On the left – you have a professional video setup (newscaster) and on the right, you have a guest with an amateur video conferencing setup.
The two images are obviously dramatically different in quality. The newscaster comes across as professional while the amateur on the right comes across as visually awkward, less professional and less trustworthy.
And this amateur isn’t just any joe-schmo – he’s the CEO of a large multinational corporation.
Now – you’re probably thinking that I’m being unfair to compare the million-dollar professional newscaster setup to a person working from home. And you’re right – the home setup won’t ever be as good.
But would you be surprised if it could be darn close with just a simple stack of books?
Common Video Conferencing Mistakes
The CEO above – and I’m guessing most of you – is using a laptop at home for work. And it’s set up something like this.
This makes perfect sense of course – this is how you typically use your laptop to type, surf, etc.
But when you jump on a video conference – 3 problems emerge:
The top of the laptop screen (where your video camera is) is several inches below your face. The result is the video camera is ‘looking up’ from below.
The laptop screen is at ~45 degrees so the camera angle is actually looking into your nostrils.
Since the laptop is positioned for typing – the keyboard is relatively close to you (~12 inches from your body). As a result – the video camera is also very close and creates a ‘zoomed in’ image when video conferencing.
Unfortunately – these 3 problems created the terrible CEO video image you saw above. And this is occurring in your images too.
I don’t know about you – but I’ve never met anyone that looked good zoomed-in from below staring up their nostrils.
Believe it or not – the solution is super super easy. All you need is a stack of books.
3 Simple Steps
Step 1: Grab a stack of books and place your laptop on top. The goal is to raise the laptop CAMERA TO BE AT EYE LEVEL. This added height enables you to look straight into the camera – a key to the professional configuration. The amount of books depends on your height – but for me – this is a stack of books ~7 inches tall.
Step 2: Reposition the laptop screen to be at or near 90 degrees. This removes the upward angle of the video image. Ideally – you want the screen to be perpendicular to your body.
Step 3: Push the entire setup further away from your body than you would while typing. The screen is ideally 24 inches away from your body. This distance then gets the right amount of your torso in the frame – another key to the professional look.
And that’s it. Your setup is now nearly as good as the million-dollar newscaster’s setup.
With all of us spending more and more time on video – it’s time to master the basics. It’s amazing how a simple stack of books with a bit of spacing can dramatically improve your video conferencing quality.
And if you’ve done the book trick – and are now looking for 5 more advanced lessons – see this article.
If you have any questions – please feel free to contact me at @andytryba.
Ok – so maybe the ‘gold standard’ that Andreas Klinger called my office in this tweet may be overstating it a bit. But I did get a lot of questions and requests to write-up a small post on some of the details of the office and considerations on how to build it. So this article is to address those requests.
Initial Design Considerations
Since I work with several thousand remote workers – I needed my office to be optimized for remote collaboration. But your typical 1:1 video wasn’t the only use case.
Optimize for remote video calls 1:1 or 1:N (typical)
Optimize for N:N remote video calls – including multiple people physically in my office (a bit more challenging)
Optimize for the use case 1 or 2 while using the whiteboard to brainstorm (also a bit more challenging)
Other design considerations:
Great HD audio quality all around the room to avoid the ‘near/far’ mic sound
Great HD video setup with proper orientation
Limit wires around the office – clean setup – particularly in the middle of the room
Physical whiteboard (I still hate digital ones)
Ability for others to wireless present on the screen/TV
Use only PC-based video conferencing solutions – not fixed room solutions (innovation curve is faster on PC-based/software than fixed room units)
I wanted a space that I could use as a ‘normal’ office for in-person customer visits but also optimize the room for remote work/video conferencing. The first part is easy, of course. For the video conferencing piece, the layout of the TV, camera and desk were the main considerations.
To make the layout work for video conferencing – the camera and TV needed to be directly in front of the desk. This was a challenge since the space is a rectangle with windows on 2 sides.
The first thought was to hang the TV on the wall with no windows (a typical configuration). But if I would have done this – then the desk would have windows behind it. People make this mistake often – if you orient a desk with windows behind it – the video camera struggles due to the brightness. Your image ends up dark, similar to regular photography with too bright of a background.
Instead (and counterintuitively) – a TV stand in front of the window ended up being the right layout. This way – the desk would be along the far wall without windows – avoiding the lighting issue and taking advantage of the natural light in front and besides my desk.
The camera is mounted just below the TV on a shelf that came with the TV stand. I took off the glass shelf that came with it and mounted the camera directly on the arm. I then raised the shelf so that the camera lens is exactly eye level when I’m sitting at my desk (see my other article about the importance of camera orientation).
For the camera itself – I knew I needed an HD webcam that had a 10x zoom – since the camera is 15 feet from my desk. I also wanted the camera to have the ability to rotate and focus on various spots in the room. This way, I can take video calls from the couch, chairs or even my treadmill. It also needed to be able to zoom out so I could have meetings with multiple people in the physical room – while visible to the others on camera.
