The millions of employees and students being asked to work and study from home this month are rediscovering one of the more consistently maddening kinds of modern technology: video conferencing software.
In the comfort of their own homes, from couches, recliners, beds and kitchen tables, people across the United States are firing up video chats and conferences to replace the meetings and classes that are not happening in person because of the coronavirus. These social distancing measures are meant to keep us from physically coming into contact with other humans – and creating the need for virtual connection.
But the reality of video conferencing is a mix of confusing software, subpar hardware and the awkwardness of still-developing social norms. For people thrust into the work-from-home life for the first time, learning how to act on video conferences can be as much of a struggle as figuring out how to dial in.
The seven employees at San Francisco travel-booking startup Carry immediately began using video chats when they started working from home this month not just to get work done, but to hang out with each other.
The group typically finds Apple’s FaceTime has the best visual and audio quality and is easiest since everyone already has it installed, said CEO Kashish Gupta. But recently one employee did not have a good enough WiFi connection, so they tried video chatting through workplace communication app Slack. Another person did not have that installed so they finally ended up with Zoom, which Gupta says works the best on slow connections. He just wishes it was better for sharing live whiteboard drawings.
“It’s pretty hard to follow along with someone when they’re doing work on a computer,” Gupta said.
Some video conference systems are easier to use than others, and some employees are experimenting with alternatives to what the corporate IT department has chosen. There are also tricks to making video conferencing work better so colleagues still see you in a professional light (locking the door if kids are around is a good first step). And when the technology works, it can lead to genuine connection.
“I’m probably averaging three to five FaceTimes per day,” said Jake Sanches, a product manager for a tech company working in San Francisco. Until last week when his company recommended staying home, Sanches rarely used FaceTime, Apple’s built in video chatting tool. Now he is using it to talk to his parents and groups of friends daily, in part to work through underlying anxieties they all have about the coronavirus. “I know what I’m in for for the many weeks ahead so I’m trying to build the coping mechanisms.”
Unlike phone calls, you can see people’s faces and read their expressions and some body language on video chats. With the ability to loop in entire departments, even classrooms worth of people, these virtual meet-ups can replicate the feeling of being part of a group and the productive energy that generates.
Ideally, anyway. Kate Connally’s San Francisco book club decided to have last week’s meet-up virtually instead of in-person, using Google Hangouts. Connally tried reclining on her sofa in a dark room, holding her phone up high, for the best angle, eventually moving closer to her router for a stronger signal. Other members wrestled with poor video quality or finding the best way to fit three people into a frame. The usually lively discussions were stilted.
“We had an absolute problem of not knowing who could talk when,” Connally said. “Two minutes in, the most reluctant person about having this be a virtual book club was like, ‘this is the worst book club we’ve ever had,’ ” she said. After 15 minutes, they gave up on the Hangout and switched to an old fashioned group phone call.
There are many choices for video conferences. There is Skype, Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams (yes, those are all just Microsoft), Amazon Chime, BlueJeans, Cisco’s WebEx, GoToMeetings, BigBlueButton and Google Hangouts Meet. Some people are using the same tools they do in their personal communications, like FaceTime and Facebook Messenger. Others have gotten creative streaming talks with Twitch, while others have had to use video features built into less known software their companies or schools already pay for.
Some video conference software such as WebEx and BlueJeans seem designed for the conference room first. Corporate-style applications can have the steepest learning curve, starting with how to create accounts or dial in to join a room, to knowing when to mute so people cannot hear you whispering to your dog instead of watching a PowerPoint presentation. Other software such as Skype and Zoom feel more consumer friendly, designed to be used with the least amount of setup.
Zoom, a San Francisco-based company, has become the third most popular app in the Apple App Store, and its stock reached an all-time high this month that was double its price when it debuted on the stock market last year. Its app includes touches like changing your background and details like a hand-raising icon so you do not talk over each other. There is even a feature called “Touch Up My Appearance” to hide any minor skin flaws and add a subtle glow.
“It’s a little obvious that you’re using it, but I don’t mind,” said Maia Bittner. A remote worker in New York City working for finance company Chime, Bittner has been perfecting her work from home video setup since she started at the beginning of February. She has two main chat set ups, one at a desk and another in front of an arm chair for more casual coffee-meeting video calls.
In reaction to the coronavirus outbreak, a number of companies see an opportunity to help and drum up new business at the same time. Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced the company was would give the advanced version of its Hangouts Meet video-conferencing feature to G Suite and G Suite for education clients. Microsoft is offering a free six-month trial of a higher end version of Microsoft Teams. The company also said it saw a 500 percent jump in Teams usage in China since the end of January. Cisco is also removing time limits from its free video option and says free sign ups for WebEx in countries heavily impacted by coronavirus were up seven times what they were before the outbreak. Zoom lifted the time limit on its free meetings for users.
“The growing epidemic has broadened my view on what it means to be a video communications technology provider in times of need,” Zoom CEO Eric Yuan said in a blog post.
In addition to Zoom’s features, Bittner uses a few third-party tools to get the highest quality video experience. Krisp is a third-party app that cancels out background noise, like crinkling candy wrappers or construction work. Muzzle silences pop up notifications during screen sharing, so a reminder from your partner to buy more toilet paper does not show up in the middle of a presentation to the entire company. She also uses Snapchat’s desktop app to access even more filters during a Zoom call.
Many of the issues with video conferencing are not the applications themselves, but our own devices and connections. Microphone quality varies wildly across smartphones and laptops, leaving some people sounding crystal clear like they are hanging out on the other end of your sofa and others sounding like they are mumbling in the middle of an empty tunnel miles away. To avoid co-workers asking you to repeat things over and over, do not rely on built-in computer microphones and use headphones with a microphone instead.
Camera quality is equally all over the place, though phones are often better than laptops. Just making sure there is enough light can make up for a low-quality camera. One common mistake people new to video conferencing make is not spending time trying to find the perfect lighting in their houses, settling for any angle that does not reveal messes or the fact that they are still in pajama pants. That leads to a grid of dark rectangles filled with furrowed foreheads, brilliantly back lit shadow co-workers, or sometimes overly personal information about your home.
Bittner has a fix for this too. She bought a $40 ring light, the kind recommended by Instagram influencers and selfie fans, and put it next to her camera. The flattering light lets her sit anywhere, including in front of a bright window, and still be visible. One option she recommends for maximum professionalism is using a virtual backdrop, like a company logo or plain color, instead of showing everyone your home.
“When you’re looking at everyone’s kitchen or laundry it doesn’t feel like you’re at work, it doesn’t feel like you’re in the right context,” Bittner said.