Making virtual meetings work1/6/2021
While COVID-19 has disrupted “business as usual” in many ways, it has perhaps most drastically changed the way we communicate. Many face-to-face meetings have been eliminated, and businesses of all sizes have embraced videoconferencing as the next best option to gathering around the conference table. Some rely on virtual meetings to keep their teams updated, to connect with remote workers and/or
to build relationships with customers.
“We went from a workforce that was 80-90 percent on premises to 80-90 percent working at home,” says Scott D. Breitman, president of Dymin Systems, Inc. in Urbandale.
The shift was dramatic and sudden as concerns about COVID-19 had many businesses scrambling to get staff members set up to work remotely, which meant quickly fulfilling equipment and software needs.
Dymin Systems’ business customers were “hit with a flood of chaos,” says Breitman.
In high demand initially were laptops for employees to take home, he says. “We sold and rented out a lot of laptops.”
Some businesses, such as Baer Law Office in Des Moines, closed to the public altogether.
“Our office has been closed to the public since March because we have some high risk team members,” says Kim Baer. “As a result, almost all of our meetings have been via Zoom, Skype of conference call. It has worked really well — much better than I anticipated.”
Baer says she has used Zoom for client meetings, depositions and mediations. “We used it because it was free and very user friendly. The court system uses GoToMeetings for hearings and even for some trials. Both Zoom and GoToMeeting have good sound quality, which is critical for hearings.”
The best videoconferencing option for a business depends on its needs, say industry leaders. Businesses should consider number of meeting participants and video streams that must be accommodated, the quality of the video and audio and options such as dial-in, screen sharing, document sharing, recording, chat options, ease of integration with other programs, ability to collaborate and equipment requirements.
If all participants in a video conference are joining through an app, then they simply need a smartphone or tablet. However, if participants need to be able to join an actual meeting being held in a conference room, the meeting room may need cameras and microphones for transmitting and monitors and speakers to allow in-person attendees to see and hear remote attendees.
For those businesses using Office 365, Microsoft Teams is the go-to choice for videoconferencing since it integrates with Office 365, says James White, business support technician at Little Dog Tech in West Des Moines. Business News Daily ranked Microsoft Teams as the best option for integration when it reviewed videoconferencing options.
Many larger companies, which depend on internal collaboration, are using Microsoft Teams, says Breitman; however, the majority of
smaller businesses are opting for Zoom.
“Zoom doesn’t require a lot of technical knowhow. Anyone can adopt and use it. It’s by far the most popular option,” he says.
Business News Daily found Zoom to be the “Best Overall” videoconferencing tool because it “offers services and plans that can fit into the budget of all businesses.” Business News Daily also cited the platform for its ease of use and variety of tools, including dial in, recording, screen sharing and messaging. Zoom offers free versions and low-cost versions of less than $20 per host.
Some smaller businesses may find GoToMeeting as the best option, suggests Business News Daily. Since it limits video streams to 25, it is less suited for larger businesses. The platform allows the meeting host to mute and unmute attendees and decide whose video feeds are shown. Other features make it effective, including “screen sharing, recording, drawing tools, meeting locks, transcriptions and messaging.” It is simple to use and integrates with Outlook and Google Calendar. It offers a free trial period and a variety of plans, including ones that can be customized for $18-$47.20 per host per month.
For companies looking for the “limousine” of videoconferencing platforms, Webex is a common choice, says White. Its additional “essential controls” provide managers with additional information and reports and includes training. The audio and video quality is also significantly better than platforms such as Zoom, he says.
For videoconferencing that must include cloud collaboration, Business News Daily says Webex is ideal with two different platforms: Webex Meetings and Webex Teams.
“What‘s nice about Webex is that, while the plans differ in how many people can attend a video meeting at one time, all of the service‘s features are included in each plan,” Business News Daily noted in its review. Plans range from $14.95 to $29.95 per host per month. The Webex Teams app allows for further collaboration among employees.
In order to use videoconferencing, a business must have adequate Internet bandwidth. With businesses using Internet for a wide array of
purposes other than videoconferencing, available bandwidth may be limited.
“Businesses today rely on the Internet for a host of needs,” according to Business News Daily. “Besides searching online and accessing critical programs like Microsoft Office and G Suite, some businesses use the Internet to run their phone service and process credit card payments. Adding video conferencing into the mix puts another large strain on bandwidth use.”
“Anybody with poor Internet connection is really suffering now,” says White of Little Dog Tech. Unfortunately, there isn’t much one can do with limited Internet options available — especially in rural areas, he says.
Ideally, a business wanting the best videoconferencing experience would have a fiber optic line run to the business, but that is costly and
the waiting period to get the work done can be months, says White.
Hardware-wise, many business owners were surprised to find that they needed webcams, which have been in short supply, says White. “People assume laptops have webcams, but a lot don’t have them.”
“From April to August, we couldn’t find webcams and had to order them from China,” says Breitman. “We did not have built-in cameras on all of our computers, so we had to invest in cameras with microphones,” says Baer. “Early on, we would find that the Zoom calls might freeze if we had the setting on high definition. I recently had a mediation for a car accident case where my client was only able to use the call-in feature due to the fact that he still had a flip phone. We always work with our clients ahead of the videoconference to make sure they have the app downloaded and a laptop or phone that will accommodate the app,” she says.
