Remote work has been forced on many of us. Whether you work in tech, or another industry that has gone remote, you’ve no doubt been adapting how you work.
I spent ~2.5 years working remotely in my last job, worked remotely 1-2 days a week before COVID, and have now been working fully remote with 45+ other people at Unito for the past two months.
We’re still learning about how best to work remote, but without a doubt, your work-from-home setup has an effect on how well you work, and how well remote work works for your company.
Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned.
Work Setups Matter for Productivity
It’s very difficult for people to be as effective when they move from an office desk with multiple monitors, their preferred mouse and keyboard, and in-person meetings, to working from the couch at home.
When I was travelling frequently and working, I got used to making do with the space I had, and getting focused regardless of the setting.
But even then, I would go to cafes, use my Etymotic earphones to shut out noise, and make sure my internet was fast.
If you want people to enjoy work at home, they have to have the right setup.
The Worst Setup Restricts Everyone Else
You’ve probably had more Zoom calls in the last two months than you thought you would in the next two years.
How many people does it take to ruin a Zoom call? One. One person who has to speak, but has a poor connection, or disruptive background noise, or video that lags.
Group calls are restricted by the lowest common denominator, which means everyone must have at least a fast internet connection and good audio. The rest is a bonus, but those are the two prerequisites to make remote communication work.
The Remote Work Hierarchy of Needs
The hierarchy for remote work goes like this:
- Internet connection (speed and consistency)
- Audio quality (background noise and mic quality)
- Video quality (position, resolution)
- Lighting (even, bright)
If you have awesome lighting and a great webcam, but terrible internet, it won’t work. You need the first before you get to the next.
This is not a given. Even in Montreal, the best internet plan you can buy gets you 100Mbps download speeds, which isn’t amazing.
The speed is important, but the stability of your connection is almost as important. Dropped calls or periodic drops in bandwidth are a huge pain for conference calls.
This is probably the single biggest reason why companies with remote workers (or who are remote right now) should consider paying for top-tier internet for their employees.
Good internet underpins everything else.
Once you have internet sorted, next up is audio quality.
We’ve all been on a call with someone where the audio is choppy, or the street noise is just as loud as their voice, or you can hear the TV on in the background.
The best way to avoid this is to work somewhere quiet, and use a good microphone.
What is a good microphone?
A good microphone is directional, which means it only picks up sound from one direction.
Gaming headsets are a great option here, and do double-duty as headphones, letting everyone hear better too.
Matt Mullenweg of WordPress did a great rundown of all kinds of microphone and headset options.
I use an Audio-Technica ATR2100 microphone, which isn’t as convenient as a headset, but works great for me. This mic has the benefit of being a great podcast mic (I got the recommendation from Tim Ferriss), in case you’re thinking about trying a podcast at some point.
Don’t forget that even a great microphone will struggle in a very noisy environment, so finding a quiet place to work is important too.
For companies who want to help make remote work smooth, sponsoring top-tier internet and a good headset is the place to start.
Good news: the webcam on your laptop should be fine.
The biggest improvement you can make to your video appearance on conference calls is to get the camera at eye level, and from your primary monitor (so you’re looking at it).
At home, I use an external webcam on top of my second monitor. Logitech makes great webcams, and I use one like this.
When I only have my laptop, I try to prop it up or have it high enough so that the camera is close to eye level. I often just prop it up on some books, but a laptop stand is a good alternative.
If you want to see just how advanced camera setups can be, you should check out this Logitech setup, with a remote-controlled 4K camera with 15x zoom. Someday.
The last component to a great video setup is lighting.
Here you should do two things. If possible, put a window or source of natural light in front of you. If you live in an apartment with limited options for windows (like me), you can do what every Instagram model has figured out, and use a cheap ring light like this one.
Positioning your camera well and getting into the details of lighting may seem like overkill. But when you multiply the small improvements by 5, 10, 20 people in a conference call, you see the results. It becomes much more like being in-person, and communication is much smoother as a result.
Don’t Forget, Internet + Audio is First
Good internet is the basis for good remote communication. Without that, you’re in trouble.
After you’ve got that sorted, make sure you have great audio. Use a good headset, or a good directional mic and headphones.
You can use the camera on your laptop, but make sure it is facing you directly, at eye level, and that your face is lit well, either with natural light or a ring light.
Master these four components at your company, and those remote meetings will be as smooth as in person.