GeekNotes: Remote Collaboration from a Home Office

TinCanMenToday, a colleague in private practice asked a very timely question about collaborating from a home office:

My partner and I are looking at expanding our telephone coaching practice and would like to find some screen sharing and collaboration tools…. What are you using these days to coach / consult at a distance?

More and more, our globe-spanning customers need to collaborate from a residence or on the road. They do so to be more productive, to support balance between life and work, to access new markets, and to reduce the number of climate-heating airline flights they are responsible for. While collaboration tools have advanced and become more reliable, some of the basic services – voice, cellphone and Internet connections – are not. Further, today’s executives face many of these IT challenges on their own.

This summer we have conducted remote meetings with clients and colleagues who were participating from their offices and homes in Colombia, Brazil, Shanghai, Taiwan, Hong Kong, France, Switzerland, Canada and the US. We have hosted meetings from our own home office, in hotels, airport lounges and coffee shops, and on occasion, stuck in a rental car. In almost all cases, at least one attendee was relying on residential-grade broadband, Voice over IP (VoIP) or “found” WIFI access, and a few key tools.

If you plan to RELY on remote collaboration, it will take a bit more than the typical home network, but it can be done. Here are some observations about what works for us, in our home office or on the road, when conducting remote business meetings:

Make sure your voice connection is bombproof (or have a plan B)

VoIP. Cellular Phones. Skype. Compared to the Plain Old Telephone System (POTS lines), the new tools of voice communication can be, well, moody. Yes, you can save a bundle. Yes, you have many more features. Yes, you can make phone calls from far-off places. No, you cannot count on them. So what do you do?

  • Use a high-quality telephone conference bridge. If all your other technology fails, as long as the dial-in voice bridge is up, and you circulated documents ahead of time, the meeting will continue.The gold standard is still conference service supplied by a major wireline carrier such as AT&T in the US. Volume levels are balanced between callers, voices are clear and free of echo, lag is low and reliability is high. That said, competing services are getting really good. We use the dial-in bridge built into our Zoom.us account, and it works well.
  • Look for an unlimited monthly plan, with optional per-minute fees for toll-free callers. Don’t over- or under-pay, and see if you can find one that complements your screen-sharing meeting application. Dedicated conference bridges, with live operators and per-minute, per-caller charges for access are very reliable, but in my opinion, overpriced – especially for their toll-free options. Now that almost all business users have mobile phones and near-unlimited long distance calling plans in their region, toll-free numbers are of most use to the traveler dialing from a hotel phone.
  • Free bridges make you pay. On the other end of the spectrum, there are now many free conference bridges (ie. freeconferencecall.com) that are unreliable in my experience. Meaning no disrespect, I have never had an incident-free meeting with them.

Consider TWO broadband connections at home – NOT overkill

Our home town, Columbus, Ohio, was an early market for Time Warner’s broadband over Cable. As a result, we saw how a cable system ages in a neighborhood, and it isn’t pretty. In fact, over the past 10 years, we’ve seen both Cable and DSL broadband suffer significant disruptions. In 2007, for instance, our business-class cable service was unreliable for 6 months. It was JUST fixed, when our DSL line quit for a week. So there are two reasons to have BOTH a Cable and an alternate connection in your house:

  1. When (not if) one service goes down, you can switch to the other.
  2. Video, screen-sharing and file downloads can interfere with Voice over IP (VoIP) – and remember, we need a bombproof voice connection.

Your alternatives are increasing, and in the U.S. include DSL, Fiber-Optic, and Cellular Router. Satellite connections are not the best for voice connections because of the lag.

  • Ensure VOIP has priority over other kinds of internet traffic. We use VoIP.ms service because it sounds good, and has great long-distance plans. We make sure our network router knows that VOIP traffic has the highest priority in and out of our network.
    • Tip: Let the VoIP adapter control your bandwidth. If you use a VoIP adapter, look for instructions to hook the VoIP adapter up  BEFORE your home router, like this:
      [Cable or DSL Modem] <–> [VoIP Adapter] <– >[Router] <–> [Computers]
  • Competing for bandwidth. If you have teens or power users, you have yet another reason for a separate internet connection: Video downloads and bit torrents. Download a whole season of a show at once – a 2 to 5 Gigabyte package – and you trash your remote meeting in the process. (Remember when kids just wanted a car? Now they need their own cable modem! Sigh.)

