Building Better Virtual Teams

Video services have made a big impact on our everyday lives, and the ability to see each other has helped to draw people together even if they are separated by geography. Skype calls are now a common practice for a lot of people, allowing people to communicate with friends and family that it is not possible to see in person. 

Video conferences in business however are still very much in their infancy. The majority of conference calls I get invited to use voice conference bridges where you call into a central number for your country and then punch in the meeting room PIN number to chat with your colleagues who have dialled in to the same bridge. 

Some of these systems can be reliable with reasonable voice quality, sadly, many are not. Typical issues I have with these systems are a mixture of how they are used and how low the quality of the service is: With the ubiquity of voice conferencing systems out there it has been a drive to the bottom with pricing, and as so many free services exist out there, quality in corporate audio bridges can be very poor. Telephone quality of 300-3400hz is noticeably lo-fi compared to most internet audio calls.

As many of my voice only meetings are international, there is often a delay between participants which causes people to speak over each other. Whilst everyone is used to this and have accepted it as an irksome inevitability, I still hear it causing irritation between attendees and it can mean that clarity in a conversation can take time to resolve. It’s certainly not the best relationship building tool.

In addition to a voice service some providers differentiate themselves by adding screen sharing and some have a video service too. Yet almost all of these web based video conferencing services have similar problems with quality. When I have a meeting across more than one country the quality of the conversation matches that of voice bridges; there are delays and sometimes frozen or stuttering video, and often the quality of screen sharing is usually visibly poorer than when you look at your own desktop! We have simply gotten so used to low quality video conferencing images we’ve made allowances for them.

I regularly try out the latest and greatest new products to see if there is anything better out there. Adobe Connect Pro is one of better ones I’ve tried. It provides a good tool for online meetings and classes, but is definitely better suited to broadcasting webinars where multiple attendees use the text chat to talk to the instructor. Adding more than a few video participants makes for poor quality video all round. I also still frequently run into a problem with the Adobe Flash plug-in, where users do not have the plug-in or they have an old version that won’t work with it.

Other services do an OK job with varying pricing: Go To Meeting is probably the leading service by Citrix at £29/month, I’ve tried Blue Jeans but bailed after the free trial as pricing plans are not published and you need to contact a US freephone number where I’m expecting to be given a very large figure as a quote.

Whilst researching options I stumbled across Zoom and got onto the free trial and was actually astounded! High quality video screen sharing that really is great quality. And the clincher of the deal…no delays no matter where everyone is! 

I regularly host calls between the UK, India and the US, and while it’s great to be able work across multiple time zones, the biggest effect isn’t on inflating my sense of tech-nerdery, but rather on improvements in the relationships between team members - Having a service with HD video where in one-to-one’s it’s almost as good as being seated across the table from each other. Face to face video meetings have improved communications and created a greater level of understanding between everyone.

One of the problems Zoom has solved for me is the ongoing problems I have been having communicating with the Philippines. I have a VA with whom I’ve worked for years and the communication quality there can often be very poor with screen sharing unintelligible, laggy, frozen and very low resolution. Poor communications was increasingly making working relationships very frustrating. One Zoom call later had changed everything! I could see what she was doing as she did it and we had the first good conversation face to face in a long time.

With such a great service on the free trail I was expecting the actual price to cost the earth! ….Nope! $9/month or better $99/year. However the free service is excellent too, one-to-one calls are unlimited and group calls up to 25 people are limited to 40 minutes. I lasted 2 weeks on the free service before paying for the year, which gives you the benefit of your own personal video bridge with a permanent PIN if you want it.

I’m now trialling it with as many people and groups as I can, and if you have no need to worry about anyone else overhearing your call works great without headphones!

The screen sharing quality is of a very high resolution - much better than anything else I’ve tried - it provides a clear view of the shared desktop and uses nice ways to deal with different monitor sizes where you get to choose (to a degree) how you see the target screen.  The mobile app has a couple of nice features in it where you can screen share documents from dropbox and other services - As far as I’m aware this is the only app at the time of writing which Apple has allowed to do this. The mobile app quality is so good that for the first time I’ve managed to hold a conference call while in motion walking down the street with an iPhone! I’m not entirely sure whether walking about holding a conference call makes me look cool or not, but it works, and really well!

Recording is also a useful feature; you can replay from the app or you can open the recording folder and you get the full HD mp4 of your meeting, a lower res mp4 of your recording, you also get a separate mp4 of your video camera and in addition you get a separate mp3 file of the recording audio. Should podcasters be looking at this as a replacement tool? A one stop instant recording into all the usual formats ready for hosting! I’m definitely going to be using it to record elearning interviews and try it out for recorded webcasts. 

Of course not everyone in businesses and organisations are tech-savvy, and if any of your participants are technically challenged then they can also join by phone. The full list of international dial in numbers can be found at http://zoom.us/zoomconference.

I’ve not even touched on the business integrations or SIP/H.323, but perhaps that is best suited to a separate article.

Zoom is definitely one of the best solutions for communications I have come across, and one additional effect on my team that I’d noticed (apart from people having to get dressed in the morning!) is that everyone is starting to become more media friendly: A few well positioned and ‘flattering’ lights behind the laptop, positioned to get their ‘best side’ are starting to appear! 

As a mac user I’ve been able to add another video tool which adds a level of quality. iGlasses from ecamm.com allows you to zoom in and do colour correction on your video. It comes with a ready supply of effects and you can even add media files so they appear in place of your camera. Video on hold then becomes possible, plus being able to feature replacement videos of me with monkeys looking into video camera has had a universally good reception!

On their latest news update from this week, Zoom made a ‘small’ update to their service so now instead of having up to 25 active participants you can add the capability to have up to 1000 people watching the video stream, plans for up to 100 attendees start at $40/m. This is so well priced that there is really a very scalable structure from free and low cost for personal use all the way unto professional corporate level solutions. 

Communications within businesses are about more than simply facilitating information exchanges. Being able to effectively, reliably and consistently communicate well with other people where you can see their faces, hear their tone, and gauge their responses and reactions without overlap, bad video and poor sound has already improved my working relations with my team…even if I do now need to put on pants first thing in the morning!   

Photo credit: Gui Lopes