Working Remotely

A New Way to Work

Prior to 2020, working remotely was “the norm” for a lot of people, but was only adopted for certain types of workers. When the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down everyone’s ability to commute and work in an office, the world had to quickly pivot to having the majority of people work from their homes.

Rapid Change

Largely, everyone that could perform their job outside of the office was set up to be able to do that very quickly by their employer. For me, I have held jobs that have been a mix of working out of my home, traveling to meet with customers face-to-face, and very occasionally traveling to a company office for specific reasons. Overall, I did not have to change much about how I do my job.

I did, however, come to realize that working effectively and efficiently as a remote worker takes practice and learning new ways of doing things. We can’t simply use all of the same processes and habits that we have used when we were working in an office building and expect the same results.

Viewing Things Differently

The single biggest thing to change for everyone is how we collaborate. Previously, there were “walk by’s”, water cooler conversations, lunches, and a host of other ways to interact face-to-face. Now, we use virtual meeting tools for video and audio communications.

A video call with your kids or significant other is easy to do and works well as an occasional replacement for in-person interactions. Even now, where these are the norm for friends and family that are at a distance from each other, it still works relatively well because we have been doing this for a “long time” outside of work. Another reason that it works well outside of work is because these are one-to-one conversations (one device at each end, not necessarily one person at each end). Everything about using video calls for work is different, so we need to be handling it differently.

You Are Not Alone

The very first tip I want to share is to always be aware of the entirety of your environment. Be able to tell at all times whether your camera is on or not, whether your mic is hot or muted, and what else is happening “behind you.” Office buildings are constructed to help keep external noise to a minimum, your house is not. The dog barking outside, the landscapers cutting the lawn, or the construction company putting up the new house across the way are all making noise that can negatively impact your meeting.

You also need to be aware of what is visible in your work space behind and around you because others in attendance may be able to see that as well. This also includes your own personal appearance, so you need to be mindful of what you are (or aren’t) wearing on your person at any given point in time as well.

See the Light

If you take a lot of photos, you’ve likely had a number of them come out poorly where you are not able to see the actual subject very well. Often, this is the result of there being significantly more light -behind- the subject than in front of it. This is easily fixed for a photograph by adjusting where the camera “meters” the light levels from at the time it captures the image.

The same applies for videos, and that includes video conferences and meetings as well. When you are setting up your work environment, be mindful of what’s behind and in front of you as it relates to lighting. If you position yourself with windows behind you, there is an extremely high chance that you will appear as a “shadow” on your calls because of high light levels being present behind you.

The simplest way to address this is to position a strong light source in front of you that will ensure you are well lit regardless of how much light is present behind you. Proper front lighting will ensure your image is clear and crisp and that your camera is able to capture the image to its best ability. Other things you can do are to not position yourself in front of a window, close blinds/shades in windows behind you, and leave overhead or floor lights that are behind you off whenever possible.

Listen to Me

One of the biggest distractions on virtual meetings has to do with audio. Actual, hard-wired land line telephones provided virtually instant transmission of what one person said to the person on the other end of the phone. And, audio could flow in both directions at the same time without any issues. Fast forward through adoption of speakerphones, VoIP, cellular phones (which use a form of VoIP), and to today’s world of conference calls (where everything is VoIP) and the adoption of “Computer Audio” to attend. We have a whole litany of problems for all of this new technology that have to be dealt with.

My second tip is actually more of a collection of tips that all pertain to audio. The single most effective way to keep audio issues to a minimum is to learn to use your Mute button. If you are not talking, you should be muted. No exceptions. Any unexpected noise in the background can disrupt the entire conversation for everyone. Here’s a list of other things to consider:

  • Don’t use computer audio. Call in on a telephone instead. Any surge in Internet traffic or CPU use on your device will cause audio issues.
  • If you insist on using computer audio, use a headset. Using your device’s built-in microphone and speakers causes duplex issues (if you start talking, it will mute the incoming sound) and could even create a LOT of echo for others on the call if you aren’t talking.
  • Don’t talk over others. Conference calls can be a nightmare when multiple people try and talk at the same time. If you are the host of the meeting, you need to find ways to control this for everyone’s benefit.
  • Active Listening (frequently saying something like “Uh huh” to show others you are paying attention) is pointless and will only serve as a distraction to everyone else that isn’t speaking. If you can’t break yourself of this habit, just stay on mute.
  • Be aware of the audio delay. It takes a bit of skill to learn exactly where to start your interjections into conversations so that you will be allowed to speak without speaking over the top of anyone else.
  • Be courteous to others. Know when your input is less important than someone else’s (most of the time) and learn to yield to others graciously.

Have a Plan

To improve the effectiveness of conference calls and meetings, know what your objectives are for the call and stick to them. Schedule the appropriate amount of time to work through a few items and stay focused on them. Don’t drift off into other areas unless it’s truly warranted and everyone on the call agrees to follow a different path.

Nice to Meet You

When you get together with a group of people and you don’t know at least a portion of them, it is common and appropriate to do introductions. In a conference room, someone will do the first one and then “pass the baton” to someone on one side of them. This creates a very easy to follow sequence based on visual cues.

In a virtual meeting, this simply doesn’t work. If you’re on a call with some people that you don’t know, consider how much information you need about them when you decide how to do introductions. Most of the time, one person can provide an overview type of introduction for everyone attending that they know. If there are multiple groups that are unknown from one group to the next, one person from each group can provide that overview. It’s still perfectly fine for individuals to introduce themselves if they need to provide the sort of details that should come directly from them.

In all cases, each person that provides an introduction should either call on the next person to speak or control should revert back to a moderator to identify the next speaker. Overview introductions, even on calls with only 5-6 people, significantly shorten how long it takes to get to the heart of the meeting.

And, so…

There have been lots of articles written about how great Remote Work is for everyone and how it is “here to stay.” Whether that happens and to what extent is yet to be seen. The smartest thing for everyone to do is to adapt their work style so that they are being as effective as possible while working remotely.

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  1. Benjamin Bryan

    Audio lag is a bit ridiculous on MS Teams calls sometime I’m estimating a 300-500ms lag.

    Do you know why the lag is so bad at times? I have an old Cisco Phone VoIP phone using an open source Asterisk phone server on the same internet connection and it has less lag than Teams, Zoom and even my Verizon cell. Mumble is a free open source voice program designed for low latency and I never notice a delay on it. So why is there lag in our business systems like Zoom, Skype, and Teams?

    Until they fix the lag, I hope Teams adds a Roger beep.

    1. Post

      My guess about lag is that it’s a combination of your device to encode it, your internet connection to the conference host to send it, handling at the host, then my connection to the internet to receive it, and finally my device to decide it. And with very busy hosts like Teams, they are the biggest culprit of adding lag in the name of scalability.

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