If you are the outsider, use the tools the client uses

Since we are the “outsiders” in our clients’ worlds, we must use what they do. That means I can be contacted through (big breath):  AOL, MSN, Yahoo, Google, Skype, SMS, ICQ, Jabber, E-Mail, Facebook, Linked-In, Myspace, Cellular Phone, Telephone and Fax, and work with you using PPTP, IPSEC and Cisco VPN, Polycom, Zoom, WebEx, GoToMeeting, Acrobat Connect, GatherPlace, Xerox Docushare, eRooms, Basecamp, several flavors of Microsoft’s collaboration tools (they really should stop re-branding the stuff!)  and some more I can’t recall just at the moment.

This is a drag. Someone, hurry up and unify this stuff so we all can use whatever client we wish and not have to know (or pay for!) all these nearly-almost-but-not-quite-the-same services designed to lock us in.

The reality is that established corporations have policies about what they will and will not allow on their networks. They also choose by the reliability of the products, and these days, that means the service provider has invested intensively in a global network of servers in the hope that all participants get uninterrupted connection.

  • My top enterprise-grade screen-sharing and presentation choices: Zoom.us (my absolute first choice), WebEx (now owned by Cisco Systems) or GoToMeeting (from Citrix.com).
  • I can’t recommend Adobe Acrobat Connect. Some may love it, but for me, it has frustrated and disappointed too often.

If you are the host, use what is compatible with your client’s platform – and screen size!

Being a good host means making your participants change as little about their computing environment as possible. Macs are now experiencing double-digit market growth, and are making ground in corporations. Linux is much more uncommon as a desktop, but it is out there. Many people are reviewing your presentation on their smartphones… Bottom line: If any of your customers use another platform, then choose a solution that works for them, too.

  • Know your roles. Each application may have a slightly different label, but the roles are:
    • Host – you set up the meeting;
    • Presenter – you display your screen;
    • Participant – you view a Presenter’s screen.
  • Not everyone needs to host or present. Many tools allow you to pass the role of presenter around, but NOT for all platforms. If your customers will ONLY watch YOUR screen, it is enough that the solution offers them a “Participant” – often a simple Java client in a web browser.That said, when Ann and I collaborate with clients, we often reverse roles and have them work on their own files while we observe their screen. For our practice, we insist the solutions we use include cross-platform Presenter as an option.
  • CinemaDisplay3sizesTip: Be aware of your screen size when presenting. That new 2560 x x1600 monitor looks drop-dead gorgeous on your desk, but when you go to present that report with Zoom, you run into a problem: Your participants (those with smaller monitors) might only see the top-left corner of the document, or get seasick scrolling around to see the whole of the presentation. And remember that guy on the iPhone? Screen-sharing software has a ‘fit-to-window’ function, but it might be better for you to reduce your monitor’s resolution for a more consistent experience. (Photo Credit – Apple, Inc.)
  • Tip: Watch your own presentation. At times, Ann and I will connect to our own meeting with a second computer or via our iPhone / iPad just so we can have immediate feedback about our participant’s experience, and catch a stalled session before the participants even have a chance to notice.

Mix and Match for your needs and your budget

  • “Free” just might work for you. Zoom.us offers free meetings up to 40 minutes in length with no monthly fee. Google Hangouts is free, if your team is in the Google ecosystem.
  • If you will need to conduct more than one meeting at the same time, you need enough paid host accounts. Ann and I each have host accounts under our corporate Zoom subscription.
  • If your clients are connecting from a country with more tightly-controlled internet, such as China, check regularly if your solution still works.
  • At this writing, 2017-08-23, I am pretty much sold on zoom.us for the best rates, great features, ease of use and reliability.

