Why are there always technical problems in remote meetings?

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Let’s talk about technical issues in conference calls (and their close cousin, remote meetings). I’ll use the terms ‘conference call’ and ‘remote meeting’ interchangeably throughout this post. The difference is hazy: if anything, a remote meeting usually involves video and a conference call doesn’t necessarily. The principles of the technical hangup, though, are the same.

We’ll begin with this hilarious video called ‘Conference Call in Real Life.’ If you’ve ever experienced issues with tardiness, background noise, and flat out audio failure during a conference call, this video will give you a laugh:

If this happens with every single meeting, how are we supposed to get anything done?

Conference call meetings are annoying. They never stop being annoying. They also somehow seem to keep happening even if the office has no remote policy. I worked in an office that expressly forbade remote work for product managers, designers, and developers. I performed 8 projects in this ‘extreme colocation’ style. Somehow, most of those projects still involved conference calls with stakeholders, field testers, or bigwigs who weren’t in the office. So hesitating on remote work won’t fix this for you (sadly, believe me. I tried everything I could think of to weasel my teams out of conference calls. I could limit them, but I couldn’t eliminate them).

But there’s something else here. See, if your team only needs to perform a task they hate occasionally, they won’t get much practice, they’ll continue to do it badly, and they’ll continue to hate it. Ask any engineer about the most brutal time they upversioned an app’s language or framework. Inevitably they had to update across six versions because the team hated doing the upgrades and put it off until the absolute last second. Then what happens? All the developers get scarred, so when the next version comes out, do they upgrade again? No—they’re still licking their wounds from last time. So the team misses a second chance to practice upgrading, and the skill stays rusty.

Same with conference calls. Do you ever see anyone testing their A/V connection or figuring out how to screen share until the absolute second they have to do it for a conference call?

My guess is no—or at least very rarely.

As a result, most of the office stays low-skill at all the skills that would make conference calls less painful. When 60 or 70 percent of a team is remote, by contrast, enough team members have developed these skills through regular practice to carry the team along.

To make conference calls (or any kind of remote meeting) a universally pleasant experience, the participants must know their equipment and practice with it regularly. For that to work, they need frequent opportunities to practice.

Remember that the United States Regional Command has their 8,000 person remote meeting every day. That much practice, combined with the deliberate methodology employed by the U.S. military to improve their tactical skills, mean that this giant remote meeting runs into fewer snags than your weekly remote roundup.

But what about the tools? Which videoconference tools should we use for remote meetings?

I’ll tell you what I use, but it’s not that important for two reasons:

  1. The tools change. Three years ago my remote suite of choice included HipChat, Google Hangouts, and Screenhero. Nowadays I’m ambivalent on HipChat (but it’s fine), don’t prefer Google Hangouts (but it’s fine), and Screenhero doesn’t exist anymore. Companies grow and change. Products get improved, acquired, and end-of-life’d. As a business, it’s your prerogative to keep up with this churn. It’s also in your best interest to keep up with the churn, because on average the tools improve over time.
  2. Your experience can probably improve with literally whatever technology you’ve already tried. Imagine conference calls as a sport, OK? When you first start out in any sport—soccer, crossfit, running, whatever—you need tools that are decent, but your big gains right now aren’t in switching tools all the time. Right now, you’re focused on the skill of the thing. What are the fundamental principles of the corner kick, the hang clean, or the running stride? Same for conference calls: what are the fundamental principles of getting my audio working, checking my video feed, and messaging other attendees? Until you have these things down, you can pick tools at random and still improve your experience with whatever you happened to pick.

Cut to the chase, Chelsea. Give me the names of some tools.


Video Conferencing Tools I Don’t Love

Zoom and GoToMeeting. I don’t like how these force every attendee to either download an Applet or hand over their contact information to visit the meeting. It’s too much overhead for folks to join meetings. If you’re already using these tools internally, let it be known: they work. You’re probably fine sticking with them if all your conference call attendees have already used these with you before. It’s just more setup that you need, which often results in unnecessary friction getting the meeting started.