I chose the Logitech PTZ – and it works perfectly for all these use cases. The pre-settings on the remote are also great to automatically click to various spots/configurations.
Note – the only issue I have with this camera is when it resumes from standby. When it resumes – rather than spin and rotate into place then turn the camera on, it first turns the camera on thenspins and rotates into place. This creates a dizzying panorama effect for the folks on the other side of the video (sorry folks). I think this is a bug – but Logitech claims it’s a ‘feature’. Classic debate of bug vs feature I guess…
For most of my meetings – someone is displaying some content. If a person in my office wants to display on the TV to the remote group – they simply login to Zoom and share their screen (which shows up on my TV as well as to others).
If they are just displaying locally to me – I have an Apple TV mounted on the back of the TV to AirPlay.
The next challenge to solve was the microphone issue. Though the office isn’t that big – I wanted to be able to do calls in various spots around the room and have the ability to have multiple people in the office during calls. I knew 1 central mic would not be enough. I’d get that near/far effect and poor audio quality.
I originally thought I needed to have multiple mic pods. There are a ton of mic pods and mic extensions you can find on the market – but most are wired together off of the primary pod base. And they all look terrible. They would also require me to run wires to various spots in the office – something I didn’t want to do.
I also considered the type of mics that hang from your ceiling – which would have worked. But again – they look terrible and are a pain to install.
I then came across an innovative company called Nureva. They invented a great (but super super expensive) microphone/speaker called HDL300. This mic gets mounted to the wall and breaks up the room into over 8,192 virtual microphone zones. These virtual microphones basically detect where audio is coming from around the room – and amplifies only those zones. This enables me to be anywhere around the room (or others in the room with me) – and we all sound as if we are next to a microphone. It’s a very, very cool innovation so I splurged a bit on it.
The HDL300 has a small box that plugs in via USB into my iMac. This is great since it’s simply a USB device – and is automatically picked up by all the video conferencing software I use.
Call me old school – but I still don’t love software whiteboard solutions. It got a little better with my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil – but nothing beats a large physical whiteboard. And when others are in my room brainstorming – having a full size whiteboard is important.
Now – I could have purchased a full-size digital whiteboard – but they are super expensive – and they’re a bit of a pain to plugin to various video conferencing software. So the solution I opted for instead was simply mounting my iPad on a stand and pointing the camera towards the physical whiteboard. I then login the iPad as another user in a Zoom meeting – and share the video. It works great (though my penmanship is another story).
I use a variety of different remote collaboration software – Zoom, Slack, Skype, GoToMeeting, WebEx, etc. Though we’ve standardized across our companies – customers and others use different platforms. So simply using the PC as your ‘hub’ works great so you can be flexible and use any of them in your office setup. The TV is connected to my iMac by HDMI and treated as an extended display.
I’ve tried various ‘fixed room’ setups in the past – but found them largely inflexible. This includes Zoom Rooms, LifeSize, Telepresence, Halo Rooms, etc. Having a PC-based model connected to a TV enables a) drag documents back/forth from the screen, b) don’t need a second PC to power the Zoom Room, c) don’t need to pay extra for a Zoom Room account and d) less complicated setup.
Though I use many – my favorite software for remote teams (by far) is a program called Sococo. It’s the only software I’ve seen that can help build remote team culture.
For whatever reason – virtually ‘seeing’ your team sitting around a table develops a sense of connection that can’t be matched with little green/yellow/red dots on a Slack list. The ‘visual proximity’ also encourages watercooler talk and quick video syncs.
I loved this company so much that I bought it – and am now making it 10x better (developing ‘rich presence’, making it into a platform to plugin Zoom/Slack/calendar, adding personalization, etc).
Summary of Parts
Camera: Logitech PTZ camera
Microphone/Speaker: Nureva HDL300
TV: 60” Samsung
Video collaboration: Zoom, Skype, Slack, GTM, others
Remote team culture: Sococo
Keys to setting up any remote-first office:
Output = Professionalism: Configure your layout to optimize for professionalism. Assume you need to close $1M deals on video – so recreate a virtual in-person experience. All elements matter to create a professional look – where you put your desk, background, lighting, camera, microphone, etc.
Audio is more important than video: If video fails, you keep going – if audio fails, you end the call. Splurge on good audio setup. And based on your use cases – there are various options like virtual microphones.
Video orientation is more important than video quality: Eye-level camera setup with proper distance is the key to a great video call. HD is nice – but irrelevant if you don’t have the right orientation. Cameras that rotate and zoom can be great flexible options to achieve the perfect orientation.
PC-based software setups are better than fixed room: Innovation occurs faster on the PC-based solution. And using your PC as the main hub enables you to use a variety of collaboration software instead of 1 fixed ecosystem.
Collaboration is more than just talking: Focus on productivity and culture building. iPads are good tools to ‘extend’ your collaboration to physical whiteboards. Applications like Sococo are great to drive impromptu ‘watercooler’ discussions to get more out of your newly built space.