Audio: How you sound is even MORE important in a remote meeting

Radio personalities and podcasters count upon the right microphone and studio environment to create a more intimate, right-there experience for the listener. Indie film producers also know that great audio can make weak video ‘look’ better. With a little care, you can increase both clarity and impact of what you say in remote meetings.

  • Record yourself. Few go to the trouble of recording how they sound on their cellphone, bluetooth headset or computer microphone. At the very least, call and leave a voicemail on your own office system (not a cellphone).
  • Get a decent phone. Some 2.4 GHz cordless phones interfere with your WIFI connection (try 5.8 GHz or DECT 6.0 models). Some phones interact poorly with VoIP and cheap conference bridges and trash your voice. Some phones just sound bad. We use Uniden cordless phones at present, and like them.
  • Get a headset with a noise-canceling microphone. Plantronics, HelloDirect, Sennheiser and Logitech all make decent noise-canceling headsets for any common device or phone.
  • Bluetooth headsets and speakerphones usually suck. If you are NOT in the main conference room or a properly-equipped “huddle room”, avoid speakerphones if at all possible. If you must, Jabra makes decent portable speakerphones for your computer. Bluetooth headsets are a work in progress. Ann has gone through many supposedly top-of-the-line Bluetooth devices, and the ONLY one that has stood the test of time is the new Apple Beats X, working with her iPhone and MacBook Pro. See also Zoom hardware recommendations.
  • Just say no to background noise. Background noise is a double-whammy – you sound bad in the meeting, and you end up SHOUTING WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE TO. Stuck in a noisy location? Use the MUTE button on your phone to give relief to the other participants until you need to speak (from the background noise, that is!). If it is comfortable enough, consider sitting in your parked car – a virtual sound booth on wheels!
  • Get your nose out of the mic! Okay, everyone knows what I’m talking about – the rumbling downdraft we hear when you exhale through your nose or mouth onto your microphone. Position your mic at the corner of your mouth, out of the ‘wind’!

Video: I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille…

I like video in my remote meetings. I think it adds an important element of presence, and a dimension of communication that minimizes misunderstanding. However, it can make things MUCH more complex.

  • Start small. If you plan to experiment with video,Zoom.us is free for the first 40 minutes. Skype video is very good, easy, and free, as is Google HangoutsApple has built FaceTime into every iPhone 4 for video chat over WiFi. Logitech provides decent external webcams. Pay a little more for their high-end models to get better optics. All recent Apple computers and iOS devices have excellent webcams built in. Most of the instant messaging services offer video, but they can be a pain to configure.
  • Set the stage. Most workspaces are designed to light your work, and not you, so out of the box, most people look ghastly, if the face can be seen at all. (Think: videos of informants on a current events expose…) A professional who chooses to use video often should really re-think their office, furniture, lighting, wardrobe and background so they can send a presentable image. A doorway or a window in the camera’s line of sight can alternatively distract and blow out the image. New video software offers the option to put in virtual backdrops, but again, this requires even more control of lighting and camera vibration. Or, you can get a pop-up backdrop, as seen here. For an EXCELLENT, accessible introduction to making your cheapo-webcam look great, visit this article at Strobist. (Photo Credit: David – strobist.blogspot.com)
  • Use a Telepresence Robot! Double Robotics offers an amazing, mobile option that lets you operate a robot at a ‘client’ site, from your home.

Bringing it all home

So yes, it is possible to achieve great remote collaboration on a budget, but it requires a whole new suite of products, services, choices, skills and sensitivities. Start with the premise of a bombproof voice connection and reliable telephone bridge. Add redundant Internet service, then select a remote collaboration tool compatible with your colleague’s environment, and with a reputation for reliability. Tune up your audio quality, and add properly-lit video when all else is solid.

When it all comes together, we’ll be more productive, form better remote relationships, and hopefully do it with fewer carbon-spewing airline flights! See you online…

Updated extensively 2017-08-24 – GKR

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Date: Sunday, August 18th, 2019 - 07:01:25am



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