We’re talking about DFNconf, Skype, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx, Adobe Connect, Zoom, Jitsi Meet, BlueJeans, GoToMeeting, StarLeaf, Lifesize, Fuze and other services that you may have heard of supporting online meetings.
You’re either responsible for a team, a project, or any other measure - or you support someone who is. Regular and extraordinary meetings with the persons involved are part of your managerial routine to lead a group of individuals distributed across space and time.
You are going to run a conference call with remote team members to get or keep things going - either by phone, or more likely, with a digital tool for video conferencing. Some participants may be in a hurry, may have other burning issues to take care of, or may have experience with unsatisfying virtual meetings. However, everyone has to coordinate with each other.
You are the one in charge of making this call a success by means of that everyone is happy with a smooth performance of the call itself and is satisfied with the outcome, preferably actionable results having a practical value. Using a video conferencing tool shall not hamper an effective meeting and should be used to make the virtual get-together as efficient as possible when participants are not at the same place.
When you set-up an agenda, refer to a netiquette and best practices that covers a set of rules to make you and your team/group/colleagues feel comfortable and enable a productive environment in the meeting.
Below are a few suggestions that might make it into the set of your rules to make you feel comfortable in a virtual meeting, and the others too.
Use a headset or at least headphones or external speakers made for conferencing
Using speakers close to your ears or speakers that are made for conferencing avoid feedback of spoken words.
Use an external microphone or an external camera paired with a room microphone
Internal microphones and internal cameras, especially of older computers, might be no fun for the other participants due to a limited quality of recorded sound and video signals.
Use a modern computer or mobile device
Conferences tools, especially those supporting video, require hardware support that often is underestimated. Computers and mobile devices with modern technology are capable of handling modern video conferences. Older devices may lead to problems sooner or later.
Use a high-speed Internet connection
Preferably use a wired connection, stay close to a wifi device, or find a fixed place with a reliable mobile network. Avoid low-bandwidth connections shared with others streaming Netflix, downloading files or video chatting at the same time.
Close your VPN connection
VPN connections route your communication through an additional transmission node becoming a potential bottleneck when everyone is doing the same. Disconnecting from VPN and similar connections reduces the risk of a slowed down internet connection.
Shut down any other programs connected to the network
Normally many other tools run in the background that might interfere with the bandwidth necessary to participate in a high-quality video conference. So whenever you experience problems with the connection consider this option too.
Stop other devices streaming music or movies
Tools on other devices may hamper your bandwidth, too, when in use at the same time. So close apps and programs for the time of the video conference even if your kids don’t like it.
Use an up-to-date browser or application
Make sure to use a browser supported by the provider of the conferencing service and double-check that updates are not too far behind. Installing the application offered by the service provider may help, too, to stay up-to-date. Third party tools are an option but need a closer look since some of them miss the required maintenance.
Make yourself comfortable with the conferencing software
Whether used in a browser or as an application, the conference tool of choice might have a huge range of functionality, a very own behaviour, and many settings. This needs to be understood. So make yourself comfortable in advance to understand the behaviour and turn-on/off functionality on-demand.
Master relevant settings of your operating system
Conference tools offer lots of functionality and configurations. However, some of the important ones are anchored in operating systems such as Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X or a Linux distribution. Specifically, enabling and calibrating your microphone and speakers with the tools of your operating system should become routine shortly before a virtual meeting. A quick double-check testing the input level and volume might help to spot problems, too, e.g. caused by blocking bluetooth connections.
Find a great location and working place
Use, and reserve if necessary, a quiet location instead of a busy café, the public transit, or the canteen. It helps you to stay focused, to keep unexpected disturbances out of the conference call, and to comfortably make use of working devices so that following media presented and working at documents either alone or collaboratively is fun.
Prepare your location
Close the doors and preferably windows too keep traffic and construction noise, squeaky public transport and police sirens out of the conversation. Keep dogs and other pets out of your room to avoid unexpected disturbing sounds.
Set-up your camera
Place the camera close to the screen or at least ensure that you look at the camera, not the screen, when talking. Provide space between your body and the background and reduce back-lightning by turning your computer and the conference equipment so you’re side-lit or front-lit.
