve” and model disease predictions, I thought I would take the opportunity to explain exactly what these models look like. No, they don’t bear any resemblance to those people that walk down runways or the plastic things we put together with that smelly glue when we were kids.

My first brush with the art and science of math modeling was in graduate school at Stanford. I actually took an entire class in how to build them, and it was one of my favorite classes. Each week we would have a new assignment. What I remember about this class is that the assignment could take anywhere from a few hours to several days to complete. Sometimes — most times — the assumptions that I made were so wrong that I would have to start over. I remember a few of the assignments: one was to build a model to help women decide when they should get screened for breast cancer. Another was to help the Palo Alto school system decide which of their grade schools to close for under enrollment. These two were very tough, and I can’t remember if I came anywhere near the correct approach, just that they kept me up for many late nights.

What made this class interesting was that it was taught by two business professionals who lived in the “real world” and deliberately chose examples from some of their consulting projects. That particular class is no longer being taught. Indeed, searching through Stanford’s website, I was chagrined to find out that my degree, Operations Research, was eliminated more than 25 years ago. Time marches on.

Actually, I had an earlier experience with math models. I had a student job rebuilding these antique brass and string models that were created in the 1830s. They were used to teach students how to draw conic sections, back before we had Mathematica or even full-color textbook illustrations. But these are more literal “models” — for this post, I am talking more ephemeral constructs that are mostly data and equations.

Math models are being used all the time and don’t usually get much attention — until disaster strikes. One type of them that you consume daily is weather forecasting models. When a hurricane threatens part of the world, you see a variety of forecasted paths that the storm is likely to take: each one of those paths comes from someone’s model about past behavior. Another example is building a model to calculate how much flooring you’ll need to cover your room. That one is pretty simple, using additional and multiplication, but still you have to do the math to figure out whether you’ll need 10 or 20 boxes of materials.

Some of the most annoying math models were those “word problems” that we all had to solve in grade school. Maybe that is why many of us have steered clear of them in adult life. But after taking that modeling class in grad school, I got into math modeling as a career, and went to DC to become a consultant myself. I built models to support public policy decisions, such as whether to build a dam threatening an endangered species (my model said to go ahead, based on the economic outcomes) and whether to enact building energy conservation standards (my model said yes to that too).

Here are two places to look at noteworthy virus modeling efforts:

Stay healthy and safe wherever you are.

Avast blog: The citizen’s guide to spotting fake news

Truth and facts are hard to come by these days. Most of us want to understand what is true and what is not. What’s more, we want our kids to understand the difference between fact and fiction. But sifting through our social media — and even ordinary news reports — does require some work. I have put together some resources in this blog post to help you discriminate the truthiness (as Stephen Colbert might have said) of what you find online.

The sheer amount of disinformation, lies, conspiracy theories — call them what you will — is staggering. In this post for Avast’s blog, I review how we got here, how you can start to figure out whether something is true or false online, and what should be your own strategies for becoming more skeptical of what you read online.

Family isolation protocols: don’t judge

In this time of sheltering-in-place and self-imposed isolation, we have to learn to be kinder and less judgmental to each other. One of the biggest issues for families is agreeing on your own “isolation protocol,” for lack of a better description. Most of the stuff that I have read include suggestions such as from Britain’s NHS here. Or articles on what activities to do now that the kids are home. But I haven’t seen that much discussion about how you formulate your own protocol. Given my interest in Internet protocols, this seems a natural point for me.

It is just my wife and me at home. You would think that the two of us would be able to figure out some common ground for exactly how much isolation we should be doing. But it is a harder problem than that. There are two dimensions to this. First is that the ground is shifting. As the virus spreads, scientists are learning more about its transmission and its lethality and changing their own recommendations. That means building into the family protocol the ability to be updated to reflect these changing conditions. Or if one of you becomes more concerned about a particular activity, for example. As I said, things are changing rapidly.

The second dimension is that all of us, even long-married couples, come to this virus from different perspectives. What we need is to make some consensus decisions. We do this all the time, and it part of our daily lives. Only, instead of what are we having for dinner or who is going to clean the bathroom, they become decisions that involve the potential life and death of the family members themselves. Maybe that is too dire a description, but you see what I mean.

Let me give you some examples of the potential points around assembling your own protocol:

  • When should we wear a mask, if at all? (See the link above for the latest CDC recommendation.
  • Is takeout food acceptable under specific circumstances?
  • How often do we shop for groceries and other supplies? Do they require delivery?
  • When one of us returns from being outside our apartment, what is the cleansing and transition process?
  • How often should we go to the office?
  • What about continuing or beginning any volunteer activities?
  • Do we have a cellphone cleansing policy, and who enforces it?
  • What about how to disinfect the mail and newspapers?
  • Is anyone other than the family allowed inside our apartment and if so under what circumstances?

These all seem like pretty petty issues, but in the time of Covid, they could be life and death, quite literally. If you want your family to survive this crisis, you need to come to agreement on these policies and be willing to concede to your spouse’s POV. I have heard stories about those medical workers who have to sleep over the garage or in someone’s RV rather that spend their time inside the family manse.

I was talking to a friend of mine who has a father who is in his late 70s and still goes to work at his office. She tried talking to her dad and getting him to stay home but was unsuccessful. Another friend who is 80 had all of his grandchildren over to their house for dinner not too long ago. This person recently had heart bypass surgery.

Here is the thing. You can’t judge what someone else’s protocol may be, however inelegantly expressed or however much you disagree with their position. Everyone has to come to terms with this pandemic on their own terms and reach their own comfort level. Now I realize how frustrating it can be to deal with a family or friend who has a different position on what social isolation means, and perhaps doesn’t disinfect as much (or as more) as you do. It isn’t up to us to judge. You have to be you, to quote a common phrase. But you and your family should have some discussion about this and at least agree on some of the basic principles as I listed above.

Maximizing the benefits to your family of web conferencing and video chat

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.