Ok – so maybe the ‘gold standard’ that Andreas Klinger called my office in this tweet may be overstating it a bit. But I did get a lot of questions and requests to write-up a small post on some of the details of the office and considerations on how to build it. So this article is to address those requests.
Initial Design Considerations
Since I work with several thousand remote workers – I needed my office to be optimized for remote collaboration. But your typical 1:1 video wasn’t the only use case.
- Optimize for remote video calls 1:1 or 1:N (typical)
- Optimize for N:N remote video calls – including multiple people physically in my office (a bit more challenging)
- Optimize for the use case 1 or 2 while using the whiteboard to brainstorm (also a bit more challenging)
Other design considerations:
- Great HD audio quality all around the room to avoid the ‘near/far’ mic sound
- Great HD video setup with proper orientation
- Limit wires around the office – clean setup – particularly in the middle of the room
- Physical whiteboard (I still hate digital ones)
- Ability for others to wireless present on the screen/TV
- Use only PC-based video conferencing solutions – not fixed room solutions (innovation curve is faster on PC-based/software than fixed room units)
I wanted a space that I could use as a ‘normal’ office for in-person customer visits but also optimize the room for remote work/video conferencing. The first part is easy, of course. For the video conferencing piece, the layout of the TV, camera and desk were the main considerations.
To make the layout work for video conferencing – the camera and TV needed to be directly in front of the desk. This was a challenge since the space is a rectangle with windows on 2 sides.
The first thought was to hang the TV on the wall with no windows (a typical configuration). But if I would have done this – then the desk would have windows behind it. People make this mistake often – if you orient a desk with windows behind it – the video camera struggles due to the brightness. Your image ends up dark, similar to regular photography with too bright of a background.
Instead (and counterintuitively) – a TV stand in front of the window ended up being the right layout. This way – the desk would be along the far wall without windows – avoiding the lighting issue and taking advantage of the natural light in front and besides my desk.
The camera is mounted just below the TV on a shelf that came with the TV stand. I took off the glass shelf that came with it and mounted the camera directly on the arm. I then raised the shelf so that the camera lens is exactly eye level when I’m sitting at my desk (see my other article about the importance of camera orientation).
For the camera itself – I knew I needed an HD webcam that had a 10x zoom – since the camera is 15 feet from my desk. I also wanted the camera to have the ability to rotate and focus on various spots in the room. This way, I can take video calls from the couch, chairs or even my treadmill. It also needed to be able to zoom out so I could have meetings with multiple people in the physical room – while visible to the others on camera.
I chose the Logitech PTZ – and it works perfectly for all these use cases. The pre-settings on the remote are also great to automatically click to various spots/configurations.
Note – the only issue I have with this camera is when it resumes from standby. When it resumes – rather than spin and rotate into place then turn the camera on, it first turns the camera on then spins and rotates into place. This creates a dizzying panorama effect for the folks on the other side of the video (sorry folks). I think this is a bug – but Logitech claims it’s a ‘feature’. Classic debate of bug vs feature I guess…
For most of my meetings – someone is displaying some content. If a person in my office wants to display on the TV to the remote group – they simply login to Zoom and share their screen (which shows up on my TV as well as to others).
If they are just displaying locally to me – I have an Apple TV mounted on the back of the TV to AirPlay.
The next challenge to solve was the microphone issue. Though the office isn’t that big – I wanted to be able to do calls in various spots around the room and have the ability to have multiple people in the office during calls. I knew 1 central mic would not be enough. I’d get that near/far effect and poor audio quality.
I originally thought I needed to have multiple mic pods. There are a ton of mic pods and mic extensions you can find on the market – but most are wired together off of the primary pod base. And they all look terrible. They would also require me to run wires to various spots in the office – something I didn’t want to do.
I also considered the type of mics that hang from your ceiling – which would have worked. But again – they look terrible and are a pain to install.
