Looking for part 1 of Ethan’s ‘Remote Collaboration & Telecommunication’ blog series? Check it out here!
At Filament, we work with clients near and far so remote collaboration and the use of teleconferencing systems is a daily practice. Our meeting rooms are outfitted with webcams, microphones, and conference telephones. As a producer, part of my responsibility is in facilitating communication and ensuring that all voices and ideas (remote or local) are heard clearly. In my last blog post I questioned the notion that our current video conference systems facilitate authentic face-to-face interaction. Latency, audio/video fidelity, and network uncertainty all contribute to a very different mode of communication that comes with its own set of etiquette so to speak. Therefore I’d like to share some of the strategies we use for navigating the network.
Pace of Speech
One of the most common disruptions to remote collaboration arises from inadvertent interruptions caused by latency. In speaking, we have certain learned expectations with regard to timing that must be recalibrated when network latency is introduced. One thing to keep in mind when speaking with remote attendees is that the latency goes both ways. When you complete a sentence or a statement, let it breathe. Give a little more time before starting the next one. In person, we use these tiny pauses as a way to allow others to interject important context or get a necessary “word in edgewise.” Over a network, that tiny pause needs to expand by at least 300ms.
(Lots of research has been done on acceptable thresholds for latency in speech and the ITU-T standard is that one-way delays should be no more than 150ms.)
Another common disruption to remote collaboration is the dreaded and mysterious feedback. Seemingly emerging from nowhere and spreading like an audible virus, feedback can quickly put a halt to a fruitful conversation. Feedback in a conference call setting occurs very easily because the microphone and speakers are in such close proximity. Because of this every modern teleconferencing system includes some form of noise reduction processing and echo cancellation/suppression. These are very sophisticated digital signal processors, but sometimes they can be fooled and are particularly susceptible to the high frequencies present in Ss and Ts.
For an individual on a laptop, the best practice is to simply use headphones as your speakers rather than laptop speakers. That way the signal from the remote end goes straight into your ears and can’t make its way back into your mic. In a room where multiple people need to be able to hear and speak, simply keeping the volume at a reasonably low level helps to reduce the chance of overwhelming the echo cancellation. Additionally, speak close to or directly at the microphone in the room. Speaking (or yelling) from the back corner of the room forces the echo cancellation filters to allow more frequency content through, increasing the risk of some of those slipping by and being fed-back.
In general, a basic understanding of your microphone and speakers (and their settings) goes a long way in preparing you for successful video conference communication.
If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it even make it to the RFP stage?
As a matter of course, any reflection on good communication strategies will address the importance of listening. And as I mentioned above, being aware of your own speech in a conference call is important, but the act of listening comes with even more nuanced considerations.
First, in all remote communication settings there is a level of uncertainty. As the speaker, it is impossible to know exactly how you sound or look at the remote location. Therefore, as a listener it is considerate to give the speaker some positive feedback that they are being heard. An occasional visual nod or non-interruptive “mhmm” will reaffirm a speaker that their sound is coming through clearly and they are being understood.
In person we often use subtle visual cues to signal that we are about to begin to speak or would like to interject (leaning forward, sitting up, putting a hand up). These are important as they suggest to the speaker that someone else has something important to say. In a video conference setting, conversational steamrolling is even more frustrating than in person and listeners shouldn’t be forced to interrupt in order to participate (remember Pace of Speech). Therefore, just as much as a listener should be fully attending to a person speaking, so too should the speaker be sensitive to those audible affirmations or on-camera visual cues coming from others.
Finally, another example of why we aren’t quite ready to call video conference systems face-to-face is what I’ll call the ‘ol local sidebar. In a video conference meeting it is often very tempting to step back from the mic or outside the field of view of the camera and have a separate discussion with another local meeting attendee. While oftentimes harmless, these sidebar conversations can alienate the remote attendees and potentially erode trust between the various parties. Ultimately the goal of all meetings is to facilitate clearer understanding, iron out ambiguities, and further establish trust among all participants. However, if the idiosyncrasies of the medium are used as a vail or a mask, it can undermine the positive effects of remote collaboration.
In the final installment of this series on remote collaboration I will further expand on the affordances and limitations of the software tools we use, particularly the non-real-time ones. To instant message or to email? That is the question! But for now, I’d like to leave you with a humorous take on the challenges of our current video conferencing environment with a video by Tripp and Tyler (excuse the advertisement, we have no formal affiliation with Upside).