I’m not sure if this setup is truly the ‘gold standard’ – but after 15 years of trial and error, this setup works great for me. If anyone has additional ideas on how to make my setup even better – love to hear them! You can reach me on Twitter – @andytryba
When people hear you’re a ‘remote worker’ – they automatically assume you’re working in some elevator-music-filled coffee shop or sitting around the house in your pajamas taking conference calls. They also, unfortunately, think you’re less professional (which obviously isn’t true). But if we want to truly make remote work mainstream – we need to change these perceptions and up our ‘remote work’ game. We need to start with how they ‘see’ you. In a remote worker world – that is via video conferencing. Here are 5 ‘advanced’ tips on how to improve your video conferencing professionalism.
Note – I’m skipping the ‘basic’ video conferencing stuff. Yes – have enough bandwidth to do great HD video. Yes – audio quality matters. Yes – use Zoom or some other provider. No – don’t use your phone as the endpoint. No – don’t have your cats jumping on your lap. There are plenty of blogs out there with basic tips – this blog is for the advanced class.
Advanced Tip 1: Camera orientation
First – it’s important to discuss the end state of what you’re trying to accomplish – a video conference that feels super professional and feels as close to an ‘in-person’ meeting as you can. To do this – the #1 consideration is the orientation of the camera.
I do video calls with 50-300 remote workers a week – and I can tell you that it’s in the single digits on how many of them get the orientation right.
The key to a correct orientation is the camera angle is parallel to your eyes. When the camera is ‘straight on’ – you look like you would if you were meeting in-person. Angles are everything here – and if you’re off by even a little bit – you lose the feeling of in-person.
Take a look at the images below – and you can see the huge difference between the right angle (first image) and wrong angles (all others)…
Advanced Tip 2: Laptop camera
Note the middle ‘wrong’ image above – this is a typical ‘laptop’ camera angle. What often occurs (since the camera on the top of the angled screen) – is that you get the ‘up the nose’ angle. You lose professionalism – and it doesn’t matter who you are – nobody looks good from this angle.
To use your laptop effectively for video conferencing – you have to eliminate the angle of your laptop screen and have it positioned at 90% instead. But for the camera to then not point at your neck – you need to raise it by putting 5-6 books under it. This puts the camera at eye level and brings your orientation back to the right position.
The only problem now is that you’re actually too close to the camera – and you look huge on camera to the other side. So to solve that – you’ll want to move your chair about 2 feet away from the desk or table you put your laptop on. This will feel a bit weird at first – but it’s the right distance away for the correct amount of torso to be seen in the video and for you to look closer to the ‘correct’ image above.
Advanced Tip 3: Background
Another big mistake that I see remote workers make is not paying attention to what’s behind you in the video conference. It’s hard to take you seriously when I see your Luke Skywalker bedsheets in the background.
The ideal background is a blank or wallpapered wall (like you see in my image above) or a professional area such as a neat bookshelf or lamp. You should basically ask yourself – if I were closing a $1M deal – would the person believe I’m in a corporate office? If yes – you’ve got a good background.
There are also apps that have built-in background blur or green screen. I find those largely distracting and don’t often work well (particularly around the edges of people). I wouldn’t recommend using that option to hide your background.
One trick that I’ve used in the past is to ‘make’ a professional background using a photography setup. You can pick up a stand kit on Amazon for under $40 and a variety of different backdrops for only $10-$15. So for ~$50 – you can have a truly professional background – that’s super easy to put up and down – and you’ll fool everyone that you’re not in an office. So if you’re stuck with your Luke sheets and have no other options – get this setup.
Advanced Tip 4: Noise-canceling
There is nothing more annoying than tons of background noise from a participant in a video call. I’ve heard it all – from the noises of being outside to dogs barking to children crying to the flushing of toilets (this happens too often actually). I know there is a mute button – definitely use it – but also do us all a favor by getting a noise-canceling microphone.
Noise-canceling microphones are different than noise-canceling headphones. Noise-canceling headphones are to block out external noise for you (the listener). These are also great for video conferencing (such as my favorite – the Jabra Evolv 75e) – but they don’t do anything for the microphone (for us on the other side of your line).
Noise-canceling microphones, on the other hand, actively cancel out noise for the receiving side. There are many hardware mics that do this – and I highly recommend them. But the latest innovation is software microphone noise canceling. I’ve been super impressed with the Krisp.ai software guys. For $3/m – they have an amazing product that all remote workers should use to eliminate background noise. One of my favorite products of all time.
Advanced Tip 5: HD Option in Settings
I’m not sure how I discovered this option – nor why it’s not ‘on’ by default – but there is a setting in Zoom (and other video providers) to turn HD on. I’m assuming they want to either conserve your bandwidth or reduce their compute requirements – but who in their right mind wants to do SD video? Have you tried going back and watching a non-HD TV? Can’t do it.
The setting in Zoom is under Preferences -> Settings -> Video -> Enable HD. Turn it on…
Okay – enough tips for now – but I’m excited for the day that everyone follows all 5 of these. And if you have more – please let me know and happy to pass them on…