How to Create the Best Setup for Video Conferencing (Including Home Offices)
We’re almost three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s becoming clearer by the day that working remotely is here to stay - whether via an all-in “work from anywhere” model or a hybrid arrangement that sees you occasionally visit the office. Employees are flexing their muscles more about wanting to work virtually, at least some of the time. And employers realize that letting them do so not only helps with keeping workers happy, it can lead to improvements in productivity.
A 2022 research study by management consultancy McKinsey shows that most US employees prefer a more flexible work model that doesn’t involve coming into the office five days a week. While some employers have taken the plunge and adopted a “remote first” approach, even employers with a hybrid work model have invested in a virtual office platform, such as Kumospace, to boost collaboration and communication, since it may be rare for everyone on a team to be at the office at the same time. The best virtual office tools, like Kumospace, create a virtual office online with all the benefits of a physical office while giving the flexibility of remote work to employees and cost savings for employers.
So for those of you working at a distance, it’s probably time to seriously consider upgrading your home office video conferencing setup. What may have been okay when you left the office in March 2020, thinking the work-from-home arrangement was “only temporary,” is probably not putting your best foot forward with colleagues, clients or the boss.
By now, you likely have a more comfortable place to work than the kitchen table and chair you used at the start of the pandemic. But have you given as much thought to improving your video-conferencing system? True, today’s laptops come with webcams, and using a basic headphone with a built-in microphone can help you hear and be heard. However, with upgraded equipment and a few additions, such as lighting configurations and specific apps, you can be on your way to having something that is closer to broadcast quality and make you the envy of your virtual colleagues.
Laptops: It’s probably obvious that the feature on your laptop that is most crucial to videoconferencing is the quality of the webcam. Unfortunately, laptops with built-in 720p cameras aren’t particularly well suited for this task. Using one with 1080p resolution or better will give you a crisper picture and better optics.
Videoconferencing doesn’t take up a lot of CPU and GPU, so the decision on how much horsepower you need in your laptop should be assessed based on the demands of other programs and tasks. Considerations such as battery life, portability, size and operating system (for example, Windows, Chrome OS, macOS, Apple iOS) are factors that are important, of course, but don’t have a huge impact on videoconferencing needs.
Internet and Bandwith: To have smooth videoconferencing, it’s all about bandwidth. You can have the most impressive mics, laptops and webcams, and a fancy lighting set up, but the quality of the call could suffer if your internet isn’t up to snuff. And often, when online meetings hit some glitches, it may not be a software platform; it could be the internet connection.
So you may want to consider using the most reliable internet provider in your area and investing in a stronger internet package. If that isn’t an option, you may want to consider reducing the number of devices connected to the internet or not running so many apps in the background, as they could overload the computer’s CPU. You could also consider using a wired connection instead of Wi-Fi.
Videoconferencing Platforms: Most computers, even those a few years old, can handle the minimum system requirements for most videoconferencing platforms - Zoom, Teams, Google Hangouts, and Skype or Skype for Business are just some examples - but you should probably find their videoconferencing specifications and perform a speed test to see if your system is adequate. Your ISP’s service portal will likely have a way of performing a speed test to check if the service can support your teleconferencing platform.
Security: Keep in mind that the initial settings for home Wi-Fi networks and videoconferencing tools are on default settings that, by their very nature, are not secure, and there are a lot of good reasons for businesses to keep their videoconferencing secure. Whatever setup you use, change any setting that could allow the “bad guys” out there in cyberspace to compromise sensitive data when you’re working from home.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has come out with a brief on tips to mitigate security concerns. They include:
Consider an external webcam: As noted above, most laptops are equipped with fixed cameras that don’t have great resolution, though some built-in webcams are better than others. And an internal webcam is certainly always ready to use, easy to maintain, and, if you look straight toward your computer, gives the impression of making eye contact.
However, as this article for Chron notes, even less expensive external webcams have much higher resolution - plus, they can swivel and tilt to get the right shot. You can even pick it up and move around the room during a video conference.
