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Working from Home, Part I: Video Killed the Office Star

(A client asked that I create a “tips” guide, geared for a non-technical audience, to help their staff adjust to working from home for the first time.  Figured I’d share it here as well!)

Our current extended period of social distancing has presented us with many challenges, not the least of which is adapting on the fly to a sudden shift to working from home. If this is your first introduction to working remotely, the experience is no doubt a bit foreign if not awkward.

This guide is here to help! Once the initial getting-used-to-it period passes, the tips found here will help you transition into a smooth, comfortable, natural work-from-home experience.

Tip #1: A Dedicated Space

First, a general tip: Good posture with your computer is critically important, especially right now when most

of us are sitting at home far more often and for longer periods of time than we typically would.

It may be tempting to simply crack open your laptop and get to work from any familiar flat surface, such as your dining room table or a surface in front of the living room couch, but if you go that route, you’ll quickly find that hunching over a small laptop for extended periods will only increase your chiropractor’s paycheck down the road.

Instead, connect an external monitor or two (if you have one available), then ensure the monitor is raised high enough so that the center is at eye-level. The idea is that you shouldn’t have to bend your neck up or down in order to look at your work.

Don’t have an external monitor handy? No problem! Simply raise the laptop up off the desk to the point that it’s eye-level for you. You can achieve this using an actual laptop stand or by simply stacking books until it’s at the right height!

Working comfortably with good posture will reduce work frustration and help prevent health issues that can arise from sedentary work.

Tip #2: Lights, Camera, Conference!

Whereas web conferencing is a very handy tool for remote group work, video conferencing is even better. Seeing your teammates’ faces is the next-best thing to being together in person and can help minimize the initial awkwardness of working together from a distance.

You don’t need to prepare to look like a professional newscaster in a studio, but it is a good practice to be mindful of very basic camera angles so that you can frame yourself in the most professional manner possible.

Consider the following options:

  • Try to keep your face in the center of the picture.
  • Avoid angles that require you to either look up or down too much. Imagine how you would face someone talking to you, level with them during the conversation.
  • If you’re using an external webcam, this is easiest option. Simply take care to mount and aim it in such a way that you are properly framed.
  • If you’re using a laptop, remember that the camera is usually located right above the laptop’s screen. That means you can adjust the screen on its hinge so as to raise or lower the camera angle.
  • Phones are the trickiest option, but workable. Try to place and position the phone in such a way so that the camera is near eye-level. It’s best to keep the phone stationary during the call, if possible.

Don’t worry about following these tips perfectly – If you stick to the general idea, you’ll be just fine.

Tip #3: Know Your Surroundings

When working remotely, it’s easy to take our home setting for granted. It’s important to remember that when you appear in a video conference while at home, you’re essentially virtually inviting everyone attending into your home with you.

This requires being mindful of what appears behind you. All it takes is for a spouse or child (or pet!) to unwittingly appear on camera behind you to ruin your meeting (often tragically, albeit hilariously). Likewise be mindful of what’s on the wall or surface behind you. For example, some art we might find personally appropriate may not be appropriate by office standards.

Also be aware that some conferencing solutions – such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, to name a couple – provide optional virtual backgrounds to replace your actual background during a call. As many have learned the hard way, these can be activated by accident, so it’s important to be mindful of how you appear on-screen at all times.

Tip #4: Dress for (Remote) Success

Most of us dress differently for work than we do for lounging around the house.  While it may not always be necessary to dress up for the office while working remotely, it is nonetheless critically important to be mindful of what you wear while appearing on camera in a meeting.

Granted, it would be both unnecessary and a bit awkward to wear a full business-professional suit and tie at home in most situations.

Instead, know your audience. If you’re meeting with your own team in which the context of the meeting is pretty casual, then you don’t necessarily need to dress up; just dress appropriate for at least being seen outside in public.

Other meetings, of course, may require a bit more. If you’re meeting with executive leadership, it’s probably an OK idea to spruce up a little.

Tip #5: Face-to-Face-to-…Faces

If there’s one major pitfall above all others when it comes to video conferencing, it’s that your webcam is an unblinking eye that never looks away. This is easy to forget, especially when you’re not the one currently speaking or presenting.

With that in mind, be mindful of your facial expressions. You needn’t go so far as to fake a smile the entire call; rather, simply be mindful of your expressions just as you would if you were sitting at an actual conference table with everyone.

Tip #6: Quiet on the Set

One of the – if not the – most common problems encountered during web conferences is someone failing to mute themselves when others are speaking. Not only is it important to ensure your workspace is quiet from screaming children, chatty spouses, awkwardly heavy breathing, and living room TVs, but one should make liberal use of the “mute” button when not speaking to the group.

For example, when using WebEx, you can hover your mouse over the bottom area of the window to make various option buttons appear, one of which you can click to mute/unmute yourself.

Some headsets have built-in mute buttons as well. These can be especially handy if you prefer to simply tap a real button to mute yourself, but beware: with no visual indicator on-screen, it can be easy to forget if you’re still muted or not.

And Now You’re a WebEx….pert.

Stick to these six tips, and you’ll be acing video web conferences in no time! Proper remote etiquette can make working from home as natural and easy as working in a bustling office – maybe even easier!

In the upcoming parts of this series: staying cyber-secure at home, and soon, special tips for managers who want to keep their remote team engaged. Stay tuned!