I then came across an innovative company called Nureva. They invented a great (but super super expensive) microphone/speaker called HDL300. This mic gets mounted to the wall and breaks up the room into over 8,192 virtual microphone zones. These virtual microphones basically detect where audio is coming from around the room – and amplifies only those zones. This enables me to be anywhere around the room (or others in the room with me) – and we all sound as if we are next to a microphone. It’s a very, very cool innovation so I splurged a bit on it.
The HDL300 has a small box that plugs in via USB into my iMac. This is great since it’s simply a USB device – and is automatically picked up by all the video conferencing software I use.
Call me old school – but I still don’t love software whiteboard solutions. It got a little better with my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil – but nothing beats a large physical whiteboard. And when others are in my room brainstorming – having a full size whiteboard is important.
Now – I could have purchased a full-size digital whiteboard – but they are super expensive – and they’re a bit of a pain to plugin to various video conferencing software. So the solution I opted for instead was simply mounting my iPad on a stand and pointing the camera towards the physical whiteboard. I then login the iPad as another user in a Zoom meeting – and share the video. It works great (though my penmanship is another story).
I use a variety of different remote collaboration software – Zoom, Slack, Skype, GoToMeeting, WebEx, etc. Though we’ve standardized across our companies – customers and others use different platforms. So simply using the PC as your ‘hub’ works great so you can be flexible and use any of them in your office setup. The TV is connected to my iMac by HDMI and treated as an extended display.
I’ve tried various ‘fixed room’ setups in the past – but found them largely inflexible. This includes Zoom Rooms, LifeSize, Telepresence, Halo Rooms, etc. Having a PC-based model connected to a TV enables a) drag documents back/forth from the screen, b) don’t need a second PC to power the Zoom Room, c) don’t need to pay extra for a Zoom Room account and d) less complicated setup.
Though I use many – my favorite software for remote teams (by far) is a program called Sococo. It’s the only software I’ve seen that can help build remote team culture.
For whatever reason – virtually ‘seeing’ your team sitting around a table develops a sense of connection that can’t be matched with little green/yellow/red dots on a Slack list. The ‘visual proximity’ also encourages watercooler talk and quick video syncs.
I loved this company so much that I bought it – and am now making it 10x better (developing ‘rich presence’, making it into a platform to plugin Zoom/Slack/calendar, adding personalization, etc).
Summary of Parts
- Camera: Logitech PTZ camera
- Microphone/Speaker: Nureva HDL300
- TV: 60” Samsung
- PC: iMac
- Video collaboration: Zoom, Skype, Slack, GTM, others
- Remote team culture: Sococo
Keys to setting up any remote-first office:
- Output = Professionalism: Configure your layout to optimize for professionalism. Assume you need to close $1M deals on video – so recreate a virtual in-person experience. All elements matter to create a professional look – where you put your desk, background, lighting, camera, microphone, etc.
- Audio is more important than video: If video fails, you keep going – if audio fails, you end the call. Splurge on good audio setup. And based on your use cases – there are various options like virtual microphones.
- Video orientation is more important than video quality: Eye-level camera setup with proper distance is the key to a great video call. HD is nice – but irrelevant if you don’t have the right orientation. Cameras that rotate and zoom can be great flexible options to achieve the perfect orientation.
- PC-based software setups are better than fixed room: Innovation occurs faster on the PC-based solution. And using your PC as the main hub enables you to use a variety of collaboration software instead of 1 fixed ecosystem.
- Collaboration is more than just talking: Focus on productivity and culture building. iPads are good tools to ‘extend’ your collaboration to physical whiteboards. Applications like Sococo are great to drive impromptu ‘watercooler’ discussions to get more out of your newly built space.
I’m not sure if this setup is truly the ‘gold standard’ – but after 15 years of trial and error, this setup works great for me. If anyone has additional ideas on how to make my setup even better – love to hear them! You can reach me on Twitter – @andytryba