Get a good mic: It’s true that today’s laptops have built-in mics and speakers. Trouble is, most really aren’t that great for videoconferencing on a regular basis with colleagues and clients. So investing in a good microphone, which doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive, is probably one of the best ways to improve videoconferencing quality.
Most people working remotely will be sitting in front of their computer when using the microphone, but there are some who could benefit from a “cardioid” or “shotgun” polar pattern if they are standing a few feet back and, say, make a presentation. There are also omnidirectional microphones, which could be useful in certain situations.
Noise-canceling features on mics are also helpful, making the audio crisper. There are even mics with a “pop” filter, useful in reducing the “pop” on words that start with “b” or “p”.
While we’re on the topic, a headset that also has a built-in mic can do double duty. Not only will you be able to hear better and not bother those who may be around you, but the mic quality will likely be better than the built-in one on your laptop.
Monitors: Once you have the basics down - laptop, webcam and mic, and a good internet setup - you could consider taking your videoconferencing game to the next level by investing in a monitor that gives you a larger screen with better resolution. Some monitors have built-in microphones, and others are designed for specific functions that you might need - for gaming and graphic design.
Router: So maybe you’re unable to upgrade to all the fancy doodads listed above, but you do have fast reliable internet. Rather than making a huge investment at your local electronics store, an upgrade to your router might be a good place to start.
Advancements have been made in router technology over the past few years, including the introduction of new wireless protocols that allow for higher maximum data transfer rates. Additionally, some routers utilize whole “home mesh” Wi-Fi technology that can provide a better distribution of wireless networking, which is especially useful for larger homes.
Three video conferencing setups based on different budgets (H2)
Basic - no muss, no fuss: If your budget is tight, there are a lot of things you can do to have your video calls go smoothly at little or no cost, even with just your laptop camera.
For starters, make sure your lighting is good, and you’re not sitting in shadow, by placing a light source behind your camera, aimed at eye-level at your face. A movable lamp can work wonders. Other tips include moving your setup to where the light is better, or opening or closing curtains as needed. With three lamps you have around the house, you can adapt the principles of “three-point lighting” to eliminate shadows.
Testing and tweaking your sound settings before meetings, especially when you change your setup, is a good habit to get into so you can hear and be heard. And if you have opted to use external speakers, position them away from your mic to prevent mic echo and feedback. Also, fans or heaters in the room can cause a loud hum or buzz, so consider moving them or turning them off during a conference call.
Also, keep backgrounds simple. You don’t need a screen or a filter, but make sure there is nothing distracting behind you. There’s a reason why Claude Taylor and Jessie Bahrey’s Room Rater site (@ratemyskyperoom) went viral during the first months of the pandemic, as people got a chance to peek into people’s homes. As this article suggests, put some thought into what people will see when you are videoconferencing with them.
Stepping up with affordable upgrades: As covered earlier, there are plenty of inexpensive options to improve your videoconferencing setup. There’s a lot out there to choose from, but some brands stand out.
An external camera is probably the best place to start. They have a wider angle of view compared to laptop cams, which is helpful if someone joins the meeting from your location, and external cameras can be angled and situated to adjust light and make the framing look better.
Digital Trends recently published a review on external cameras, and its top choice was the reasonably priced Logitech C92OS, calling it affordable with “crisp” image quality.
An external microphone can also give you that professional sound, and there are some decent ones out there at modest prices. CNET recently published an article on the best mics for Zoom, according to staff who use them. A sound budget choice, according to writer and podcaster Jim Bricknell, is the Stage Right bundle from Monoprice, at around US $70. He says it comes with everything he needs to get set up quickly “with a great-sounding mic, over-ear monitors, a mechanical arm and a decent pop guard.”
An all-in-one solution like the Razer webcam and mic is another budget-friendly option. At about US $70, it has resolution of 720p at 60 FPS or 1080p at 30 FPS, and it even has a 5600K daylight-balanced ring light around the camera that provides even lighting without additional lighting equipment.
