Video Conferencing

Video conferencing is the digital version of the face-to-face meeting.

Before we see how you can have a digital meeting, let me say:

Meetings should be avoided.

To understand why "Meetings are toxic", read the chapter with the same title in ‘Rework’ by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.

To have productive meetings, read about the "Modern Meeting Standard" in Al Pimpatelli’s good and short book ‘Read this before our next meeting’.

Elements of Video Conferencing

Video conferencing means you actually see the other people’s faces while attending (and showing yours).

You will send and receive audio and video to and from everybody else.

Screen Sharing

Screen sharing is an essential part of successful online meetings. A shared screen makes it so much easier to get everybody on the same track and engaged.

Sharing your screen is an excellent way to present ideas, demonstrate something you are working on, or just getting some help with an issue you are having (troubleshooting).

Tools for Video Conferencing

There is a plethora of tools for video conferencing and screen sharing.

Here’s a list of stand-alone appplications:

How to Choose a Tool That Fits Your Needs and Context

There are two routes to go: If you are already using a team chat app like Slack, Kato, Hipchat, etc., you can see what integrations they offer. For example, Appear.in offers an integration that lets you start a video conference right from your Slack chat.

Since we are using Kato.im as our team chat app (see our the Instant Messaging guide), there is a very handy built-in functionality to start a Hangout right from any chat room.

Other tools follow a different approach and required everybody on the call to have downloaded and installed an app (i.e. Skype) or participants need to be signed in to an account (i.e. Google Hangouts).

Skype, which unfortunately often times appears to be the only choice 1 because it’s such a popular app, allows to share your screen as well.

HipChat also added the functionality to voice and / or video call team members 1-on-1 and do screen sharing.

Privacy & Security

Many tools offer free as well as premium plans (for professional or enterprise use). Privacy and security should be considered. Here’s some basic information on what to look for and what to avoid.

Talky.io

Talky’s tag line is

Anonymous. Peer‑to‑peer. No plugins, signup, or payment required.

We really like talky. It’s super simple: You just go to their website and create a room (a URL to share with your teammates). It’s great fun as we can name the conference right there, which can be an amusing way to start our calls.

As the tag line states, it is anonymous, uses peer-to-peer technology, and WebRTC. It’s basically built on open-source software.

And Talky even has a neat iOS app for iPhone and iPad.

Appear.in

Appear.in is very similar to Talky. It also lets you create a room from the website, uses WebRTC, and provides an iPhone app.

Join.me

A little stand-alone tool that lets you share your screen with others – instantly. Join.me comes with a free plan that covers the basic functionality.

The presenter (the person sharing their screen) needs to install the app. Other participants can simply click on a shared link and use their web browser to watch.

Additionally, you can have unlimited audio conferencing.

Pro features include:

  • Recording
  • Meeting tools (annotation, presenter swap)
  • Customization
  • Ad-free

Also worth mentioning: There are free apps for iOS and Android.

The Etiquette of Video Conferencing

There are a few aspects in which Video Conferencing differs from classic face-to-face meetings. And, there are some more technical aspects to consider.

Use a Headset

Using a headset 2 benefits everybody on the call / video conference:

  • removes accidental noise transmission when typing
  • improves separation between sound input (mic) and output (headphones)
  • microphone is closer to your mouth than the built-in computer mic

Avoid using "speaker mode" whenever possible. It reduces intelligibility on both sides of the conversation.

Minimize Background Noise

In order to be understood and to understand the people you are talking to, minimize all kinds of background noise you can control.

Mute When Not Speaking

Muting yourself when not speaking is not only polite, it helps everybody on the call to listen and clearly understand the current speaker. Although it might take some time to get used to, it’s worth it. Muting your mic will also avoid unintentionally broadcasting breathing sound or any other unappropriate noise.

Pro Tip:

You can mute and unmute your mic in most apps by clicking the microphone icon. Alternatively, there are little utilities / app that allow you to use a push-to-talk functionality (e.g. PushToTalk): your mic gets activated only when and as long as you push a key combination on your keyboard.

Master Your Tool

Not being able to proficiently operate the tools your are using is simply unprofessional and annoying. – me

If you have no experience with a particular tool your team is using, invest the time and research to master the basic functionality before you are on the call with everybody else. Wasting other people’s time is not an option.

Homework:

  1. Test everything. Never assume "it’s just going to work", or that you will figure it out once you start actually using it.
  2. Be curious. Go through most, if not all, of the settings, buttons and menu items to get a good grasp of what the tool at hand is capable of.
  3. Use Google. There are plenty of resources out there (this site being one example).

  1. It actually is not.
    Apps such as Talky let you create an URL to share that lets everyone jump on the call instantly. With all supported browsers you can simply get on the video conference, no plugin or other installations required. 

  2. A "headset" doesn’t need to be a clunky pair of headphones with an attached microphone (we are neither flying airplanes nor are we professional gamers). Just use your smartphone’s headphones – that’s as much of a headset you will need.