Recently, I packed up and moved from New York City to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But my quest for a quieter life came with a huge challenge: As the senior vice president of technology for Shutterstock, I manage a 50-person software development team—and now I’d have to do it from 200 miles away. Ten years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible. Managing requires face-to-face communication, ad-hoc conversations, and easy accessibility.
But today’s technology makes it all possible. Thanks to three services—Google Hangouts, Apple FaceTime, and Skype—I can have a virtual presence from hundreds of miles away. However, my first lesson in working remotely was the importance of good equipment.
I soon found that the equipment I used had a huge impact on my quality of life. Poor equipment can lead to audio problems, jittery video, and dropped connections—all of which create frustration for people on both ends of the conversation. Here are a few ways I found to make things easier:
- I use a laptop with a built-in microphone and webcam. Most modern laptops have these, and for one-on-one meetings, they’re a lot easier to work with than extra peripherals you need to set up and maintain.
- I use a tablet computer as my virtual presence in the office. At Shutterstock, every remote employee has an iPad in the office with a stand to keep it upright. The iPad can be brought into a conference room, or placed on someone’s desk, and with a few taps, the remote employee can appear instantly. We also like to expand the visual range of the iPad’s camera by using the Patazon Camera Fisheye Lens, which gives the remote employee a full view of a meeting when placed at one end of the room.
- We bought good microphones for our conference rooms. I learned quickly that audio quality is vital to being able to participate in a meeting. We use the MXL Mics MXL-TEMPO-KR Condenser Microphone, which plugs into a computer or laptop's standard audio-in port to capture everyone’s voice around a table.
- We use wired network connections whenever possible. Video conferencing requires a lot of network bandwidth, and Wi-Fi connections can suffer from interference and disruptions. Wired connections tend to be more reliable and offer more bandwidth to make video conferences clearer.
Once I had my equipment nailed down, I started to experiment with three popular video conferencing solutions.
At Shutterstock, we use Google Calendar to schedule meetings and book conference rooms, which makes Google Hangouts a wonderful convenience. Hangouts let up to 10 people join a video conference with the click of a mouse, and Calendar has an option to attach a Hangout to a given meeting, so everyone has remote access to the meeting.
When creating a meeting, I just click “Add video call” in the Event Details tab of my event. This will give all attendees a link on their invite that says “Join video call.” Attendees just have to click this link at the start of the meeting, and they’ll be added to the conference. I’ve found this to be the easiest way to have virtual meetings with more than one person.
Each video conferencing solution has its own quirks when it comes to audio quality. Normally, the audio quality of Google Hangouts is excellent. But occasionally, when a number of remote people are dialed into a conference, there’s a loud echo that renders their voices nearly unintelligible. At other times, it seems to mute one person in the conversation for a period of time, even when that person is the primary talker. When this happens, we turn to other solutions.
FaceTime comes preinstalled on most modern Apple devices, which makes it a convenient video conferencing option on our iPads, if you're only connecting with one other remote colleague (unlike Hangouts, it doesn't have a group video conferencing feature). Its interface is clean and simple, and it lets people quickly call me with two taps of their fingers.
Like Google Hangouts, FaceTime has its share of audio quirks. For example, it seems to automatically mute one person in the conversation when the other is talking. If you’re mostly listening to someone, this is fine. But if you’re having a discussion with a lot of back-and-forth, it can get frustrating.
Skype has been perfecting the art of video calling for years, and its service can sometimes provide higher-quality connections than the others. Because of Skype’s longevity, most people have a Skype account, so I find myself using this frequently when video conferencing with vendors or job candidates who may not have Google or FaceTime accounts.
Skype’s audio quality is generally very good, although sometimes there’s a high level of background static or tinny audio distortions that occur during the conversation.
Though it took a bit of trial and error, I was able to transition to a remote lifestyle quite smoothly. As technology advances, the ease and quality of video communication will only get better. In the meantime, using good equipment and experimenting with these three popular video conferencing solutions have let me continue to effectively manage my team.
Dan McCormick worked at a dozen failed Internet startups in both the Bay Area and New York until arriving at Shutterstock in 2004. An original developer, he built Shutterstock's tech department from initial startup mode to what it is today, and helped architect the site to support the growth of the company.