Online conferencing – and how to succeed at it
Online conferencing is suddenly all the rage – which is hardly surprising when so many of us now have to work from home. But if you’ve not done it before, or are still deciding which software to use, a little advice may be helpful.
From our experience here at Purple Haze we’d suggest four possible programs: Zoom and Skype for video and audio conferencing, and Slack and Microsoft Teams for text-based exchanges.
Zoom has enjoyed a massive surge in popularity over the past couple of weeks, but you may also have seen press reports about privacy issues and ‘Zoombombing’. That can happen when the link to a Zoom session is advertised on social media, which has allowed malicious users to sign in and share rather less than desirable material with the group.
To minimise risk:
- don’t announce meetings on social media
- password protect all meetings
- email participants (and only participants) with a meeting invitation including the password
- give strict instructions that no one is to share their invitation with others – all invitations must come from the host.
Ideally you should use work rather than private email addresses, again to preserve privacy. (Zoom may add the details of other registered users who share the same domain address as you. That’s fine if it’s a work email, not so fine if it’s one of several smaller broadband providers that Zoom doesn’t yet recognise…)
That said, don’t be put off using the software – it’s popular with good reason. It works. It’s relatively easy to manage a meeting. And recently the company has been extending the usual 40-minute meeting time limit on the free version. Audio and video quality are also very good indeed (as long as you have a half-decent broadband connection).
It’s entirely possible that you will use Skype for your online conferencing because you already have it, or have used it before. But if you haven’t tried it for a while, be aware some things have changed since Microsoft acquired the software in 2011. For instance, it’s always worth checking you have the latest version before starting a call. We’ve encountered fairly frequent updates, which are the last thing you need two minutes before you’re due to start a call!
On the plus side, Skype is built in to Office 365, so a lot of people already have it. It’s simple to use, affordable for even a very small business, and it’s easy to schedule meetings. You can even start a call from your contact list in Outlook.
Once in, it’s easy to add other contacts to the call, and you can run an on-screen text chat alongside an audio or video call. It’s easy to share documents, too.
Problems? Mostly if you have a poor internet connection – which would also affect you if you were using Zoom. Inevitably that leads to poor audio quality (even if you switch off video) and, in the worst case scenario, a dropped call. However, after using both we’d say it’s less robust on a poor connection than Zoom.
When it comes to communication, Slack has become the new normal for text-based online conferencing. It often replaces those awkward email chains as the principle forum for exchanging ideas, questions, documents and information.
Slack is easy to use, plays nicely with other software (most notably Google Drive) and works well for businesses of all sizes. Larger businesses can set up different channels for different teams.
Downsides? It can be addictive, making it difficult to switch off after hours. Team members who don’t work every hour of the day may miss something important that was discussed by those who do. And it’s less good for in-depth discussion – though it’s great for day-to-day job tracking.
And one problem users have reported is the difficulty in finding something important buried way back in the message stream. An issue Microsoft Teams has tackled head on…
As with Skype, Microsoft Teams may well be an obvious choice for those who already use Office 365. Any programs from the Office suite will integrate immediately, and there’s a useful spread of third-party tools like SurveyMonkey, Trello and InVision which will also integrate.
It’s easy to attach content directly (no need to take screenshots) and to check on tasks you’ve been assigned. And there’s a spectacularly useful search bar for finding that crucial discussion three weeks ago that you now only half-remember.
In fairness, most of that is also available in Slack (with the possible exception of the search tool). So – which do you choose for your text-based online conferencing?
For most people it may well boil down to your chosen working software. If you’re a Google fan, Slack will do the job nicely. And if you’re wedded to Microsoft Office, then you’ll probably opt for Teams.
If you’re new to online conferencing then you may find the initial learning curve a little steep – which case this infographic from Stanford University in California may be very useful indeed!