Practical remote working: part 1 - hardware and environment
In this first post in this series we will look at the hardware you will need and also the physical environment that you should aim to create. Where applicable I will distinguish between advice for individual remote workers and those office workers that need to work with remote team members.
So, let us start with an easy one that is very often overlooked, hardware. The reason I am saying this is often overlooked is because a lot of people seem to believe that just because your laptop has a microphone built into it you are ready to work remotely. This could not be further from the truth and is a recipe for a productivity disaster.
If on the other hand you are working from the office with team members that are working remotely then you too need to pay special attention to your hardware as well. You might think that having a call with a remote colleague or team over your laptop speakers is fine but in reality, it is a terrible idea. Not only are you annoying everyone else that is sitting around you but you are also bombarding those connecting remotely with a ton of office noise.
Here are some hardware and environment recommendations to ensure that you communicate efficiently whether you are sitting in the office or at a remote location.
One of the first things you need to invest in is a good headset for making your calls with your team. Being unable to hear someone properly on the other end of the conversation is a sure-fire way to get everyone involved frustrated and ready to throw in the towel. Remember that your aim is for people to be able to hear you clearly when you speak. Your laptop microphone is generally not a good option as a lot of manufacturers use low quality microphones and the placement of the microphone is normally such that it will pick up loads of background noise.
Your headset does not need to cost a fortune, we are not looking for studio quality recorded sound here. We are simply looking for good clear sound that makes communicating easy. There are many options available out there and you need to try a few headsets to see which ones really work for you personally. I have found Logitech to make some good headsets at a very reasonable price. Jabra and Plantronics are two other brands that produce high quality products but always make sure to test things out. I have personally had a Plantronics headset that cost far more than my current Logitech one which delivered poorer quality audio during video calls.
Another option that can work depending on your work environment is a USB microphone and earbuds or headphones. If you are working from your home in a quiet environment then this is another route you could take. Make sure that you have headphones to avoid feedback from your laptop speakers. An entry level USB microphone will cost you at least the price of a headset and a good USB microphone will cost significantly more. Only look at this option if you are going to be using the microphone for other tasks such as recording training material or a podcast and have a quiet working environment.
It is not sufficient to be heard clearly, you also need to make sure that your colleagues can see you clearly. Here again your laptop’s webcam might not be sufficient. Webcam quality on laptops can vary greatly so it is extremely important that you test it out to see how you are being received on the other end. If your webcam is low resolution or does not provide a wide enough angle to give a realistic image of your while communicating then invest in buying a good quality external webcam to use instead of the built in one.
Here again I have found Logitech to provide some good options that are affordable.
Conference call facilities
Conference call facilities are most applicable to team members that are working from the office or as a group from remote locations. Make sure that you have dedicated meeting rooms that have been set up with the right equipment to allow good web conferencing with team members. A bunch of people huddling around a laptop is not a good way to communicate.
Ensure you have the required screen, camera and voice equipment in the room. You need to make sure that those connecting remotely can see everyone in the room as well as hear everyone when they speak. Nothing is as annoying as having to ask people to repeat what they have just said because they were too far away from the speakerphone or because your speakerphone produces poor quality audio and everyone in the room cannot clearly hear those who joined remotely.
Also make sure you have a proper screen in your meeting rooms so that you can see those that have joined remotely. Setup your camera in your meeting room to be facing the attendees from the direction of the screen. This will ensure that when people talk to each other they will actually be looking right at each other. It sounds like a small thing however there are a ton of non-verbal communication that takes place during our interactions which are extremely important. If you are looking away from the camera when you speak to someone you are effectively diminishing the quality of your communication by not transmitting these non-verbal cues.
Next on our list is a big one, your internet connection speed. You could have all of the greatest hardware for doing video calls, but without a good internet connection you are going to struggle. Most people think that having a good download speed is all there is to it but unfortunately this is only half the story. While a good download speed is important for you to be receiving the video and audio from other, your upload speed is important to ensure that your video and audio is transmitted to them without any lag. Always look to have a good upload speed as well to make sure you can do your video calls with high quality.
Another thing to keep in mind with internet connections is with regards to the response time of your connection. This is how fast you get a response when you have sent a packet from your machine to the server. The only reason I bring this up is because sometimes 4G or mobile hotspots provide good upload and download speeds but provide a slow response time. This can cause lag and stuttering when you are doing something such as a video call even though you might have a fast upload and download speed. It can also occur when you are connected to the Wi-Fi in your office along with everyone else.
It is very difficult to recommend speeds for upload, download and response time. This is because difference video conferencing software have different requirements. The best recommendation is to always check the requirements of the software you will be using. I would go with their “recommended” requirements as the “minimal” requirements would not provide the best experience possible.
Having the right hardware is only one part of the solution. Another equally as important part is to have the correct environment. Environment will differ for you based on whether you are alone from a home office remotely or whether you are working from an office with remote team members. Let’s look at both of these two scenarios and the different challenges they present.
If you are planning on being a remote worker and the first thought in your mind is that of your comfortable couch in your living room then let me stop you right there. While the idea of working remotely from your couch might be enticing the reality will typically be that of lost productivity. Sitting at the dining table for days on end is also not a great idea and can similarly lead to productivity issues.
From personal experience the best option for working remotely from home is to have a home office or a room that can be dedicated to work for those days that you are working remotely. Having a dedicated space ensures that you can shut out your regular home life during your working hours and allows you to focus on the tasks at hand. It keeps distractions at bay and provides you with a quiet spot from which to do video calls with colleagues or clients.
Separating work and home life also helps prevent you from falling into the trap of working at all hours of the day. It is mentally much easier to keep work and personal times separate when you can physically close the door or leave the room in which you work. By keeping this separation, it is also easier to “switch” into “work mode” in the morning. This is especially important on days where you have to do tasks that you might find boring or routine. If you were in the office you would have no other choice but to complete these. If you are working from your sofa your TV might just become too big a temptation.
The golden rule for me has always been to create an environment that helps me focus by reducing as many distractions as possible. You should design a space in which you remove all of the distractions of the office while avoiding bringing any distractions of home into it.
These days most offices are open plan and noisy and there are many studies that show it to have negative effects on productivity. If you will be working with remote colleagues it is important to ensure that you minimise the noise and chaos of the modern office. For example, having a video call over your laptop without a headset will annoy both your co-workers sitting next to you as well as the person on the other end of the call. Your co-workers will be forced to listen to your conversation while your remote colleague will be forced to listen to poor quality audio and background noise, making it more difficult to understand you. Always use a headset when you are doing calls with remote colleagues! If you find it hard to concentrate during your call due to office background noise then make sure to move to a quiet location where you yourself are less distracted.
Another scenario to avoid is that of everyone in the office huddling around a laptop when video calling with remote team members. This only leads to bad communication and a terrible experience for everyone involved. If you need to have multiple in-office people join a video conference call with remote co-workers then either use a properly set up conference room or have everyone dial in from their desks with headsets. Remember your aim here is to ensure that you have optimum communication for everyone involved. This cannot be achieved when people are huddling around a laptop at a desk or in a poorly set up meeting room.
I have often found that those working from an office do not realise the extent to which they can negatively affect productivity when dealing with remote colleagues by creating a poor environment for communication. It is important to ensure that everyone working from the office understand the important role they play in facilitating good communication.
By getting the right hardware that works for your environment, and creating the most communication efficient and productive environment you will have laid the ground work for your remote working efforts.
In the next post, we will look at the different types of software that you need in order to make optimal use of your hardware and environment.