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.

Travelling to work

More often than not travel consumes approximately 15-20% of the working day.

For many who start at 8:30am they must get out of the door by 7:30am to join the peak hour rush either by car or public transport. The same at the end of the day finishing up around 5:30pm the journey home is commonly another 45-60 minutes. These times vary based on job location as well as residence however more often than not travelling to work is inevitably a part of the working day – and one that is not part of our paid time.

There are additional costs such as car expenses (petrol, maintenance, tyres, parking, etc.) or public transport fees. Not to mention the amount of pollution put out into the air by whatever form of transport we utilise.

The beauty of working from home is that the above do not form part of my world. The real benefit however is that the time saved allows me to spend more time with my daughter.

The standard day for Chloe is up around 8am and back to sleep around 7:45pm. If I had to travel to an office for work I wouldn’t see her in the morning and by the time I got home there would only be 1-2 hours to play – less if I had to stay back for some reason.

The work from home dad schedule is vastly different. Monday/Wednesday/Friday I’m up at 5:30am and off to gym for a couple of hours. I return around 8am and have breakfast with my wife and daughter. Tuesdays and Thursdays I generally get her up so my wife can sleep in. One way or the other I’m at my desk by about 8:30am and have already managed to clean out my inbox before anyone woke up. The end of the day is generally around 5:30-6pm where I generally put my tools down and engage with the family until Chloe goes to sleep. If I need to work extra for some reason I come back to this afterwards.

They key thing about the work from home dad schedule is that I get to have breakfast and dinner with my daughter, have not had to sit in traffic or on crowded public transport, and am generally still full of energy.

What is the point I’m making? The cloud. I work from anywhere, any time. If I wake up at 3am and can’t sleep for some reason – I can work so that later I can have more time with my family during the day. Wherever I am – I can be at work.

It’s been almost 4 years since I’ve had to do the daily grind to an office. While at Paradyne we did have an office for a year in the middle – nobody in the company at the time had kids.

From time to time myself or members of the Paradyne team will drive to a customer site, a cafe, or each others houses to work together. It’s a more relaxed attitude and allows us to become part of each others lives. Every employee has met my wife and daughter, and I’ve met most of their significant others.

Working from the cloud allows us to focus on work as a thing to do – not a place to go. It allows us to spend more quality time with our loved ones and switch off when we choose.

If your business doesn’t allow you the flexibility to work from home, or doesn’t have the cloud technologies to support the choice – it’s time to ask why. The concept isn’t new, and neither are the technologies.

Spend more time with your family, not at your work.