Tips and Tricks for Service Delivery via Video Conferencing

remote service with counselor

Over the past nine years or so, I’ve used a variety of video conferencing products to deliver hundreds of training sessions and meetings. I’ve also assisted practitioners with the technical setup and running of dozens of counselling and mediation sessions. My sessions have involved attendees that range from being a couple of offices down the hallway, to overseas, to the Australian Outback via a tenuous satellite internet link. Most of the sessions have gone really well, but there have been some total disasters, too! I hope that the list of tips and tricks below can help you minimize the latter and maximize your success.

Practice, practice, practice!

Before getting started, try a few test meetings to check your setup. Many video conferencing providers like Zoom or GoTo Meeting allow you to join a test meeting to check your audio, lighting, etc. prior to going live. Just Google “test meeting Zoom,” for example, and you’ll get a link to a test meeting. Click this and start testing your audio and webcam setup.

You can also try test meetings with family, friends, and coworkers. These meetings are useful to familiarize yourself with the various controls that you’ll be using, like muting/unmuting your microphone or showing/hiding your webcam. They’re safe places to make mistakes and you’ll feel much more comfortable when you “go live.” Also, it provides a great excuse to catch up with loved ones while social distancing!

General setup tips

Sound check

Try to find a space that’s free of background noise. This is easier said than done in current times, where the whole household may be working from home. You can use the speaker and microphone on your computer/webcam if you’re in a room free of background noise, but I prefer to use a set of headphones with inbuilt microphone. These are great for minimizing any unwanted noise and allowing you to best hear the attendees.

Don’t look like a shadow puppet

Lighting is important. If you have too much lighting behind you, all your attendees will see is a dark outline against their screen. Attendees won’t be able to see your face and all the important visual cues this provides. I have a small desk lamp that sits behind my webcam but in front of me. I turn this on and angle it down slightly, which provides sufficient lighting so that other attendees can see my face, but not enough to be overpowering. During your test meetings, check your lighting setup—are there blinds or curtains that you need to close? Should that overhead light be on or off?

Check positioning and background

Is your webcam positioned correctly so that attendees can see your full face? Or are they just looking at the top of your head, as if you’re peering over the bottom of their screens? Is there anything in your background that should not be there? In my case, it was a video call with a work colleague who got to see a nice neat line of the family’s clothes drying on the clothes rack behind me!

More seriously, check to ensure that there’s nothing that could give certain attendees (i.e. clients) personal information about you. Many video conferencing products now allow each attendee to add a virtual background to protect their privacy and confidentiality. Very handy!

One at a time, please

This tip won’t apply to everyone, but it’s an important one to know. Sometimes you may have a situation where there’s more than one computer in a room logged into the same video conference. In this scenario, you need to make sure that only one device in the room has the microphone and speakers on. The rest of the devices should be muted and have the sound at zero or have chosen the “no audio” option.

video conference home set upWhat can go wrong, you ask? Well, unless you take the above steps, the sound between the two devices in the same room can start looping, creating feedback, and getting louder and louder. Everyone on the video conference will hear this too, by the way. I can assure you it doesn’t get much worse than this! If you’re the host/organizer, look to see which attendees are “talking” (read, looping) and quickly mute them. If that doesn’t work, mute everyone. This will stop the issue. You can then unmute attendees one at a time and see who might be causing the problem.

Despite what I’ve just said, there can be situations where it’s really useful to have two devices in the same room. I know a mediator that likes to run her sessions with two computers: one with the webcam on her, the other with the webcam on an old-school whiteboard where the clients’ assets are listed. You just need to make sure that one of these devices is muted and has its sound down to zero percent. Better still, if there’s a “no audio” option for your video conference software, use this for the second device. Do some practice runs if you want to run multiple devices in a session.

Tips for getting the most out of your internet connection

In these days of social distancing, a large proportion of the population is working from home, which puts a strain on internet bandwidth and can affect the quality of your video conferences. Here are some hints for getting the most out of your internet connection, which I visualize as two pipes: a pipe carrying information toward you (downloads) and one carrying information away from you (uploads). These pipes can be skinny (i.e. a slower connection) or fatter (i.e. faster internet connection). Making the most of what you have is the key here.