Slack calls. These aren’t ready for primetime yet. First of all, my computer heats up and the fan starts running about half the time I’m on a Slack call. Sometimes the video and audio cuts; sometimes it never starts, and the solution is to restart Slack. Not cool. The only reason I use this: to share control of my screen (which happens more often in pair programming than in remote meetings). I used to use an awesome tool called ScreenHero for this, but Slack bought that company and has (sort of) integrated the technology into Slack calls. I’ll only use this until I find a better solution.

Video Conferencing Tools I Don’t Hate

Google Hangouts: popular, secure(ish), relatively intuitive interface. Folks can join your call, find their video and audio (mute) buttons, send messages to the group, and adjust whose screen takes up most of their screen space. Hangouts supports screen sharing as well, so you can present to a group with it. The only thing knocking it out of the ‘love’ column is the fact that I’ve had a nontrivial number of audio issues.

Video Conferencing Tools I Do Love

appear.in is my favorite videoconferencing tool. There’s a low barrier to entry—everyone visits the same URL, the browser asks for permission to access their mic and camera, and voila! You’re ready to go. I have never had an audio or video feed issue with appear.in. I have had the video freeze for a second on occasion, but not on any occasion when other video conference apps were not also freezing (and frequently for longer periods). There’s also messaging and screen sharing functionality in appear.in. appear.in channels are public by default (anyone can join). I have never had someone wandering the internet stumble upon the URL to any of my appear.ins (and I’ve spent over 1,000 hours in appear.in channels, so I have some data to draw from). You can also ‘claim’ a room and make it private if you sign up with appear.in. The drawback on appear.in is that you can only have 8 people join one of these (on the free level, anyway). So if you want a larger meeting where everyone can still contribute, you’ll need to switch to something like Hangouts.

If you have a lot of attendees and/or you have one main presenter rather than a distributed discussion where folks should ‘jump in,’ I recommend YouTube Live. These are awesome for teaching and presenting, including ‘mob programming’ exercises where one person takes input from the audience but mostly does the coding themselves. The audience can message the presenter in a live chat alongside the video, which allows audience members to ask questions that the presenter (or other audience members) can answer. Worth noting: there will be about a 10 second lag between the presenter and the audience. That sounds like a problem, but in practice I haven’t found it to be a problem. I can say, for example, ‘Are there any questions,’ and then check the message feed. Inevitably, people asked questions in there while I was presenting, which is awesome, so I don’t accidentally miss the questions that got asked first. I also don’t miss questions just because one asker was louder than another one, which totally happens in meetings all the time (we’ll talk about this a lot in a later post). I don’t know if you can make a private livestream.

But remember, it’s not about the tools.

If you learn to use a crappy tool really well, then it will be the best choice for you to do the job. Case in point: I have a cheapskate coffeemaker that I bought at the drug store for 20 bucks. My roommate at the time (a Bunn enthusiast) told me it wouldn’t make ten coffees before it broke. It’s designed so poorly that you have to keep the water lid open while you make coffee or else the lid melts. I have used this coffee maker 5 days a week for three years, I’m used to it, and it’s fine. I know you have some barrel-bottom crap in your life that you use all the time because you know how. Same with your video conference tool: you could pick the most garbage thing on the market and, as long as you learn to use it, it will do you just fine.

Conversely, if you have an excellent tool that you don’t know how to use and don’t bother to learn, you’ll continue to run into issues.

A coffee maker
I have no reason to replace this coffeemaker.

So the key isn’t picking your tool, after a point. Instead, the key is to find opportunities to practice using the tool.

Test out the tool while you’re in one room and your coworker is in another room.

Have a remote agenda-setting meeting with your co-organizers while you’re organizing an in-person meeting for later that day or week.

Spend time figuring out how to turn your video on and off, how to mute and unmute your audio, how to share your screen, and how to ask or accept questions through messages.

Track down that unfriendly error message that always pops up when you try to share your screen in a meeting—the one you always ignore because you’re in the middle of a meeting.

