Making Remoteness Work Part 1: The Video Portal, aka DaveTV

I joined Qubit’s engineering department based in London a couple of months ago. The challenge is, I live 4000 miles away in sunny Wisconsin, USA. I’m the first person at Qubit to remote work entirely from the get-go, and so have been experimenting with different ways to start making distributed teams work for us. In this post, I want to talk about our Video Portal setup, which has been a big part in supporting me being on a team nearly a quarter of the way around the world.

I’ve already had a fair amount of experience with remote teams. I used to manage a number of development teams who were split between cities, client locations, and occasionally people working from home. However, I was always the one in the office. In 6 years, I only worked from home once, because a hurricane had made travelling impossible. I really like going into an office — it puts me in a place where I can focus and then switch off easily when I leave. So although I was confident that these setups can work, being remote felt pretty daunting.

I spent my first few weeks in London getting to know everyone and trying to understand how Qubit works as an organization. As we started thinking about how our team would work with me being remote, I felt a little awkward having to explain that my biggest fear was simply being a bit lonely. I’d really enjoyed my time sitting alongside the team and would miss the dozen of social touchpoints you inevitably have with people you’re in close proximity to. This started a discussion about how we could make it feel like i’m in the London office while I’m in Wisconsin.

I remembered a blog post that Scott Hanselman about one of the approaches he used when working remotely. His solution was to have screen on a desk in Redmond with a feed of him working from home. We thought this was a cool idea and so decided to implement it.

The Video Portal

Sat on my desk in the London office is a monitor which displays a video stream of me working from home in Wisconsin (nicknamed DaveTV). It projects back to me a video feed of the office so I can see the whole team.

My side in Wisconsin
DaveTV in London

I’ve been stunned at quite how well this works. Video conferences are great for formal meetings, but this captures the the informal stuff. I hear the sighs as a colleague’s deployments fail. As another gets up to leave he tells me how his wedding plans are going. When a strategist drops by to randomly grill the team on how far we can push our product, I get to chime in. I’d never set up a formal meeting to discuss this stuff, but because I’m virtually hanging around the office I’m involved in it. It’s this stuff that builds working relationships and makes a team close knit.

It’s incredible quite how good a substitute it’s been to being there. I can literally just say “Hey Oli — what’s up with [x]?” as if we were sitting together and he responds. Due to wide angle of the camera, I can also see the other teams I occasionally work with and know who’s at their desk or if they’ve got up to go to get a coffee.

Best of all, it’s actually proved to be a tool for meeting people beyond my team. As my portal is positioned at the end of a row of desks, everyone that walks by it notices it. I meet a couple of new faces everyday who stop to ask what the portal is and start chatting as a result.

There are strange moments. Being able to yell across the London office from Wisconsin still feels weird. The strangest are perhaps the times I’ll be chatting with the team by our desks when we notice it’s time to do a formal team meeting. They’ll go downstairs and by the time they arrive, I’m already being displayed on our Chrome for Meetings box. It has a somewhat omnipresent-ish feeling.

Rubber band fights aren’t a common occurrence. Honest.

As a testament to quite how well it works, it also introduces the downsides of office working. Some noisy construction that lasted a couple of days ended up being just as frustrating for me as those in the office. When Karolis decides to throw rubber bands at James and the office descends into anarchy, I get just as distracted as everyone else. But it’s these things that make me one of the team.

Acknowledging the Creepy Factor

I have been a little surprised by the reception of the video portal beyond my own team. A number of people who stopped by said they’d find having this video feed from their home a bit creepy. Personally, these thoughts didn’t even occur to me. Being on camera all the time doesn’t feel particularly different from sitting in an office where people can see you. But perhaps this setup isn’t for everyone.

One of the more practical challenges about always being visible is that people assume I’m always available because they can see me. This can be confusing when I’m actually attending a video meeting on my main computer and am not available to chat. I’ve tried to fix this by really over communicating what I’m up to. Now before every meeting, I’ll update my status in Slack with a “/me attending planning meeting for 45 minutes” and will mute my side of the portal.

The Setup

  • Machines — I think it’s vital to have dedicated machines. This way you’ll never cover up the video with another app or have to deal with inevitable restarts. Also, Hangouts is quite a CPU hog; doing anything else on the machine could prove pretty challenging. Importantly, I have a dedicated screen that sits on the very far right of my desk. This way it’s not particularly distracting, but I can just about see it out of the corner of my eye and will notice if someone wonders up to “me” in London.
  • Google Hangouts — we’ve tried a few video conference services (Skype and others) but always ended up back on Hangouts. As we use it for our more formal meetings, everyone’s used to it and it works just fine. To make joining it easier, we’ve set up a year long calendar event that comes with a Hangout — joining is only a click away.
  • USB Speakerphone — We’ve found getting a decent speakerphone makes an enormous improvement in hearing one another. They seem to be able to amplify people trying to talk to me while minimizing background noise. They also have a hardware mute button, which is really handy — I can just hit it when going into other meetings rather than have to click around the Hangouts UI.
  • Webcam — We got a webcam with a fisheye lens for the machine in the office. This way from where I sit I can see the majority of the engineering teams. Most cameras seem to sell themselves on ridiculously high resolutions, but it’s really not important and it’s much easier on bandwidth if the content isn’t super HD.
  • Ethernet — I’ve got a pretty reasonable consumer type wifi at home, but my always-on video feed seemed to push it to its limit and occasionally stutter or disconnect. I purchased some adapters to do a wired ethernet setup and found it much more reliable.

Thinking with Portals

We were so happy with how the portal setup worked for me that we’ve now set up similar screens for other remote staff. It will be interesting to see how far we can run with this. The thought of just having rows of desks with portals rather than physical people sounds like something from a sci-fi film, but at the rate we’re going, it may be a reality sooner rather than later.

One area I’d like to improve is looking at other ways of having a dedicated machine. I’m currently using my personal MacBook Pro to display things on my side, which isn’t a particularly good use of an expensive machine. I want to look at trying a Raspberry Pi to see how well it’ll support hangouts, which at $35 would be a much cheaper way of dedicating a machine to this purpose. Also, I may look at wall mounting a medium-sized flat monitor to display the office so the portal doesn’t take up any desk space.

Overall, I feel like it’s gone a long way to helping me feel like being part of the team. Despite going to my home office in Wisconsin, it feels very much like going to work and sitting down alongside everyone. I’ll still be visiting London occasionally to hangout with people in person, but now when I’m not there, I still feel very connected. Perhaps the biggest testament to it’s success is that I arrived in London this week — I have no backlog of chats to have and no significant meetings we’ve been holding off on until I was here. It’s just business as usual.