During the #coronavirus #homeoffice time, teams need more than ever reliable channels for online communication. This not only concerns companies, but also associations, initiatives, parent groups and school classes. But already the first days in a state of emergency show that online collaboration from #homeoffice has its pitfalls. The networks and servers are overloaded, many people are not prepared for the digitally networked cooperation. While video conferences have long since become part of everyday life for some, they are new territory for others and cause a lot of frustration. Therefore, here is our checklist for successful online communication (version 1.0, will be continuously expanded in the next days and weeks).

1.) Tool selection:

  • Video or telephone conference? Check whether a videoconference is really necessary. In most cases a simple telephone conference is sufficient.
  • Access for all: For conference calls, check whether there are international dial-in numbers and whether costs are incurred when dialing from abroad or mobile.
  • For a video conference, first clarify the technical requirements with the participants: Which tools and programs are already installed and can be used? Which ones can be installed on all of them, which ones cannot? (Attention: Some tools do not work on all end devices!)
  • Messenger or chat channel: Especially when it comes to regular cooperation and agreements, a chat is worthwhile for quick mutual sharing of information, links or files – between conferences, but also during them. Most videoconferencing solutions have an integrated chat, often it is somewhat hidden. If participants are present by telephone, we recommend using a separate chat solution in parallel, which is installed on all participants or works browser-based on every computer.
  • Remember the protocol. The best way is to use a prepared etherpad, in which the agenda and agenda is already written down. Share the Etherpad link directly in the selected chat channel (or both in an appointment invitation in the calendar), then all participants are “in” both from the beginning and can read along live and write into the protocol.

Pro tip: define a tool hierarchy for each team in order to switch to another tool in a defined order in case of technical complications without long discussion (an interactive online template would be ideal, a simple list is usually sufficient). Because of the massive increase in workload since the Corona lockdown, not all tools work reliably for everyone at all times. You should always have at least one plan B ready. It is therefore worthwhile to clarify this in advance, either individually or together in the team: What is our standard solution? Which tools are used one after the other and in which order in case one of them does not work?

2.) Dealing with the technology

  • Ensure a stable Internet connection: If possible, connect device via LAN connection. With a WLAN connection, ensure that the signal strength and data volume are sufficiently high. Look for a quiet place with little noise and good reception and stay there! Do not wander around with the mobile device, otherwise the device will always have to log in again and the connection will be briefly interrupted.
  • Keep data volumes slim! Online conferencing is similar to road traffic: When everyone uses video, the networks quickly become overloaded and traffic jams occur. Audio is usually enough and then the network is enough for everyone. Especially in peak times, therefore, the following applies: Switch off the camera by default and leave it switched off most of the time if possible to save bandwidth.
  • Enable background blur if offered by the tool, because this also saves bandwidth.
  • If possible, use a headset! It is best to try it out privately before using it for the first time.
  • Technical check before the start: are headset/microphone and camera working? Is the WLAN signal strong enough here? With video: am I easily recognizable?

Pro tip: Pause cloud synchronization before starting (Dropbox, Google Backup, Nextcloud, ownCloud etc.) and quit all running programs that are consuming bandwidth (video streaming, music/audio streaming, background updates etc.)

3.) Tips for behaviour

  • Muten, so switch off your own microphone while others are speaking, as typing and background noise often cause interference and interruptions.
  • During videoconferences, avoid constant running around, movement and restlessness (even in the background), because every change in the image is data and computationally intensive for the networks, servers and graphics cards.
  • Start on time or report a delay, because even if many are waiting online for others, this creates unnecessary network and server load.
  • Allow excuses or moderation of the conversation: At the latest from 4 participants on, one person should make sure that all of them speak one after the other and not at the same time. Because nothing disturbs a telephone or video conference more than when everyone is talking to each other. With some programs it is possible to mute the other participants as admin. However, we recommend this only for larger rounds and should be announced shortly before.

Pro-tip: At the beginning as moderator*, set a “virtual circle” for the order of people and always call the people in this order. Whoever has nothing to say about a point at the moment passes the word on. In this way, everyone feels heard equally and the quieter ones are not passed over. Waiting instead of impulsively chatting away is unfamiliar to many at the beginning, but it pays off very quickly, especially in online conferences, because the mindful atmosphere helps everyone to achieve better results more quickly (this also works in physical meetings, e.g. with a topic of speech).

