My parents tell me that they remember placing phone calls by picking up the receiver, upon which an operator would say, “Number please”. They would then say the number - “245J” for example. There were “party lines” in those days, so often neighbors could listen in on the call. For much of my own life, you had to be mindful of long-distance phone charges. For example, our little insurance agency in Perrysburg used to have a $600 per month long-distance bill! (This was on top of our local phone service bill.) But that has all changed for the better.
For many years, our agency has used a VOIP phone system. Perhaps we'll write about that soon. What we're really excited about right now is the ease and effectiveness of video conferencing. Not only is it extremely inexpensive, we've also found that we can have remarkably effective meetings using video conferencing. In this post, you'll learn about the hardware and software that we've used for our setup.
In the last two weeks of 2016, we were settling into our wonderful new office space. Our other main office is in Perrysburg, Ohio, which is just outside Toledo. Rod suggested that we look into a system for video conferencing. We did some research, bought some equipment, and here's what we came up with.
Video and Audio Hardware
Almost any laptop or phone includes one or more lenses for photos and video. But lens quality matters if you want an image detailed enough to make you feel like you're in the same room with other people.
Perhaps even more important is audio quality. You've seen how people talk louder when they're on a cell phone. (You’ve done it yourself!) And speaker phones vary in quality. So you need hardware that picks up your voice when you speak at normal tones, and that clearly reproduces what the others in the conference are saying.
We researched several video and audio options and settled on the Logitech Group System. It includes a wall-mountable HD webcam with 10x optical zoom and remote control, and an audio system with noise-canceling microphones that easily pick up audio in a 10-foot radius from the unit.
Based on the size of our conference rooms, we didn't think we'd need the microphone expansions, and we were right. We can hear each other speaking, even when standing across the room from the microphone.
One other great thing about this hardware is that you can pair a mobile phone to the audio unit. This is great for when you need to have a conference call (without video) with someone. They can be on their desk or mobile phone, but our team can sit around the conference table and we can all hear and be heard clearly.
The system includes a hub, which combines the audio and video signals. It also connects to a computer with an included USB cable. The computer runs the meeting itself, using any video software that you want.
To control the computer, we also bought a wireless mouse and keyboard for each conference room. It's easy to pass it around to whoever needs to control the meeting. And of course it reduces the cords and clutter in the room.
Video Conferencing Software
We've tried it with Skype for Business, but we like Office at Hand Meetings from Ringcentral / AT&T best. It's a little more user-friendly, and the video quality is better.
Conference Room Setup
We started by setting up our conference room in Perrysburg. We bought two 50-inch Vizio TV's, and mounted them on the wall. We also bought a computer tower that is used only for running video meetings. It works with wireless internet, but we use a wired connection to ensure the best Internet connection and video feed.
We decided to use two monitors in each location because we can view the other party in one screen, and can use the other screen (TV) for a shared document or website.
We also use Office 365, which works really well with this setup. Whoever is leading the meeting can log into their Microsoft account on the computer tower, and have access to all of their documents, which makes them easy to share. We love to use Microsoft OneNote for meeting notes, and we can display those notes on the second screen so everyone can follow along and keep track of assignments. (Learn more about how you can do more with OneNote in this related article.)
Combined with LastPass, any of us can log into the video conference computer and it's almost like being at our own computer.
Once we were comfortable with the setup in Perrysburg we bought two 60-inch UHD TV's for the Dublin office. We bought the same Logitech Group system, and once again mounted everything on the wall.
You can see how Rod mounted the hub on the wall in Dublin. He managed to make the cords look quite organized on their way out of the wall.
Our Video Conferencing Experience and Tips
We found that our meetings feel very natural with the TV's mounted relatively low on the wall. When you sit at the table, they are at just the right height so it feels comfortable to talk to the people on the other end. You don't have to crane your neck to look way up at a TV screen.
Mounting the TV's low and the quality of the audio are the two keys to making if feel most natural. And with this setup, we've found we can hold meetings of up to an hour or two and it's almost like being together in the same room.
In fact, this setup is how we're able to regularly hold weekly tactical meetings as recommended in the book Death by Meeting. We've held longer strategic meetings too.
We've only been doing these video meetings since late December, and already it's hard to imagine working without them. We've held meetings with visiting carrier representatives and employees that we couldn’t have done before. Certainly our teams are able to be more effective than ever.
What experiences have you had with video conferencing?
IHT is a multi-state insurance agency with dozens of branches across the eastern and central United States.