Ask your remote team members about their experience with the conference calls. They may have insights to share about how they use the tools you’re trying to learn.

The most common tools problem in remote meetings isn’t that you’re using the wrong tool—it’s that you’re not using a tool at all. 

We’ve discussed how your choice of videoconference tool is not as important as learning to use whichever tool you choose.

A more common problem than wrong tool in remote meetings is lack of any tool where there should be a tool.

See, colocated people don’t always think about the needs of the remote people that they’re piping into the conference. So they set up video on somebody’s laptop, stick it on the corner of the meeting table, and call it good.

From the peephole webcam on that laptop, the remote attendees cannot see the far end of the table because it’s too far away. And they also cannot see the near end of the table because the closest people are to the sides of the webcam view field. So they get to see a long strip of table with maybe some forearms on it.

Additionally, since the screen of the laptop is small and relegated to the corner of the table, most colocated attendees will neither see nor notice a remote attendee’s attempt to obtain an opportunity to speak. With this kind of setup, remote attendees mostly have to accept it, sit back, and listen—which is fine for some meetings, but it’s not fine for recurrent meetings where all the colocated people do get to contribute.

Then there’s the microphone situation. The laptop mic has no chance of picking up the voices of attendees on the other end of the table. Remote attendees have no idea what those people are saying.

So remote attendees are stuck in a meeting where they cannot see the other attendees, cannot contribute to the meeting, and cannot hear half of what is happening. And the literally perfect video conference tool that has no lag and no interruptions and every feature imaginable will still be of no service here, because that software is limited by the hardware of the laptop it’s running on.

Some companies, including Trello and Litmus, recommend a one-remote all-remote meeting policy to resolve this. Justine Jordan at Litmus explains: “Unless every person is in the same room, all meetings are held over video conference,” such that everyone dials in with headphones and mic to a remote meeting service like Google hangouts, Zoom, or appear.in. This is a good step to ensure that the remote frustration exacerbation level is the same for everyone: since everyone gets the same lag, the same audio, and the same proximity to others, everyone is more considerate of remote attendees because everyone is a remote attendee. There is less background noise and fewer cases of the remote mic being too far from the speaker to pick up their voice. There are no barely-out-of-earshot side conversations.

This is a fantastic solution to the technical problems with remote meetings, if you can swing it. That said, one-remote all-remote is not a realistic solution for every company. It’s a great idea for a conpany that can buy everyone a headset and put them up in a quiet space. This is part of why it works so well for mostly-remote teams: if the majority of the attendees have their own remote office, then a minority of the meeting attendees have to make accommodations to do one-remote all-remote. What about employees in open office plans or coworking spaces? Attending meetings remotely from a cafe is considered bad practice because cafes are loud. But coworking spaces are just as loud, so how do you remote-attend when your workspace is a bad-practice remote attendance space? Depending on the availability of meeting rooms, it could be logistically impossible for them all to find a quiet place from which to attend the meeting. Eventually if a company wants to become a remote work success story, they’ll be best off baking these accommodations into their facilities. But it does take space and money, and not everybody has enough of those things.

At the very minimum, if a meeting has remote attendees, it’s important to include three tools:

  1. An external webcam that you can elevate and position such that the remote attendees can see everyone.
  2. A projection setup such that everyone can see the remote attendees.
  3. An external microphone, calibrated and positioned such that it picks up the voices of everyone in the room.

With such a setup, you’ll find your remote employees much less frustrated and much more engaged.

But what about all the other things that go wrong in conference calls?

Maybe, even when the tool works fine, you just don’t like the conference call. You don’t like the pausing, you don’t like the awkward lag, you don’t like how people accidentally talk at the same time. I get it. It sucks. In fact, all that stuff deserves its own whole post. So now, let’s talk about the structural drivers behind remote meeting suckage.

If you’re interested in reading about more ways remote work sucks, check out:

Why do large companies keep abandoning remote work?

If remote work is so awesome, why does it make my job harder?

Don’t people slack off when they work remotely?

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