Less-than-ideal video conferencing tools are taking its toll on remote workers. What can organizations do about it?

As the world’s greatest work-from-home (WFH) experiment rages on, workers who were rushed to set up their home workspace would have settled in by now.

Their futuristic-looking microphone headset may be some gaming gadget their children use. The blurry webcam could be what their old office laptop already features. If they are savvy, they may listen-in to a video conference using a 2.1 external speaker system instead of the creaky laptop speakers. As long as they were able to get work done within a week, they were happy.

Fast forward two months, and the various teething problems and quirks of different work styles have started to surface. Those workers who were never comfortable with video conferencing are now either getting into the groove, or they are starting to show strain. Colleagues with exceptionally bad webcams start to irritate the other meeting participants due to the lag and distortion in the image and audio quality.

Much of the smoothness of a video conference depends on participants being able to read facial expressions. Frequent, unpredictable distortions of any kind can distract and frustrate people who just want to focus on the discussion rather than straining their ears and eyes to catch what others are trying to convey.

Learning from ‘the experiment’

Initially, IT departments and vendors were happy just to get workers connected to the corporate server and to each other via anything that was available at hand. Now that things have settled down, it is time to review the slew of device-related communication problems that invariably surface.

Typical problems include the following:

Device     Audio Video
Webcam
  • Blurry audio
  • Intermittent echoes
  • Distortions from the background noise
  • Poor directionality when the person faces away from the webcam

Causes:

  • Low quality microphone
  •  Low quality microphone electronics and mechanical build quality
  • Microphone directionality unsuitable for the environment

 

  • Low resolution with jagged edges
  • Unpredictable frame rate or jerkiness of image not due to internet bandwidth issues
  • Distortions not due to internet bandwidth issue
  • Jagged image with fast-movements
  •  Parts of the image are sharper or blurrier
  • Causes:
  •  Low quality camera lens
  •   Low quality video processing electronics
  •  Underpowered equipment
  •  Susceptibility to electrical interference due to shielding and build quality issues

Headset

 

  • Intermittent audio dropouts
  • Intermittent echoes or loud microphone feedback
  • Wireless connectivity issues causing loss of audio or poor audio quality
  • Consistent poor audio quality

Causes:

• Low quality microphone

•    Low quality microphone electronics and mechanical build quality

 

Office-based gear
  • Difficult or troublesome to set up or move around
  •  Difficult to use
  •  Various quality issues with video and audio components
  • Limited video features for zooming/focusing
  • Limited connectivity features for expansion or future-proofing
  • Causes:
  • Unproven or budget brand equipment
  •  Incorrect models or mixmatch of equipment
  • Equipment brand not specialized for value and future proofing

 

 

The problems may at first be tolerable, but with frequent meetings being held daily, or with certain use cases where communication quality is crucial, IT personnel will need to intervene.

For example, in the critical fields of health, aged care, home-based learning and certain government sectors, a video conferencing solution is required to be better than just average or good. Especially in these times of social distancing and isolation, remote working requires technology that facilitates workers to do their job just as well as if they were sitting in front of their patient or client.

For example, many GPs gain as much information from seeing the body movements and facial expressions of their patients as they do from hearing what they have to say. Critical cues, such as a person’s expression when they feel pain, or small involuntary movements made when performing activities, can offer insights that can alter and improve the course of treatment. Without that clear, visual aid, doctors can be left flying blind, and that leads to worse outcomes for patients.

In general, useful cues help facilitate communication. Eye contact, and in particular blink rate, can signify stress, and pupil dilation can signify excitement or attraction. This identification of visual cues is only possible when viewed through quality video systems.

By now, the ‘experiment’ has taught us first-hand that online collaboration is key for businesses and facilities across all sectors striving to survive and thrive during these difficult times.

It is clear that WFH communications requires consistent conferencing solutions in order to facilitate better communications, improved customer relations, and more effective outcomes.

Tips for consistent remote communication

The most obvious solution to ensure quality teleconferencing and video conferencing is to use high quality equipment. However, it is also important to bear in mind that not all high quality conferencing equipment are built for smooth interoperability. Also, user friendliness and security are important considerations.

Here are some tips to help make any remote communication a pleasant and productive experience:

  • Ensure the use of good quality equipment across the board—choose established brands that have a solid track record in conferencing solutions. Good quality equipment uses advanced technology such as noise isolation beamforming and AI noiseblocking to ensure high quality audio and video.
  • Ensure consistency in equipment deployment—workers should be weaned off their personal equipment that may be shared by multiple users and therefore exposed to security or corporate data privacy issues. By standardizing equipment, troubleshooting and servicing become more predictable and manageable.
  • If circumstances do not permit the use of equipment from a single brand of specialized conferencing equipment, make sure to purchase brands that adhere to the Unified Communications and Collaboration (UC) standard. This will ensure equipment interoperability, assured quality across the platform, and also future proofing. In vertical markets such as healthcare or telemedicine, having a unified communications platform is crucial.
  • Finally, quality products and customer care may cost more outright. However, the numerous tangible and intangible returns on investment will outweigh cheap unproven technology that may not even come with aftersales support.

The finer points of choosing the right equipment for your particular business needs are beyond the scope of this primer article, but it should be a good start for further online research.

Happy conferencing!