Go wired if you can

If possible, connect your computer to the internet router via a network cable instead of using wireless. You’ll have the fastest possible connection to your internet.

Kick the kids off

Are there any other members of your household using too much of the internet connection when you’re trying to do your video conference? For example, I’ll get my kids to stop FaceTiming their friends, watching YouTube, using streaming services, or playing online games when I’m in a video conference. That frees those internet “pipes” up as much as possible for you.

Plan B

Despite your best efforts, sometimes you won’t be able to free up enough bandwidth to get an acceptable level of quality for your video conference. Webcam images are fuzzy and start to freeze. Voices are garbled. Can you do anything to make this better? Here are some options that might help:

  • Turn on the webcams at the start and the end of the session to see each other, do your greetings, and then spend the rest of the session with the webcams off. This will free up bandwidth on your internet connection because voice traffic is a lot “skinnier” than webcam traffic.
  • If your video conference software gives you the option, dial into the meeting instead of using computer audio (also known as Voice over IP or VoIP). Your webcam picture will still go through the internet connection, but your voice goes through the telephone connection. That way, even if your webcam picture starts breaking up (an improvement in my case!), your voice still remains clear.

Functionality, security, and confidentiality

It’s important to ensure that the video conferencing product you use meets your security and confidentiality needs and gives you the functionality you require. You should ensure that you (as the host/organizer of the meeting) have the capability to mute attendees, either individually or all at once, as well as expel individual attendees if needed. I’ve never had to do this, but it’s good to know that there’s an option if necessary. Think about the type of service(s) you want to deliver and which video solution best meets these needs. You should make sure that the video conferencing software you use provides end-to-end encryption as well. This ensures that the link between yourself and your attendees is encrypted. Do some research—there are quite a few online articles describing the security of different video conferencing products.

Here are some tips to ensure that your video sessions are as secure and confidential as possible.

Passwords matter

Set a password for each of the meetings and don’t make it something that’s easy to guess. 12345 is a good example of what not to use. Some video conferencing tools automatically generate a secure password when you schedule a meeting, and these are safe to use as well.

Avoid the Personal Meeting Room option

If you’re delivering a service like counselling or mediation to clients, avoid using the option of a personal meeting room link that anyone can click to join the meeting that you’re running. This point is especially important when you’re delivering a service to parties/clients that may be adversarial (e.g. mediation). I always use the “Schedule a New Meeting” option because this will generate a new link and a new password each time. These can then be provided to clients prior to the meeting and can’t be used again. If your organization is already using Penelope and our mobile client portal, ClientConnect, you can simply add the meeting link to an appointment in Penelope and the meeting link and password will automatically appear for the client in their My Events section in ClientConnect.

Use waiting room functionality

Having a waiting room means that the meeting doesn’t start until the host (i.e. you) arrives. There would be many scenarios where you don’t want attendees talking amongst themselves before you arrive (e.g. when providing family dispute resolution or mediation services), and a waiting room is the answer.

Choose your display name

Depending on the type of service you’re delivering, you may wish to hide your full name from the other attendees. If you want to do this all the time, you can do so via the video conferencing account settings. If you want to hide your full name on an ad-hoc basis—with the software that I’ve used (Zoom, GoTo Meeting), anyway—you should enter the meeting before anyone else arrives, go to the list of attendees, right-click on your name, and use the “Rename” or “Edit” option.

Check or hide your background

I mentioned this above but it’s worth reiterating again, especially in the context of seeing clients.

Keep your video conferencing software up to date

This will ensure that software patches to prevent any potential security threats are applied. It will also ensure that you’re using the latest set of features in the software. Note: It’s important to choose when to apply the update. 30 seconds before your next video conference is due to start is not the time!

I hope this article has been helpful for you as you transition to delivering care remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. To learn more about Penelope, ClientConnect, and how they can help with remote service delivery, please click here or contact us for more information.

Written by Julian Flint
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