Letting other people know you’re busy with non-verbal communication

In case you hadn’t noticed, times are changing.

How we meet has changed in that we no longer have to go into a meeting room to meet with people.

We no longer have the same office designs; meaning we have less doors to close when busy or on a call, and often are surrounded by noise in open plan offices – so therefore wear headphones to drown out the sound.

Thanks to technologies such as Skype for Business and more recently Microsoft Teams (as well as their predecessor Lync, and competitors Zoom, Webex, GoToMeeting, etc.), people are having more meetings at their desks, and in some cases on mobile devices. However, merging in the previous point – when someone is wearing headphones; how do we know if they are listening to music or in a meeting? This is especially harder as many premium headsets don’t have a microphone boom sticking out to make it evident that the microphone is in use.

If we dare walk up to someone at the office wearing headphones and want to communicate with them, we need to somehow enter their visual range and indicate that we want their attention. I’m sure we’ve all been in the scenario where we’ve attempted this, only to be greeted by either a flustered facial expression as they remove their headphones (if they only cock it off one ear, it’s a good sign they expect it to be a short conversation), or the hand gesture of the thumb and little/pinkie finger indicating that they are on a call.

One particular device I’ve been using for a number of years is the Kuando Busylight, which displays the presence from Skype for Business. It comes in two forms: Alpha and Omega.

The Alpha is designed to be stuck to an actual device such as a monitor or laptop:

To assist with this, it comes with a swivel base and that can be either permanently attached with a sticky pad or alternatively can be temporarily attached through the use of a magnetic pad.

The Omega on the other hand, is design to be sat on or attached to a desk fitting for permanency:

The Busylight requires a small software agent to be installed on the computer in order to pass on the presence status from Skype for Business to the unit. This allows for customisations such as colour settings and whether you want an audible ring when a call comes in.

I have my status lights for relative ease of understanding: green for available, red for busy, and pulsing red for active on a call. Regardless whether I am connected to a Busylight Omega at home, someone’s office, or even the Alpha on my laptop; the status lights remain the same as they are controlled by my device.

The case for these devices makes itself as they are relatively inexpensive and improve the office communications experience. The Kuando Busylight devices have actually been around for a number of years and are quite popular, and I’ve enjoyed using them in a few different office scenarios.

Recently however I installed them for my home office and that has made a world of difference.

Being a person who works from home a lot as well as being a father, means that sometimes my home work space is similar to an office space. I’m sure people similar to myself can attest to having their partner pop in to ask quick questions, or their young children for any number of reasons (“can we watch Netflix?”, “where is mum?”, “who is that on the screen?”, etc.).

The reality is I embrace my work from home style and am not embarrassed when on calls and a family member pops in, because at the end of the day I’m a human being who has a family – it’s nothing to be ashamed of on client calls. What is not ideal is that one of the audiences is not going to get the best version of me; either the people I’m talking to as I will be temporarily distracted, or my family who in some instances may feel brushed off. This is especially relevant when delivering a presentation or a webinar.

As I recently installed the Kuando Busylight for my home office, this has all but removed the challenge of the family interruption as they have a visual signal before even entering the room.

The devices are relatively inexpensive, ranging between $30-50 per unit. Depending on your home office layout a USB extension cable may be required, as well as clips to keep the cabling neat.

One thing to note is that at present these devices do not work natively with Microsoft Teams as the presence status from Teams has not been exposed through the Microsoft Graph API (this is expected in early 2019). For organisations or users in Teams Only mode; the lights will not turn on. If however Skype for Business is your primary instant messaging, calling & conferencing application and will be for some time; the devices work perfectly.

At such a small price point, organisations should be looking to fit these out at every desk space, and home workers should get one and mount it outside their door – it will help set expectations before anyone has even opened their mouth.

Empowering home-based workers with corporate-grade conference technology

During office refurbishment or relocation projects, organisations will often spend thousands of dollars fitting out meeting rooms with conferencing technology. Depending on the room size, type and purpose that amount can increase to the tens of thousands.

