25 years ago the Apache Software Foundation, the loosely coupled group of endeavoring engineers who developed and popularized 95% or more of the technologies that are used in the day to day operation of all Web applications and websites, broke new ground by formalizing their virtual group into a legal entity.
With some of the founders not ever having met each other until years later, they were able to put together one of the world’s most success virtual enterprises, completely online, and fully functional. You can read more about the organizational challenges and vision here.
If that’s the gold standard, how hard can it be for the rest of us?
The majority of us are working from home nowadays. For those of us familiar with working in virtual groups, the tools, technologies, and netiquette (network etiquette) can be everyday, but there are still plenty of challenges.
There is a spectrum of applications with user-to-user asynchronous communication on one end and group synchronous communication on the other. There are exceptions where you can do synchronous person-to-person or person-to-small group, or use ad hoc conferencing as an asynchronous virtual workspace, but most products are centered around one or the other. It’s certainly been a boon for almost all of them.
One-to-one chat apps are typically used on a smartphone with no desktop or laptop equivalent. Different from a phone call or a text from a smartphone, they provide more of an asynchronous channel, so the immediacy of reply isn’t as demanding, and the tone of the conversation is less formal. Examples of these types of apps include Apple FaceTime, Snapchat, Line, Telegram, WhatsApp, WeChat, Kik, Signal, Group.me, Discord, and even Facebook Messenger. The issue with most of these is that while they do provide groups and rich media, most of them are designed for individual communication. FaceTime Groups is an exception because you can have a video or audio call for up to 31 people at once. Still, for anyone who has ever tried it, it’s mostly a broadcast-from-only-a-few and mostly listeners model.
The second type of “popular now more than ever” application is colloquially called Web Conferencing. If you are one of the millions who have suddenly been asked to work remotely, you no doubt have several online conferences in your daily work, almost always with different services. Just keeping the Web browser plugins permissions straight and the differing services from fighting and playing nice with your microphone and video camera can be a real challenge. A long time ago, one of my relatives used to call me every couple of days to fix his computer. It turns out that he thought if one security and antivirus package was good, then installing all of them would be better. It’s not, as they stomp all over each other and end up leaving the computer completely unprotected. Web conferencing plugins are the same way.
Do's and Don’ts in our New Online World
- Use a professional profile picture. Most services let you upload a photo versus the default avatar. Using one makes you look more professional.
- Fill out your conferencing account information. If you are using a service more than once, go ahead and fill out your account details. This includes your name, title and email. They typically don’t share or data mine that information and it’s just a courtesy to the people you are in the conference with.
- Be prepared. Most people in meetings can think on their feet or can promise to get information to the right people after the meeting. One of the worst things you can do is have everyone wait while you click around on your computer, trying to find some document or presentation you want to share, or lookup your password or a Web address while on camera.
- Be technically prepared. Most services will let you test your microphone and speakers before joining the conference. Take the extra time to test to make sure the last meeting you were on doesn’t still own the audio on your machine.
- Be on time. Always join a few minutes early—especially now—so that you can work out any technical problems before the meeting and not during.
- Mute your microphone. All services let you mute your microphone. If you won’t be speaking for the next tens of seconds, mute it, but always know exactly where the button is in case you have to jump back in. Likewise, if you have been talking for several minutes, take breaks to make sure people can really hear you.
- Set your status. If you are using an always-on, ad hoc conferencing tool, make sure you update your calendar more regularly and set your status. Most always-on services allow you to show if you are unavailable or out to lunch or busy. More importantly, unset your status. There’s nothing funnier than seeing someone’s status that they at lunch from 3 months ago.
- If you don’t have a video camera, tell people. If you do have one, but don’t want to use it, that’s fine too. Don’t tell them it’s in the shop. It’s better to fess up that you don’t want to turn it on because you haven’t showered, combed your hair, or put makeup on yet. We’re all human, but don’t make a habit of it. It’s perfectly fine to have a non-video conference call or simply do desktop sharing instead.
- Provide feedback. At the end of most calls, the services may ask about the quality of the video or audio. Take the time to rate it and provide specific examples like garbled voice, went silent, difficulty joining, etc. This helps the services improve or troubleshoot local issues.
- Don’t blame the network if it’s not really the network. While everyone agrees the mass movement to online conferencing has caused a lot of disruptions, services do have an excellent way of tracking things. To that end, the easiest way to see if there are any global service problems with your online video conferencing tools is to check their status pages.
Live Status (in random order)
- Microsoft/Team Meetings
- Apple FaceTime
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