Remote 103: Software

In the first two posts in this series, I talked about hardware: networking and headsets. I’ll come back to hardware eventually, but the next thing on the checklist is software.

Again, I’m not going to recommend specific products here. What I will do is provide you with a set of criteria by which to evaluate products.

Real-time Collaboration

For pairs and small groups, the best remote approximation of an in-person meeting is a combination of real-time videoconferencing and a shared editable workspace to simulate a whiteboard. You will probably need multiple products, one for videoconferencing and several for different kinds of shared workspace.

For small groups to collaborate effectively, they need a shared workspace that all members can edit simultaneously. It is critical that all participants have equal access to the shared workspace, taking into account technical limitations such as screen size and network lag. This is where “screen sharing” tools break down, even if they support remote control: The owner of the “shared” screen has privileged access versus the other participants.

The ideal workspace will be located on a server roughly equidistant from all parties. There are a variety of solutions suitable for different audiences, from shared terminal sessions to document-collaboration products, so the choice depends on the people involved and the type of thing they want to collaborate on.

The optimal size for a remote meeting, in my experience, is 3 participants or fewer. It’s just too hard to have a productive discussion with a larger group when facial expressions and body language are filtered through the limited quality of typical videoconferencing setups. Communication styles that work when everyone is in the same room, subconsciously aware of subtle changes in body language or breathing, break down when those cues are missing or muffled.

Even in an era where consumer-grade webcams can record video at 4K resolution, bandwidth and latency are still wildly inconsistent across the internet. It’s highly unlikely that any service will be able to stream the same video quality to everyone, and it only gets harder as you add more connections. The conduciveness to collaboration is constrained by the worst connection. Even if 8 out of 10 people have a great connection to a meeting, the poor experience had by the remaining 2 will drag down the overall quality.

This doesn’t mean that collaboration within larger groups is impossible to do remotely, it just requires different tools and approaches that I’ll cover in future posts. Stay tuned.