Tag Archives: videoconferencing

Telecommuting Is About More Than Just The Technology

We’ve hit the golden age of telework, with myriad options to work remotely from a broadband-connected home, a hotel, or a cafe on a mobile device. The explosion of cloud and mobile technologies makes our actual location the least important aspect of connecting with our applications and data. And there are more and more reasons to support working remotely. Per Reuters, the state of commuting is a “virtual horror show”, with the average commute costing the working poor six percent of their income. It’s three percent for more wealthy Americans. And long commutes have negative impacts on health and stress levels. Add to this the potential cost savings if your headquarters doesn’t require an office or cubicle for every employee. For small NPOs, do you even really need an office? Plus, we can now hire people based on their absolute suitability to the job without requiring them to relocate. It’s all good, right?

Well, yes, if it’s done correctly.  And a good remote work culture requires more than seamless technology. Supervisors need to know how to engage with remote employees, management needs to know how to be inclusive, and the workers themselves need to know how to maintain relationships without the day to day exposure to their colleagues.  Moving to a telework culture requires planning and insight.  Here are a few things to consider.

Remote Workers Need To Be Engaged

I do my best to follow the rule of communicating with people in the medium that they prefer. I trade a lot of email with the people who, like me, are always on it; I pick up the phone for the people who aren’t; I text message with the staff that live on their smartphones. But, with a remote employee, I break that rule and communicate, primarily, by voice and video.  Emoticons don’t do much to actually communicate how you feel about what your discussing.  Your voice and mannerisms are much better suited for it.  And having an employee, or teammate, that you don’t see on a regular basis proves the old adage of “out of sight, out of mind”.

 In Person Appearances Are Required

For the remote worker to truly be a part of the organization, they have to have relationships with their co-workers.  Accordingly, just hiring someone who lives far away and getting them started as a remote worker might be the worst thing that you can do for them.  At a minimum, requiring that they work for two to four weeks at the main office as part of their orientation is quite justified.  For staff who have highly interactive roles, you might require a year at the office before the telework can commence.

Once the position is remote, in-person attendance at company events (such as all staff meetings and retreats) should be required. When on-site isn’t possible, include them via video or phone (preferably video). On-site staff need to remember them, and not forget to include them on invites. Staff should make sure that they’re in virtual attendance once the event occurs.

Technical Literacy Requirements Must Be High

It’s great that the remote access tech is now so prevalent, but the remote worker still needs to be comfortable and adept with technology.  If they need a lot of hand-holding, virtual hands won’t be sufficient.  Alternatively, the company might require (and/or assist with) obtaining local tech support.  But, with nonprofit IT staffing a tight resource, remote technophobes can make for very time-consuming customers. Establishing a computer-literacy test and making it a requirement for remote work is well-advised; it will ease a lot of headaches down the road.

Get The Policies In Place First

Here’s what you don’t want: numerous teleworkers with different arrangements.  Some have a company-supplied computer, some don’t.  The company pays for one person’s broadband account, but not another’s. One person has a company-supplied VOIP phone, the other uses their personal lines. I’ve worked at companies where this was all subject to hiring negotiations, and IT wasn’t consulted. What a nightmare! As with the office technology, IT will be much more productive if the remote setups are consistent, and the remote staff will be happier if they don’t feel like others get special treatment.

Go Forth And Telecommute

Don’t let any of this stop you — the workforce of the future is not nearly as geography bound as we’ve been in the past, and the benefits are compelling.  But understand that company culture is a thing that needs to be managed, and managed all the more actively when the company is more virtual.

Flying in Place: Videoconferencing

This was originally posted on the Earthjustice Blog in May of 2009.

As an information technology director whose livelihood depends pretty heavily on the use of electricity, I’m constantly looking for meaningful ways that the technology I’m immersed in can contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases. The saying “If you aren’t part of the solution you’re part of the problem” doesn’t even suffice — technology is part of the problem, period, and it behooves people like me, who trade in it, to use it in ways that offset its debilitating effects on our environment.

This is why I’m very excited about an initiative that we have taken on to deploy videoconferencing systems in each of our nine locations.

Per a May, 2008 report by the Stockholm Environment Institute, aviation activities account for somewhere between 2% and 5% of the total anthropogenic Greenhouse Gas emissions. Our organization, with offices stretching from Honolulu to Anchorage to NYC and down to Tallahassee, has a great opportunity to eliminate much of our substantial air travel. If you’re in a similar circumstance, I thought it might be helpful to offer a rundown of the options ranging from free and easy to expensive but fantastic.