And last but not least, here are our top 5 tool recommendations:

1. Conference call: We prefer to use the providers https://meetgreen.de/ and https://www.deutsche-telefonkonferenz.de/, as they fit in well with our requirements in terms of sustainability, data protection and connection quality. In the past few days, however, both have been overloaded at times (meetgreen has discontinued its free service in the meantime), so it’s worth having a few alternatives ready as backups, such as https://www.freeconferencecall.com/global/en, https://www.talkyoo.net/en/ or https://www.meebl.de/.

2. Videoconferencing: Our favourite “fairmeeting” https://fairmeeting.net https://fairmeeting.net/allows video and audio conferences on almost any browser (most reliable on Chrome), no program or login is necessary. Every conference gets its own URL, an optional password and telephone dial-in data, so that everyone can join in from home or on the road without any problems. Fairmeeting is Open Source and hosted by the great people of Fairkom. The “original” of fairmeeting is called Jitsi https://meet.jit.si/ and can be a useful alternative if the fairmeeting servers are too busy (like these days). Both are most stable on Chrome. Jitsi also has an app for the smartphone that also works with fairmeeting. In our experience, the most reliable of the (also) free of charge services is the US provider https://zoom.us/, which is now becoming very popular and which we only use in case of emergency. The free version allows conferences up to 40min, those who want to speak longer can create a new conference room shortly before the end and move there with everyone. Nevertheless it should be mentioned that Zoom is criticized by numerous organizations because of its privacy policy. Who needs business quality, attaches importance to maximum data protection and is willing to spend some money for it, is better off with https://wire.com/de/ (video conference and messenger in one). Fortunately, Wire is also available as a free version! https://wire.com/de/products/personal-secure-messenger/

3. Messenger / Chat: A common chat channel should be defined for each online conference. Whats-App may be the most widely used, but we cannot recommend it with a clear conscience. In terms of data protection, Threema https://threema.ch/de/, Signal https://www.signal.org/de/ and wire https://wire.com/de/ are among the outstanding options, but comparatively few people have them installed or know about them. Telegram works easily on desktop and mobile devices and has a large and growing user base. Unlike the previously mentioned messengers, Telegram is not encrypted by default. For continuously working and diverse teams a multi-channel messenger like Slack is worthwhile (attention, the chat history of the free version is limited here). We prefer the open source alternatives Riot / Matrix, Mattermost and Rocket.chat, which can be installed on your own servers. To save you this effort, we will provide a Rocket.chat environment for our users* with https://wechange.de this year.

4. (Ether-)Pad: With all our telcos and video conferences we have an Etherpad, or “Pad” for short, an online document in which everyone can write simultaneously. We share the link with all participants* in advance. Within our teams we use the pads on https://wechange.de, so that they can easily be found later in the projects and groups. For spontaneously composed and heterogeneous teams, openly accessible pad servers such as https://board.net/ or the encrypted variant https://cryptpad.open-communication.net/ also do it.

5. Cloud file storage: For permanent teams that work together continuously, it is worthwhile having a shared file storage that everyone can access anytime, anywhere. In addition to the well-known corporate solutions from Google, Dropbox & Co., the open source alternatives are also getting better and better. If you want to be sure that your data will not be misused, but are not able to install ownCloud or Nextcloud on your own server, you are well advised to use the file storage of the free WECHANGE projects and groups or the faircloud offer of our friends from Fairkom. A large pool of further “good” tools for all those who care about sustainability and data protection in addition to good usability can be found at https://ethical.net/resources/.

While half of Germany is in #Corona Lockdown, our concept developers and designers – networked online of course – are working on new features for WECHANGE. For example, a seamless integration of Rocket.chat and Nextcloud in projects and groups, so that everything is in one place. WECHANGE already offers many other useful functions for networked teams and is completely free of charge – the cooperative lives from voluntary user contributions. Feel free to recommend us and write us your experiences and suggestions at support@wechange.de.

We wish good success with online collaboration and #PhysicalDistancing – with good #SocialConnection 🙂

19 March 2020 | CC-BY-SA 4.0 | wechange eG | LS