A small meeting room (aka “huddle space” as it’s called these days) will require at minimum a TV mounted on the wall, with a camera and speakerphone to allow video conferences to occur. A minimum spend for such a room would be easily in the area of $3,000 for a decent quality TV and a conference device such as a Logitech Meetup.

Figure 1: Logitech Meetup mounted underneath a wall-mounted TV

More advanced rooms will include equipment such as a Skype/Teams Room System (such as the Logitech SmartDock) which includes a panel for meeting join/control as well as HDMI cable for laptop display.

While the spend and fitout of these rooms makes sense, the reality is that often these rooms are left unused throughout the day.

The current “future workplace” trend which leverages “activity-based working” and hotdesking concepts, aims to reduce the reliance on staff commuting to a physical location. While this is often messaged as an employee benefit, the reality is that it is generally designed to save on real estate costs. Many organisations these days tend to provide at a maximum 80% desk space for their workforce (some provide even less). For the employee this is sold as a benefit in that they can reduce their commute which cuts down on wasted human time as well as transportation costs, as well as a number of other benefits around culture, environment, etc.

Unfortunately, the reality of this situation is that staff who are ’empowered’ to work from home are often only provided with a laptop and a headset. All the good stuff (ie. multiple monitors, good quality external webcam, mouse & keyboard) is at the office. These are not expensive pieces of equipment, but at the discretion of the employee to source if they want a home working configuration to match what the office can offer.

So, what about video communications? In this modern era where video collaboration is almost the norm, it is all to common to see at least one person in a video conference who is clearly using a laptop webcam.

What about if we provided home-based workers with corporate-grade conferencing equipment? Would that experience be any different?

For some time I’ve been running the Logitech Meetup as my primary video conference system and firmly believe it should be the device of choice for those who are serious about working from home and video conferencing.

In this short video I explain why this is the case. Read on below for a more detailed breakdown.

The video calling experience

In this screenshot below, you can see a few different home conferencing experiences:

Figure 2: A meeting with Microsoft Teams where the Logitech Meetup is used by a remote participant

Above we see on the left side, Jethro sitting on his bed with the laptop on his stomach, top right is myself with the Logitech Meetup, middle right is Darrell at his standing desk using a webcam with headphones and external mic, and bottom right in the small box is Gabe using his laptop. As you can see, a variety of different home conferencing experiences. Both myself and Darrell have the “from my meeting space to yours” experience, while Jethro and Gabe have the “from my face to yours” version.

For a 1:1 video call, having a literal face to face video experience is a little more ‘in your face’:

Figure 3: The view of a remote person in a 1:1 video call with Microsoft Teams, using an in-built laptop camera

Here is what Jethro sees of me:

Figure 4: The view of a remote person in a 1:1 video call with Microsoft Teams, using a Logitech Meetup

As you can see, quite a big difference.

One of the comments from my colleagues during the call is that despite having a 4K camera, my video quality was not the best. The reality is that despite having cable broadband at home, I get relatively poor upstream bandwidth. As a result, Microsoft Teams detects this and lowers the quality of my video throughput to ensure that it flows and is in sync with my audio, instead of sending broken-up high quality video.

As you can see by the below comparison, the left shows me in my full 4K glory while the right shows the reduced-bandwidth (and blurrier) version of me:

Figure 5: Comparison of local 4K image through the Logitech Meetup (left), vs. with Microsoft Teams lowered picture quality (right)

Headset, speakerphone, or Meetup?

In corporate meeting rooms an effort is made to simplify the end user experience by reducing the chords. The Logitech Meetup works well here as the unit contains both microphones and speakers; so there is only a single USB cable to plug in.

For our home environments, this is equally as important. Just because our desk is not visible by our peers, doesn’t mean it should be left messy with cables and devices everywhere.

