Using your webcam to reduce isolation in remote teams

Feeling connected in a remote team is not always straightforward:

Hello? Anyone out there?

An unfortunate reality of being a remote worker is that it’s easy to feel isolated from your team. Without the freedom to walk into an office of people and see them or share a coffee, it’s hard to feel connected to the people you work with. This is a commonly blogged about topic that other remote workers have faced too. Tools like video conferencing, text chat, and push-to-talk have helped us stay connected, but it can still feel difficult to be fully engaged with a remote team. While there’s a lot of clever solutions to this (personally I find Hanno’s Oskar to be one of the cleverest), we found the setup of our cameras to be particularly important in maintaining a strong connection in our team.

Using webcams to provide rich context

A key element missing in realtime remote sessions is context... beautiful, rich, context! This not only includes body language, such as when a person holds a hand up when waiting to say something, but also information about the room. Is the technology behaving appropriately? Does someone see something slightly differently because they have a different sized screen? There’s a lot of detail missing in a conversation that can be brought back by cleverly positioning your webcam.

We found a few simple tricks that worked for us in different scenarios. A disclaimer first: we’ve found that what’s comfortable varies from person to person, and this is simply what’s worked for us.

1. In a group setting, set the camera in the back of the room to capture body language.

Place the camera in the back of the room
Remote participants can see when we're near the whiteboard or reacting to what they draw.

We whiteboard a lot, and when we involve remote co-workers on Skype, we mount our webcam in the back of the room. Doing so gives them rich context about the focus of attention in the room. Remote members can see where we’re looking, when we pause, and our body language when we react to ideas presented on the board.

For whiteboards in particular, the position of our bodies around the whiteboard communicates intent, so it’s important that our camera allows remote colleagues to see that well! When standing next to the board, it means we’re engaged in creating new ideas, but sitting down may mean we’re reflecting on or summarizing what we just said.

We also use interactive whiteboards that allow both us and others not physically present to interact with the sketches on the whiteboard equally. In this setting, using the webcam is superior to just sharing a screen because remote members can now see us react to what they’re drawing. For example, they might draw a box around a word or underline a statement for emphasis. With the camera, the participants on Skype can watch the people in the room follow along, just like the two people are in the picture above.

It’s worth stating what didn’t work in this setting too. When we tried using a shared large interactive whiteboard without video, we often did not notice changes made by the remote members. The lack of body language to implicitly announce intent made it difficult to notice each other's actions when done remotely.

2. In face-to-face settings, mimic eye contact.

Our workspaces. Nick's workspace on the left, Michele's on the right
We place our Skype windows close to our camera to mimic eye contact.

When video conferencing, the context that’s very easy to confuse is: “is their focus on me, or are they distracted by another task?”. There are many settings where it’s useful to know if the other person is listening to a question, following dictated instructions, or is quickly looking something up. In our case, we communicate this clearly to each other by either “mimicking” eye contact, or looking away. This is something that doesn't come natural at first. It gets better with practice, to the point that you stop actively thinking about where you are looking.

For mimicking eye contact, we adapted a trick used by newscasters reading teleprompters. We position our webcams at eye level (I recommend a stand if using a laptop), place the collaborator’s video feed near the camera, and sit far back so our eyes appear to be looking into the camera. In my co-worker’s case, he purposefully set up a secondary computer for video conferencing so that it’s clear when he’s speaking directly to me, or is distracted by the terminal on his primary computer. It recreates the sensation of when working physically next to a colleague: I can see when they’re looking at me, or at the monitor that we’re sharing.

Also on this topic, while it didn’t work for us, I highly recommend reading Scott Hanselman’s wonderful post. He recommends setting up your camera to show your entire work area because the regular webcam view is too impersonal:

You've seen what a regular webcam looks like. Two heads and some shoulders... Believe it or not, in my experience it's hard to get a sense of a person from just their disembodied head. Who knew?

Scott Hanselman

The post itself is a review of a camera, but he drops some very good wisdom such as: (1) show your workspace in your camera to give others a good sense of where you are in your office, and (2) “when you really want to connect with someone, back up a bit. Get a sense of their space.”

Personally, we found our regular “head and shoulders” setup more comfortable in our own sessions, but it’s likely a highly subjective issue and Scott’s suggestion may work much better for you. It was nice to see a wide view of each other’s environment occasionally, but ​we​ found the static background a distraction eventually.

3. When giving a demo, point the camera at your own workspace to give richer context.

Focus your webcam on your desk
Pointing the webcam at your devices gives richer demos than just screensharing alone.

While screen sharing tools are helpful when sharing our desktop, occasionally we’ll need richer context of what happens on our devices, such as when dealing with weird glitches or when we need to communicate the physicality of our interfaces. To handle these cases, we’ll occasionally point our webcams directly at our workspace and record ourselves using our mobile devices. The result may not look as professional as a nice screen capture session, but sometimes you just want to share what you're seeing as quickly as possible. Pointing your camera at what you see is the most straightforward, braindead solution.

Another case where this is helpful is when incorporating paper or a physical whiteboard into the conference call (for when we don’t have a touch screen available). Remote teams have successfully used this method to overcome the limitations when designing remotely.

Conclusion

These are the webcam tricks that we used to make our sessions feel a bit more natural. We use Skype almost daily in our design sessions while also sharing an online whiteboard, and these three tips are personal rules of thumb that we use in our own environment. There’s a lot of good resources out there, such as this guide by Scott Hanselman and this list of do’s and don’ts in video conferencing.

We recommend trying these out for yourselves since the experience is subjective, so what worked for us may not work for you. If you do find something that works for you, drop a comment below, we’d love to hear!

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