Says CNET’s David Lum: “It's a convenient all-in-one, and, given how annoying it is to switch between microphones on the half-dozen video chat platforms I use, it's nice to have a reliable mic always plugged in and ready.”
Lights! Camera! Action! Going all in: If you are making several video conference calls a day, you might want to invest in higher-end tools to give you that professional look.
For starters, think about splurging on a 4K camera, perhaps one that rotates at the push of a button. Digital Camera World recently put out a list of top 4K cameras, focussing on different uses and price points. But the overall winner is the Logitech Brio Stream, thanks to both its 4K resolution and its HDR capabilities. “Balancing out the shadows and the highlights, this camera can handle all sorts of tricky lighting situations. So if your video calls are continually disturbed by the harsh light from a nearby window, this webcam will go a long way towards rectifying the situation.”
It also has three field-of-view settings: 90, 78 and 65 degrees, which allows for experimentation with different perspectives, and dual omnidirectional microphones for improving audio quality.
At over US $500, it’s a pricey option. As well, the 4K video quality isn’t yet supported by most conferencing platforms, and only those with powerful computers will be able to record 4K properly. However, the HDR capabilities can more than makeup for that.If you’re going down the road of getting a fancy 4K camera, it may also be the time to invest in some serious lighting. An article in TechCrunch suggests picking up some high-end Elgato Key Lights or Key Light Airs. These are LED panel lights with built-in diffusers that are easy to manipulate and come with sturdy articulating tube mounts and desk clamps. They also connect to Wi-Fi for control via smartphones or desktop applications, and you can adjust their temperature, to make them more “blue” or more ‘orange’ depending on your needs. Brightness can also be adjusted. Using three of these, you can create a standard 3-point lighting setup that is more sophisticated than moving around the random lamps you may already have in your home.
Ultimately, you can have the best equipment, but good videoconferencing also means developing some good habits. Here are a few to keep in mind.
Know when to mute - and unmute: We’ve all done it - wanting to make your point at a meeting, you start talking, and a few seconds later, there is a chorus of “you’re on mute” from your colleagues.
Share your screen: Videoconferencing by its very name implies visuals. So make sure you share your screen during a presentation so that others can follow along, and that they have the ability to share their screens with others.
Make your meeting interactive: It’s easy for those on a call to just zone out, or turn off the video function and catch up on emails while others do the heavy lifting of talking. An earlier Kumospace blog post on 5 Ways To Run a Successful Virtual Meeting suggests finding ways to make virtual meetings more interactive by using collaborative tools, such as whiteboards, or having a little fun, perhaps a trivia contest at the start, to loosen people up.
Allow time for questions: When a team is working remotely, it may be more difficult for members to just jump in and ask a question to clear up any confusion. If you’re the one presenting, check in every once in a while to make sure that everyone is still on the same page. Being flexible also helps create a conversational atmosphere instead of the feeling of attending a lecture.
Collaborate together at the same time: Tools like email, Slack and Teams are great for quickly asking a question or passing on information, but getting a timely response is a function of whether the person on the other end sees it. So synchronous communication is key to getting things done quickly and efficiently, which is why virtual offices and productive meetings can help speed up the process.
Use a virtual workspace: Spending time in a Kumospace virtual office can reduce the total number of meetings on your calendar since many of them are replaced by quick interactions with colleagues, who are all just a few pixels away. Hopping into a virtual office can provide a quick way to chat with a coworker without needing to schedule a formal meeting.
Together with upping your videoconferencing game, work colleagues can harness moments for unstructured conversations that can lead to innovation or provide a sense of community, even in a virtual setting.
Zena is a veteran journalist in pretty much all formats- print, television, magazines, radio and online. She’s been a reporter for a number of Canadian newspapers, including the National Post and Financial Post. She’s also worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, BNN Bloomberg and Canadian Business magazine. Right now she is a senior writer for Canadian Lawyer, where she writes for the print magazine and online.