Many people will already have headsets, however often these are cabled which means we must remain tethered to our devices for the duration of the call. Unfortunately, this hampers our creativity and energy and can also entice us to look at other applications while participating in the meeting – further reducing the quality of our participation and engagement in the meeting. A wireless headset would certainly address this challenge, and it’s something I find using myself often as it allows me to get up and walk around. Another alternative is to use a speakerphone as they offer better quality sound than the microphone and speakers built into our devices- also a good option.

The challenge with having either a headset or speakerphone is that it consumes another USB port separate to the camera. Often on laptops we have 1-2 ports at best, whereas on most docking stations such as a Surface Dock this is only moderately improved with 4 USB ports. Once you plug in a mouse/keyboard and webcam; you’ve already lost two ports. If you have any other peripherals it becomes a challenge due to insufficient USB ports.

This is one area where the Meetup offers savings in that it provides camera, microphone and speakers all through a single USB cable, and all high definition.

Mounting the Meetup on a monitor

The Logitech Meetup is designed to be mounted on a TV in a corporate meeting area, with the ideal placement being below the screen but at eye-line with people in the room. To achieve this, a VESA mounting kit can be purchased as an accessory. Unfortunately for a home office, mounting it underneath the monitor is not practical and would most likely be aimed at the chest. To mount it above the monitor where one might normally put a webcam, I needed to build a custom stand as my monitor didn’t have VESA brackets. This cost me about $30 of parts from the hardware store: a piece of wood, some nails, and some paint. Constructing the mount took me a total of 5 minutes, and trust me – I am not a handy man: all that was required was a bit of sawing to cut the pieces to the right dimensions, some sanding to smoothen out the edges, some hammering to connect them together, and to paint the legs so they blend in with my monitor & riser.

Figure 6: Custom made stand for Logitech Meetup

Figure 7: Logitech Meetup mounted on custom stand, behind monitor

Figure 8: Logitech Meetup sitting above monitor

It is important that a gap is left between the lens of Logitech Meetup and the top of the monitor, otherwise the lens will be obstructed during the device boot-up process (as it moves itself around and re-centres). While it does recover and continue on, I didn’t like hearing the motor jamming sound and thought it best to avoid any potential issue from having this occur every time I plugged in.

Wide angle, or zoomed?

The Logitech Meetup comes with a remote control, allowing the camera to be controlled such as zoom and direction. This is not so much a requirement in a home office where I am the only person on camera, however during the course of setting up the Logitech Meetup in my home I also beta tested a feature that allows the camera to move around automatically and follow me as I move around the room. While I see this as a benefit in a corporate office, the feature is designed for multiple speakers in a room and as such has not benefit when I’m the only person in a room – even if I am making use of all the space.

Allowing the Meetup to zoom in on me would defeat the purpose of using it in the first place at home, as it would effectively revert to showing a zoomed-in version of myself which may not be so pleasant for the participants on the other side of the meeting.

The cost

At a glance, the cost of a Logitech Meetup for home might dissuade some; as ultimately it is a premium device designed for corporate meeting rooms. However, let’s consider the alternatives:

  • a quality webcam easily costs in the order of $100 – $250 (the top end for a 4K camera)
  • a wireless headset that is also comfortable to wear for hours a day starts at a minimum of $250
  • using a speakerphone such as those from Plantronics, Jabra or Sennheiser cost between $200 – $400

Realistically a similar experience will cost a few hundred dollars to have anything of decent quality.

While using the microphone built into a webcam along with external speakers is also possible, the quality of webcam microphones is generally quite poor. Often they will cause an echo as the sound from the speakers flows back into the microphone.

So yes, this is a premium device for a premium experience – and is realistically suitable for those who have video calls on a regular basis.

But let’s think about this from another aspect…

The average cost of a dedicated desk per employee, per year is estimated to be in the order of $5,000 (while there are various factors that influence this, this figure was averaged from a crowdsourced question).

For an organisation that is now saving this cost on a yearly basis from its operational expenditure, it would make sense to kit out its home-based staff so as to enhance their video collaboration experience. The reality is that it’s a small price to pay in order to deliver corporate grade communications capabilities without paying for dedicated desk space and empty meeting rooms.