'Hello, Tom? Tom, yes, we can see you, but we can't hear you. Try hitting unmute. No, wait a minute - I think it might be star six. Try star six, Tom. Tom? TRY STAR SIX TO UNMUTE." This is actually how one of my teleconference calls went this past week. I suspect I'm not alone. Much of Ireland is losing its remote working virginity in a familiar fashion - with mistimed extensions, unreliable accessories and a mild feeling of frustration after it all.
I know a fair bit about the tech itself - the laptops, microphones, screens, conferencing software, apps and remote diagnostic logins. But the artisanship of collegiate remote working is an ever-evolving process.
In the last seven days, I've been reminded of the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to remote working. I have a few requests, in case you end up on a video call with me:
1. Try not to have your laptop camera looking up your nose. Put it on a few books or lower your seat; whatever it takes. No one wants to see the hygienic state of your nostrils. It also feels much more natural.
This is a lesson I learned in a hotel room in Berlin a few years back. I was doing a live TV link-up with Sky News through my laptop. They needed it at eye level.
But the only way to ensure this while providing adequate lighting was to stack two chairs and several cushions vertically, on top which sat my laptop. The live link-up passed off without incident.
2. Don't keep thwacking your keyboard when others are speaking. When you're unmuted, the thok-thok-thok of your keyboard is painfully audible to everyone else.
Obviously, some keyboards are noisier than others. If you have a Microsoft Surface Pro and use the keyboard in an elevated position, it's like a drum-and-bass carnival.
(Apple's new MacBook Air, which this columnist reviewed on Independent.ie over the weekend, is more discrete.)
This is a tricky challenge, as it's completely normal to be taking digital notes during a meeting or, during a stage when you don't have direct input for a few minutes, tending to other things like email. But just try to mute yourself when you think you'll need to type.
3. Make sure there's at least some light in your room. Laptop cameras have come a long way. But they're not miracle workers.
If you teleconference in from a dim room, you'll look like The Dark Knight on screen. Or the picture will be so fuzzy that it will feel like a link-up with an astronaut. If you do it with a light or bright window directly behind you, you'll look like an internet predator, with your lurking head ominously blacked out.
I also have a few further tech suggestions. At this point, it's likely that most of you have your online collaboration tools up and running. But if you're finding limits to them, here are some options:
1. Zoom is great, but Hangouts lets you talk longer. We can all agree that Zoom is the breakout star of the Covid-19 work-from-home zeitgeist. It's effortlessly simple to set up and get going. The only drawback for those who need a free solution is that you have to pay to stay on more than 40 minutes (unless you're a qualifying school or university). But for small groups, no such restriction applies to Google Hangouts. And it is almost as easy to set up, use and invite people to (hangouts.google.com or free phone and tablet app).
2. Noise-cancelling headphones are now your best friend. If there was ever a time to get a decent-quality pair of noise-cancelling headphones, it is right now. Not only do they cut out the downstairs symphony of the dog barking and the kids arguing during an online meeting, they also give you priceless sanctuary for large chunks of the rest of your working day.
And almost all of them include a small microphone, meaning you can make and take calls. Any decent pair will do, although my recommendation remains Sony's 1000XM3 (around €250) for their all-round noise-cancellation, audio quality and - crucially - comfort over long sessions.
While smaller buds, such as Apple's AirPods Pro, have incorporated active noise-cancelling technology, they're nowhere near as effective as overhead models.
3. Don't let your laptop position wreck your back. Although you may take it for granted, your office probably has a decent ergonomic position in place for you when you're using the computer there. At home, all bets are off. This may be why your shoulders, neck and back currently feel like you've spent the night on a plastic airport seat.
A few hacks can make things better. Make sure your screen is at eye level when you sit up straight. In other words, don't be looking down at your laptop screen for extended periods. If you have an external keyboard and mouse, put a few hardback books underneath the laptop so you'll be better aligned. If you need to stand, don't rule out using your ironing board, although it will be trickier to align your machine in a way that's ergonomically right. Remember to stretch at regular intervals.
4. If you're looking for further tools, there are some big discounts and extended trials.
Among the better ones are 1Password (removing its 30-day trial limit on business accounts, now six months free); Microsoft (a free six-month Office 365 E1 Trial); Zoho (offering its Remotely product line for free to all new customers until July); and Box (three months free for business plan to include unlimited storage and mobile access). A small Irish one is a free WordPress plug-in created by Dave Meier (Hiddendepth.ie) to let your site add an announcement banner. Stay safe!
Sunday Indo Business