Video conferences suck

Personally I find synchronous video meetings agonising!

Video conferencing screen from Charlie Brooker's Antiviral Wipe

So why do people have video meetings?

So why do video conferences suck?

In-person conferences suck because they are inaccessible (e.g. if you're poor and can't travel, or if you have a medical condition and can't travel, or if you have family constraints and can't travel, or...). Video conferences mostly just suck because of bandwidth and camera/microphone quality constraints these days... At least, for meetings that are well run (with agenda etc). But then I don't attend the ones that suck, so... :-) — Ian Hickson

These are issues I've personally experienced. Hopefully over time people will look at these issues and wonder how they were issues to begin with!

I've found presenting without seeing your audience excruciating. Even though it's a video conference, it's not practical to view participants faces whilst sharing a screen.

Chairing / moderation / Host issues

A pointless meeting with five people that lasts an hour is not a waste of one hour of productivity, it's a waste of five hours.

No agenda, participants often aren't prepared. Agendas really should be at the end of a sane URL: https://meeting.example.com/2020-05-14/subject

Recording of decisions is done poorly. No minutes. No way to reference a decision or action.

Difficulty co-ordinating who speaks and for how long. The moderator needs to step in!

No time limit, so meetings go on and on... until the next scheduled meeting.

Technical issues

Poor audio. No decent microphone or headset. Noisy environment. Room with poor acoustic qualities (reverb).

There [should be] only one audio stream, which is the current main content to discuss, talk and reason about. There [should be] never multiple people talking. — bizarrely every conference software I've used allows people to talk over each other.

Poor video. Poor lighting or camera. Distracting background.

Poor network. Packetloss. Latency. Difficult to diagnose where the issue lies between several participants.

Conferencing technology often requires centralisation to be efficient. It's not peer to peer since typical constrained upload channels can only afford one video uplink. Centralisation means conferences are typically not end to end encrypted, making video conferences a security concern.

Using optimal wireless instead of wired as you can see for yourself is suboptimal compared to wired below:

wireless latency on a LAN wired latency on a LAN

Participants unable to mute their microphone.

Software unable to do noise suppression.

Not easy to share a desktop with common desktop anti-patterns of notifications interrupting focus. Not easy to point or annotate / highlight / magnify elements on a shared desktop in real time.

Different software platforms have different features or limitations. If you collaborate with an Enterprise you might not be able to choose a better solution.

Difficult to diagnose issues. Try play a game between participants: Take turns counting up as soon as hear the number. It's an awful experience.

How to avoid video conferencing?

Learn from OSS projects and do not resort to video conferences! Admittedly OSS is focused around code reviews, nonetheless they do tend to produce amazing value / work.

No PMs, no agile, no scrum, no SLAs, no KPIs, no arbitary deadlines

— Alyssa Quek (@alyssaquek) May 12, 2020

However OSS often have properties that businesses do not:

End result is that a majority of OSS do not need meetings.

You could add that OSS projects have evolved over decades of remote & geo-distributed work to operate *asynchronously* by default. Videoconfs are often a misguided lift-and-shift effort to replicate physical offices

— Mahemoff @ 🏡 (@mahemoff) May 13, 2020

How to make video conferencing suck less?

Address the issues above! Solve organisational/management issues. Take responsibility. I personally have the feeling that a lot of meeting participants want to be "off record" to save their skins.

Promote a chair person / moderator or ensure the project manager is capable of filling this role. Arrange a queue or adopt "hand up" approach to indicate the participant has a point to make. Keep time! Own it!

Promote a note taker / scribe. Adopt good minuting practices and tools. Have a Google doc or some other realtime pad so participants can collaborate and add details. The note taker cannot be expected to be the presenter! This responsibility for smaller meetings should probably fall on the chair person / moderator.

Solve technical issues; e.g. Supply a Jabra headset to staff and tell them to be wired!

Record meetings. Re-visit them. What could be better? Improve them!

Reference recordings and their products: actions/decisions.

Instead of "live" Webinars, pre-record and edit presentation in advance and then take questions after? If you can't get good results in a recording, you certainly won't achieve them live!

Attempt to solve the problem in a different way! For example using short form [on demand] Standups for alignment, in an asynchronous medium like Slack or IRC.

The IRC room forces people to convert their fast thoughts into text. The questions were collected and added to the main audio stream context according to the current moderator.— 20h

Use email with archives (decisions) you can reference. However improving posting style in software like Outlook is impossible to do, so good etiquette OSS practices present in mailing lists cannot be adopted without software changes.

Conclusion: Video is mostly a waste of time. Use it for porn or other beautiful things. Showing faces which pretend to smile is not what the Internet was made for.
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