Cheap and easy means desktop video, which is far more suited for person-to-person chats at one’s desk than large meetings. While it’s certainly possible to hook up a PC to a projector and include someone in a conference room meeting this way, it’s a far cry from the experience you would have with actual videoconferencing equipment.

In general, the return on the investment will be in how successfully you can mimic being in the same room with your video attendees.

While only the richest of us can afford the systems that are installed as an actual wall in the conference room (commonly called “Telepresence”), connecting offices as if they were in the same place, a mid-range system with a large TV screen will, at least, make clear important things like body language and facial expressions, and be of a quality that syncs the voices to the images correctly. This makes a big difference in terms of the usefulness of the experience, and should be what justifies the expense over that of a simple conference phone.

Leader of the cheap and easy options is Skype. Once known as a way to do free phone calls over the Internet, Skype now does video as well. Of course, the quality of the call will vary greatly with the robustness of your internet connection, meaning it’s abysmal if a party is on dial-up and it’s great if all callers have very fast DSL/Cable connections or better.

Other free options might already be installed on your computer. the instant messaging applications like Windows Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger and iChat are starting to incorporate video, as well.

There are two ways to do Conference Room Video, one of which requires some investment, at least in a large TV display. One option is to do the conference in someone else’s room. Fedex/Kinko’s is one of many businesses that rent space with video equipment and support (note: it’s not supported at all locations). If your needs are occasional, this might prove more affordable than flying.

For a more permanent arrangement in your own digs, then you want to look at purchasing your own video equipment. This is the route that Earthjustice is taking. Vendors in this space include (and aren’t limited to) Polycom, Cisco, Tandberg andLifeSize. Options range from a simple setup, with a basic system in each office, to a more dynamic one using a multi-point bridge (definition below!). The key questions you need to ask before deciding what to buy are:

  • How many locations do I want to have video in?
  • What are is the maximum number of locations (“points”) that I want to connect in one call?
  • Do I want to regularly include parties from outside of my organization?
  • Do I have sufficient bandwidth to support this?
  • Do I want to incorporate presentations and computer access with the face to face meetings?
  • Do I want to support desktop computer connections to my system?
  • Do I want to have the ability to record conferences and optionally broadcast them over the web?

Standard videoconferencing equipment includes:

  • A Codec, which, much like a computer’s Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the brains of the equipment
  • One or two Displays (generally a standard TV set; for HD video an HDTV)
  • A Conference Phone
  • One or more Microphones
  • A Remote Control to control the camera and inputs
  • Cables to connect the network and optional input devices, such as a laptop computer

The Codec might be single point or multi-point, multi-point meaning that it is capable of connecting in multiple parties to the conference. You might want an additional display if you regularly do computer presentations at your meetings, so you can dedicate one screen to the presentation and the other to the remote participants. Most modern systems have a remote control that can not only control your camera, but also the camera in the remote location(s), assuming all systems are made by the same vendor.

Another option is to purchase a Conference Bridge (aka MCU). A bridge is a piece of equipment that provides additional functionality to the Codecs on your network, such as multi-point conferencing, session recording, and, possibly, desktop video.

Key questions that we had when we evaluated systems were: “How many points do your codecs connect to before we need to add a bridge?” and, “If numerous parties are connected, how does your system handle the video quality?” Some systems brought all connections down to the poorest quality connected; others were able to maintain different quality connections in different windows.

We also looked hard at the ease of use, but determined that all of these systems were about as complex as, say, adding a VCR or DVR to a cable TV setup. Some staff training is required.

On the real geeky side, we required that the systems do these protocols: Session Initialization Protocol (SIP) and H.323. These are the most common ways that one video system will connect with another over the Internet. By complying with these standards, we’ve had great success interoperating with other manufacturer’s systems.

Finally, we were able to go with a High Definition system, with great quality. This was largely enabled by the robust network we have here, as no system will work very well for you if you don’t have sufficient internet bandwidth to support this demanding application.

Conclusion: This is a somewhat simple distillation of a fairly complex topic, and the proper solution and impact of using video will vary from organization to organization. In our case, this will pay for itself quickly, and be scored as an easy win in our goal to reduce our carbon footprint. Compelling technology that supports our planet. Who can’t appreciate that?