How To Meeting

published

What follows is something I wrote up for my coworkers recently, and decided it was worth sharing more publicly. Almost half of my coworkers are remote, so we live and breath in Slack and BlueJeans. This has a lot of great benefits, but introduces some non-obvious challenges. The advice I offer below is useful for both full-time remotes as well as people in the office who communicate with those remotes.

Problem statement: our computers make a lot of noise, and there’s a lot of ambient noise around us, causing unnecessary distractions and interfering with meaningful communication.

Step zero: Use headphones with a microphone!

An omnidirectional mic – like the one built into your laptop – picks up all the sounds around, including all the little beeps and boops your computer makes. Headphones ensure that all the beeps and boops go to your headphones, rather than out your computer speakers to be picked up by your computer’s microphone. The absolute bare minimum you can do to be a better meeting participant is to use headphones. The preferred option is headphones with their own directional microphone.

If you ignore all the rest of this, you can still be a hero to your teammates by using a nice pair of headphones with a directional microphone. A directional mic will focus its reception on your mouth, and pick up less of stuff around you.

The jury is out on things like Apple AirPods. They may work, but they will still pick up more ambient sounds than a good directional mic will.

The use of a directional microphone is especially important to all you people with mechanical keyboards. No one wants to hear you slamming your keys while you type in chat during a meeting.

Step one: turn off unhelpful alert sounds.

Slack and Outlook and other tools all “helpfully” make noise when something happens that wants out attention. If we get alerted for things that don’t actually need our attention, it reduces the value of the alert, and we miss things that are important. There is no value in getting a ding for every new Slack message or every new email you receive.

Outlook

Go to the Outlook menu and select Preferences; then click “Notifications & Sounds”. There you can control the things that try to get your attention unnecessarily.

Personally, I want Outlook to get my attention for reminders, and nothing else. Email, on the whole, does not demand to have my immediate attention, so I silence as much of it as I can.

I also uncheck the option to display an alert on my desktop. The only thing worse than a sound is a distracting pop-up telling me I have a new email. That’s what the badge count is for in the Outlook dock icon.

Slack

Slack lets you control notifications on a per-workspace basis. If you participate in a lot of different Slacks, you might have a valid reason for getting notifications from some of them; but please remember that your notifications are going to be distracting to people during meetings.

Click the name of your workspace in Slack, and then select Preferences and then Notifications. I want to get notifications for direct messages, and when someone says my name. That’s the middle option, and the one I recommend.

Step Two: Set your BlueJeans defaults

BlueJeans allows you to mute your camera and your microphone by default when joining a meeting. Please do this. This will ensure that you never join a meeting with a live mic. It also requires you to take an intentional action when you want to speak.

Click the Bluejeans menu and select Preferences. Then set your defaults as appropriate.

Step Three: Install Muzzle

Mac users: install Muzzle. This simple little app does nothing at all until you start sharing your screen. Then it turns on your Mac’s Do Not Disturb setting, which suppresses many notifications from popping up.

You can enable Do Not Disturb manually, but that requires you to remember to do it, and to turn it off when you’re done. Just install Muzzle. It’s free.

Step Four: Install and use Shush

Mac users: install Shush. It’s $5, and totally worth it.

Ensure that Shush starts automatically, and show its icon in your menu bar. Choose a hotkey. I use the Control key. The default setting is “push to talk”, which means I need to push the Control key whenever I want to unmute my mic. If I’m going to be doing a lot of talking, I can double press the Control key to switch Shush into “push to mute”. Be sure to double press your hotkey when you’re done to set it back to “push to talk”.

With Shush enabled, and in “push to talk” mode, I can safely join any Bluejeans call confident that no one will hear a thing from my until I press the Control key.

Note: Shush doesn’t work with every single pair of headphones. I’ve received reports of at least two different models that, for some reason, don’t work with Shush. I still suggest that this is a worthwhile app to install.

The use of Shush is especially important to all you people with mechanical keyboards. No one wants to hear you slamming your keys while you type in chat during a meeting.

Step Five: Reduce visual noise

If you’re presenting, be aware of what you’re sending from your screen to all the participants of your meeting. If you can, select just the app you need to share from BlueJeans, rather than your whole desktop.

Chances are you don’t need to share your whole screen. If you do share your whole screen, make an effort to remove clutter, pop-ups, and other things that may be in the way of the information you’re sharing.

For example, calendar reminders on your screen cover up part of the screen you’re sharing. The calendar reminder is almost certainly not useful nor of interest to anyone watching your presentation. Click the Dismiss button to make it go away, please.

Step Six: Be conscious.

Try hard to remember that you are in control of your mic. Take a look at your Bluejeans indicators to confirm that you’re muted when you’re not speaking. Glance at your Shush icon to ensure it’s in “push to talk” mode.

If you’re in a conference room with other human beings, please try hard to remember that the Lifesize units pick up every sound and send them to someone’s headphones. If your computer is dinging for every new email you get, everyone is getting a ding right in their ears. Remember also that the Lifesize units do a terrible job when dealing with multiple speakers. More than one person speaking at a time is a disaster for anyone remote. The worst is several conversations happening in the conference room at once, which comes across as a complete and undecipherable cacophony in headphones.

Additional Information

Is my mic working?

Here’s a handy trick to help you figure out if it’s your mic that isn’t working with Bluejeans. If you move your mouse to the top of the Bluejeans window, a set of status icons will show up. If Bluejeans is receiving input from your mic, the mic icon will show some level of green. If Bluejeans is not picking up any sound, the icon will be empty.

Which headphones should I use?

Just because headphones have nice noise cancelling and feel good on your head and cost a lot of money does not mean that the microphone is any good. You should test your headphones with a trusted coworker to ensure that the mic is adequate. Feel free to schedule time with me if you want an honest evaluation of how well your mic works.

Please don’t ask who is on the call.

Unless you’re using the Lifesize unit in a conference room, you have the complete list of meeting participants available to you. The time it takes for you to ask “Is Scott on the call?” is time you could have used to answer that question yourself.

If you are remote with people using the Lifeize unit in a conference room, do the conference room people a favor and send them a list of everyone on the call.

Even more suggestions

Shortly after creating all of the above for my coworkers, I read a great blog post from someone with even more good suggestions about being mindful during video calls. These suggestions tend to be better suited for one-on-one calls, rather than group meetings, but they’re still really good:

Conclusion

It’s all too easy to get sucked into the distractions that our computers offer us, or to drown out meaningful communication with dumb default sounds our applications make. It takes just a couple of moments to set up some sane defaults, and just a little bit of mental effort to establish supportive behaviors.

I believe that with just a little effort, you can dramatically improve the experience of remote communication.


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