Send out an agenda in advance
Send a crisp agenda with topics, times and timeframes plus responsibilities and expected results and if required refer to related documents and other sources to allow preparation for the participants in advance and to have everything at hand in the video conference.
Send dial-in information
Send dial-in details preferably together with the agenda. Sometimes it is needed to add alternatives to switch immediately in case of anticipated connection errors. Have in mind that this information is used often by participants when creating calendar entries.
Send a reminder
Send a reminder with dial-in details again in the morning or shortly before the conference call so that participants don’t waste time searching in e-mails from days ago.
The first minutes
Open the conference room five to ten minutes before the virtual meeting actually starts, if you are the host.
Enter the conference room a few minutes before the virtual meeting actually starts, if you are a participant, to test that your equipment works as expected - it’s okay then to leave the scene, grab a coffee and show up in time again when the meeting finally starts.
Unmute your microphone, switch-on video and say hello, your name and affiliation when entering the conference room to test audio and video quality and let the host and others know that you are here.
Mute your microphone
Mute your microphone after the welcome procedure and whenever you do not speak. It reduces disturbances either coming from a noise background environment or coming from your keyboard while typing.
Turn off your camera
Keep your camera turned on as long as you and the others feel comfortable. However, turning off the camera improves the audio quality considerably. Removing the video signal saves bandwidth which then is available for the audio signal. Depending on the rules, turning on the camera might be understood also as holding up your hand and, therefore, is a sign that you have a comment or want to say something at next.
Look out for an additional text channel
Open the chat window of the conference room, have a look at it, and use it yourself to share important information, e.g. when problems with the communication occur or when locations to ressources have to be shared.
Double-check information about you
Check if your name is entered correctly in the respective field so that the host and others know who you are, have a help to address you by name, and identify your contributions either when talking or typing in attached.
Stop playing with effects
Conference tools offer options for visual and other effects that, unfortunately, consume computational resources that might be missing for the call itself. Blurring the background in the video is a useful option but already has been identified as the root of lags in video and audio signals. So if not necessary do not use effects in a professional call.
Introduce the rules
After saying Hi when starting the conference, the host shall iterate quickly the selected conventions to follow, how to implement them in the conferencing tool, and ask if there are any questions. Participants take part in other video conferences, too, with slightly different rules and different tools. So a quick recap helps all to run a smooth virtual meeting.
The host should quickly go through the participants list in the conference tool by saying names and institutions so that everyone knows who is participating. Also name the persons and institutions missing to make everyone aware that particular discussions and decisions may miss relevant stakeholders. It also helps to keep these persons or groups up-to-date afterwards. Hosts should also ask the group if they missed naming someone either participating or being absent.
Implement the rules
Everyone is invited to participate actively but the host is asked to chair the virtual meeting and thus provides orientation similar to a panel discussion or an evening talk show. The host should name the one person who is up to speak next. Participants follow what is said and use the functionality of the conference tool to signal that they have a comment or want to add something important, e.g. either by turning on their camera or by dropping a line in the chat. The host then picks up these “hand signs”, ensures a clear order who is next, and thus steers an organized discussion in the context of the agenda.
Focus on the conference
Following topics and discussions in a video conference is not that easy, especially when held in a different language than your mother tongue, when disturbed by a bad audio quality, and run for a longer time. Additionally, humans are fairly bad at multitasking. So give your full and undivided attention.
Speak with normal tone Speak as you normally do with someone sitting across. Modern computers have decent microphones. They’re usually pretty good at picking up your voice, which means you don’t have to shout at your camera for other people to hear you. Just speak normally, and as long as there isn’t too much background noise, people will hear you.
Toggle your microphone when needed
Unmute your microphone when you want to say something and mute it again once you are finished, you may do the same with the camera, it’s okay to toggle both all the time.
Turn off the camera
When experiencing audio problems then removing the video signal saves bandwidth that improves the overall audio quality. So turning off your camera and additionally turning off the received video signal of others improves the audio quality considerably.
These recommendations have been created in collaboration with Tom Kwasnitschka (GEOMAR), Patrick Preuster (FZJ), Benjamin Rost (DZNE), Carsten Schirnick (GEOMAR), Mario Strefler (KIT) and Tobias Vogt (HZDR).
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