White has other suggestions for those wanting to improve their videoconferencing experience. If possible, connect with a cable instead of wi-fi, upgrade servers so they are less prone to hacking, and be sure to have antivirus protection on computers.
Security and privacy
As videoconferencing has grown in popularity, some lessons about security and privacy have been learned the hard way. Some have found, when sharing meeting links openly, that uninvited — and unwanted — guests can simply click on the link when coming across it and proceed to disrupt the meeting.
Initial security issues with Zoom have been “ironed out,” says White. Meetings are now password protected.
“Initially, no password was needed, so people randomly joined meetings and wreaked havoc,” says White. “You heard stories of kids paying to have Zoom class meetings crashed.”
However, those issues have been resolved.
“I have had a few clients not really trust the security of a separate room on Zoom,” says Baer.
“I understand that, when you are speaking with your attorney about strategy or personal issues, that security is a priority. In those cases, I have arranged to speak to my client on a separate telephone line to ensure that our conversations were private. We have also had some clients attend Zoom meetings using their phone from our parking lot, which allowed us to go out and chat with them outside during breaks,” she says.
“At the end of the day, keeping everyone safe and healthy has to be the priority,” she says.
To help prevent disruptions to meetings, Judith Bitterli, in her blog at www.mcafee.com, suggests ensuring that participants can’t take control of the screen to subvert the meeting.
“Select the option to block everyone except the host from screen sharing,” she advises. She also encourages users to turn on automatic updates so any new security patches will be installed.
While many people do not read or pay much attention to privacy policies, Bitterli urges users to be aware of what information is being gathered about the user and the meeting.
“Another privacy concern was brought to light by a video conferencing tool’s attention-tracking feature,” she says. “This alerts the virtual meeting host when an attendee hasn’t had the meeting window in their device foreground for 30 seconds, resulting in users feeling that their privacy has been compromised.”
The additional tools provided by Webex, for example, allow employers to monitor what employees are doing, says White.
When researching which video conferencing tools to use, Bitterli says to be sure to choose one with end-to-end encryption.
“This ensures that only meeting participants have the ability to decrypt secure meeting content,” she says.
The bottom line is that participants in videoconferences should be aware of whom is in the meeting and reminded that the meeting can be recorded and shared.
“I think the best advice I could offer is not to say anything on a videoconference that you would not want the entire group to hear,” says Baer. “You might not always be muted. Also remember that the call may be recorded as this is a standard feature. Discretion is always advised, especially if you are discussing things that could later lead to a lawsuit, for example, the termination or discipline of an employee.”
Don’t get too comfortable
For people joining in meetings from home, Breitman says “the biggest risk is being too comfortable in your home.” He discourages people from being underdressed for virtual meetings and suggests they carefully examine their background for inappropriate items.
“You’re a reflection on the organization whether you like it or not,” Breitman says. “My advice for Zoom calls is to make your environment look as professional as possible, so it appears you are in an office, even if you have to back the desk into the corner so nothing is behind you. Your background shouldn’t distract from the meeting.”
Other common tips on videoconferencing etiquette include:
• Don’t be late. It’s never good to interrupt a meeting by showing up late, and it is evident on a video call when someone logs in after the meeting has started.
• Turn on the camera. While you may have an option to not log in with the video feed, colleagues want to see that you are engaged in the meeting.
• Sit still. If you are fidgeting or moving around or doing other tasks, you will distract others and look unprofessional.
• No eating. Again, you will be distracting others if you are eating. If you wouldn’t be doing it during an in-person meeting, don’t do it during a virtual meeting.
• Take care of potential distractions prior to the meeting. Close the office door, arrange for kids and pets to be occupied so they are not interrupting, warn others you are on a call and don’t want to be interrupted, etc.
The future is in the cloud
Breitman anticipates that remote work will continue to be used significantly since businesses have made updates to make it happen.
“The focus is shifting from hardware to device and enterprise security,” he says. With people working remotely, device and document security has become more important than ever. “If someone loses a laptop, IT has to be able to wipe it clean remotely.”
In order to not have sensitive or confidential documents being stored on computers and downloaded on remote computers, many businesses are moving to sharing documents via links so a copy is not on the computer itself but is stored in the cloud.
One of the biggest hurdles faced by companies moving staff to working remotely was updating phone systems, says Breitman.
Adopting cloud-based or public cloud-based phone systems allow for people to use apps to convert their smart phones to work similarly to a desk phone, with ability to transfer calls, put callers on hold, etc.
“With software as a service, it lives on the cloud,” says Breitman, so phone system software, for example, can be accessed remotely rather than being on devices.
Now that many businesses have made the upgrades and equipment and software changes that made remote work possible, Breitman says he anticipates that a significant portion of the workforce will remain in remote roles.
And that means videoconferencing is likely to play a greater role in doing business post-COVID-19 than prior to the pandemic. ♦