Squads

3 Things you Need to Work Effectively in a Remote Setup

I’ve been working remotely for over 10 years now. There’s been open-source work, large conference meetings, outsourcing, remote support. Most of it has been distributed pair programming. My experience has been positive for the most part, but occasionally, I’m set back by the negative impact of poor hardware, background noise and bad networks. If you want to do the remote work right, you need three things:

  1. great connection
  2. noise free environment
  3. proper hardware

I’ll go into detail on all three so you can have a check if your setup is great, merely good enough, or if you are probably annoying your collaborators.

Connection

Make sure you have a network connection with low latency and decent upload and download speeds.

  • Great: more than 10Mbit up and down, faster than 10ms ping
  • Adequate: more than 2Mbit up and down, faster than 50ms ping
  • Annoying: greater than 100ms ping, slower than 1Mbit connection

You can use speedtest.net to check your connection’s speed. Below are some examples.

http://www.speedtest.net/my-result/3986003614 http://www.speedtest.net/my-result/3986001459

The glass fiber connection on one side is overkill (but it definitely doesn’t hurt), the other side is just good enough. A pairing session with multiway screen sharing goes fine without hiccups, because both sides have more than adequate ping. A slightly faster connection would give barely noticeable quality improvements on the video side. A great litmus test for your connection is to run a speed test alongside a call with video and see if you spot any delays or other problems. If not, your connection is at least adequate.

Noise free environment

The human ear and brain are optimized to capture and process spoken words. I can’t filter out human conversation. Sometimes when I’m in a restaurant and seem distant from the person I’m with, that’s because my mind is processing 5 conversations other people are having at the same time. Everybody has this to varying degrees. In general, I don’t work with people that are working from coffee shops. I know that it’s somehow cool and hip to take your mac to the coffee shop, but apart from light writing, you will not get anything done there. And neither will the poor people you try to work with from such an awkward location.

Non-vocal background noise is less problematic. But any noise will distract the person listening to you on the other side. As a function of the type and volume of the background noise, a percentage of the valuable information you’re trying to transmit is going to get lost.

Lock yourself in a home office. Pad the walls. Remove anything that produces noise. Ask the neighbours to be silent during your pairing slots and meetings.

The level of noise that is acceptable to your collaborators is hard to quantify, but you can always ask. If you want to go a step further to test your background noise level, you could also make some recordings and listen to them. Make some test calls with friends and ask for feedback.

If you can’t completely silence your environment, you’ll have to compensate for it with great hardware. A good headset will compensate for background noise both on the microphone and on the earpieces. You’ll notice.

Proper hardware

Without a good headset, you’ll be the last person to be understood by others and the last one to be able to understand others in the call. Just buy one. A real one. Paying 2k for a proper monitor and not paying a quarter of that for a headset makes absolutely no sense if you’re getting your income from remote work. A Senheiser 660 (wired version for best audio) or Jabra Evolve 80 both do fine.

Don’t go wireless. You can buy a cheap Logitech or Trust for less than a quarter of those prices, but it will reflect in your personal effectiveness and eventually in your income. If you want to go absolutely crazy you should buy a separate noise cancelling headphone and microphone. The sky is really the limit.

If you have an absolutely noise free environment, using a laptop microphone and speaker at a low volume will usually do the trick. Until you start scratching some goo off your monitor (actually happened) or your spouse or kid walks in (happens all the time) or you start hammering your keyboard (happens all the time).

The worst thing about bad hardware set up is that other people in the call will notice first. Have you ever gotten these questions: “Can you mute please, there’s a lot of noise in the background?”, “Who’s got the feedback loop, can you lower volume please?”

They are the remote equivalent of: “Could you speak up please, we can’t hear you in the back?”, “What does it say on this slide, I can’t read the small font?”, “I’m sorry, your fly is unzipped?” The point is that it’s ok to make a mistake once or twice, we’re all human, but you should do something about it. Now you know how.

Do you have some cool hardware that helps distributed collaboration? Maybe a good story? I’d love to hear them.