improving your technology
March 31, 2020

How to be productive working from home, improving your technology

By Paul Laughlin

If your home-based working days are like many leaders, you’re seeing a need for improving your technology daily. You need to make a professional first impression online, more than ever.

Our diaries are filled with more and more video conference meetings. Whether you are using Zoom, MS Teams, Skype or one of the many other apps – you are trying to give your team more face time (excuse the pun).

One day last week I had 9 different Skype meetings in a day! But, as I talk on webcam to other leaders & their teams, I see their need to fix some basics. We know that appearance matters in business, so this post should help you appear more professional by fixing common issues.

The impact of not improving your technology

Why can’t you just get by with your current set-up? In short, because it makes you appear less professional and limits the effectiveness of the human to human contact you’re seeking to achieve.

Here are the four regular symptoms that I have seen most often, from those who are not suitably equipped:

  1. Unable to support video so they are literally “out of sight out of mind”.
  2. Dropping in & out of meetings or freezing, irritating others.
  3. Being difficult to hear, so others will give up & not talk to you.
  4. Looking blurry, difficult to see, or a mess; so unprofessional.

Fortunately, there is a technology solution for each of these. Some are easier to implement than others. But, I think it’s still worth helping you think through different ways that you can improve the impression you make.

Let’s take each of those problems in turn and identify some potential fixes.

(1) Being visible – invest in your webcam

If the “eyes are the window to the soul“, as The Bard penned, then surely your webcam is the window to your business right now. So, I’m surprised to see how many people consider it still acceptable to say that their laptop doesn’t support that, or they “can’t use video“.

I mentioned in my first post on being more productive at home, how beneficial it is to have regular video calls with your team, so they see your interest. Maintaining human to human connections during lockdown is challenging enough. If you lack video communication then you really are limiting yourself too much compared to others.

The next level of participation is those of you who are relying on the built-in camera on your computer. Many are not up to the job, so it is worth taking a good hard look at the quality of self-view when using Zoom or Skype. Quite apart from the issue of the angle (more on that later), the image may be too dark or blurry.

For that reason, I recommend investing in a decent quality external webcam. A number of models are recommended in technology reviews, but personal experience has taught me how reliable Logitech’s webcams are. I recommend buying one of their HD versions. I personally use the c930e Business Webcam and find it very reliable:

Webcams for Video Conferencing and Video Calling

Shop Webcams. High quality webcams with crystal clear 4k or 1080p or 720p video for all your meeting & video calling needs. Webcams for Business, Gaming & Home

Recommended webcam

(2) Staying connected – invest in your broadband

The next most obvious “own goal” I see by leaders in video conferences, is to be dropping their connection or freezing due to poor bandwidth. When you are in a larger meeting (perhaps using Zoom’s gallery view), this really does negatively compare you to the other participants who are fine.

Right now it might be a counsel of perfection to suggest that you change your broadband provider, especially if that requires a change of cabling or router. However, I urge you to research your options.

For instance, consider reinvesting some of the funds you are currently saving on travel, to increase the bandwidth for your account. Most providers offer different tiers of subscription, with different levels of (indicative) upload/download speeds on offer.

Your ISP provider & options to consider

Personally, I haven’t regretted moving across to cable broadband via Virgin Media. I might be paying more than others, but the reliability of the connection is worth it in my experience. I’m using their top M200 broadband package. During the lockdown, I am hearing that some other ISPs are struggling more to maintain service levels.

It might be worth identifying yourself as a business customer to your ISP provider. For some of them, you will be offered a higher level of service & just might be more protected from the potential speed reductions to cope with demand. Worth researching at least.

A final thought on protecting your broadband service. Consider the usage being made by your whole household. Are movies being streamed for the kids? Is your partner using a lot of bandwidth for calls or online gaming?

This article in the guardian should help you think that through:

Coronavirus and the NBN: will your broadband be up to speed if you have to work from home?

If you are planning on working from home during any impending lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus, there are a few things you should check to make sure your national broadband connection can cope. With multiple people at home all day long, everyone will have their own broadband needs for work and leisure.

Recommended bandwidth management tips

(3) Being heard – invest in your microphone

Next up is the problem of being heard. I’m sure you’ve experienced this issue on some of your conference calls. The participants who are difficult to hear find it harder to make their point, ask questions or interrupt.

Akin to my comments about built-in webcams, the microphone built into your laptop is unlikely to be up to the job (unless you live in blissful quiet). The twin issues are the mic picking up your voice well enough for others to hear & it being able to fade out background noise.

Both are worth testing in the preferences pane of your favourite conferencing tool. Zoom provides the option to adjust your audio & hear a short recording to check your sound quality prior to a call.

3 microphone options to consider

My approach to microphones for online meetings has evolved over the years. So, here I recommend 3 levels of option for your investment:

Use the HD microphone built into Logitech webcam recommended above. This gives a pretty good sound quality & served me well for years. But it doesn’t do much for blocking out background noise.

Upgrade to a more portable solution that will work around the house & via Bluetooth to provide a better speaker & microphone for your smartphone or tablet, as well as a laptop. I personally favour the Jabra SPEAK 510 Speakerphone, which also provides better speaker quality for calls:
Portable microphone & conference speaker

But, due to starting a podcast, I have now finally invested in a better quality microphone. Where I most notice the difference is in filtering out background noise, but the quality of sound for my voice is also improved. As with most podcasters, I have joined the fans of the Blue – Yeti microphone. As well as better noise-cancelling it has a setting to optimise the sound quality for the human voice. Well worth the money in my view:

Blue Yeti Microphone review

Forget what you think you know about sound recording: the traditional home microphone is dead. Never again should a mini-jack plug have to run its awful buzzing signal into your Mac’s mic socket to record podcasts, dialogue, or music. The digital domain of USB is here – and it’s better.

Recommended microphone

(4) Looking good online – invest in prep & settings

Even if you invest in all the above-recommended technology, nothing will make up for adequate preparation. What I mean is checking beforehand how you appear to others.

Just like I recommended for audio, use video preferences to check the quality of your impression before starting meetings. The preferences options can be checked prior to connecting. That way you can correct an awkward camera angle or inadequate lighting.

As lighting conditions change during the day & it is so easy for items to be moved without you noticing, I recommend you check prior to each call. Think of it as equivalent to that quick check in the mirror before walking into a meeting. Just a few seconds invested in correcting your appearance can make all the difference to your crucial first impression.

Before we finish, I’ll also recommend an app that was recommended to me by regular guest blogger William Buist. Even after investing in a decent webcam, the software options to adjust settings in that camera are very limited in most conferencing software. A handy way to improve zoom, brightness, contrast and many more is via this Webcam settings app:
Recommended webcam software

How are you improving your technology?

I hope those tips from my personal experience helped you. During this change in working habits, I’m benefitting a great deal from the recommendations of others. Perhaps this post helps repay that favour.

Which tip helped you most? Are there any other technology options that you have invested in to appear more professional online? If so, please share, as we all learn together in this new working world.