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How Have AV teams and Technology Adapted for Hybrid Meetings of Internal Folks?

By Mark Manoukian posted 06-23-2022 15:45

  

Please enjoy this blog post authored by Mark Manoukian, IT Director, Kegler, Brown, Hill & Ritter.

Kegler Brown has, without a doubt, moved to a hybrid model. While the bulk of our non-attorneys are back in the office, our 65 attorneys split their time between the office and elsewhere. It is fair to say that we are only able to move to a hybrid model because of the revolutionary changes to the meeting tools that took place during the pandemic when we were working remotely. These same tools, particularly improvements in video and audio conferencing, will continue to serve us well as we adjust to a hybrid model.

Before the pandemic we used service-based conferencing solutions (e.g. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Webex, LoopUp, RingCentral et. al.) for teleconferencing, presenting or screensharing. While these services included video, we did not use the video features often, if at all. The video features felt a little gimmicky and in some cases, lacked quality. More importantly, employees simply did not want to meet via video conference. To be fair, my firm only has one location, so I’m curious to learn if larger, multi-site law firms saw a demand for video conferencing for internal meetings before the pandemic, and if so, how frequently and what that entailed. At Kegler Brown, video conferencing needs before the pandemic went primarily to telepresence with 3rd parties, so we would use one of our two high quality, expensive, proprietary video conferencing solutions in one of our two dedicated video conference rooms.

Emphasis added that it was the demand for video, specifically on the PC or mobile device, and for large numbers of participants, that spiked the demand for these tools. Many other features of these service-based conference solutions enjoyed improvements over the course of the pandemic, but video was the linchpin. Credit to Zoom for showing us new possibilities at the outset of the pandemic. The video and audio quality of Zoom were superior. Zoom was easy and rarely required training. Employees immediately noticed and appreciated well-designed features such as background blurring.  Forget what I.T. had to say about it, attorneys and clients were effusive about how much they liked it. Attorneys wanted to use Zoom, so they did. They thought it was fun.

While Zoom led the pack at the start of the pandemic, the competition was fierce. Vendors took turns matching and leapfrogging each other by increasing the limit on video participants, adding dial-in features, improving usability, improving call quality (both audio and video) and constantly adding other new features. The service-based solutions have closed many of the gaps among each other and with traditional, proprietary video conferencing systems. Arguably, we no longer have a need for proprietary video conferencing solutions or hardware, and we have a genuine choice of what service-based solution we want to use.

At Kegler Brown, we took a simple approach. Microsoft Teams was the preferred solution of some clients, and we already had employees using Teams for internal collaboration. We subscribe to M365 E3 and we use SfB 2015 on-prem for telephony, meaning that we already had the licenses we needed for Teams with voice. So, we went with Teams. The choice of platform probably is not important, at least not to me. Regardless of what solution any organization chooses, it gets a lot easier knowing that all participants are going to use a familiar and well-maintained company-standardized solution.

The size of the meeting (headcount\room size) drives the hardware. All 10 of our conference rooms had PCs and flat screens before the pandemic. We needed to add video and audio. For smaller rooms we are adding 360-degree, all-in-one cameras\speakers by Kandao (like an Owl).  For larger rooms we are adding HD tabletop microphones\speakers, and PTZ (point tilt zoom) cameras. We are not using any of the sophisticated Teams “room systems” that cost thousands (see here ). Instead, we are using cameras and speakers that only cost hundreds. We might yet add Teams conference phones to each room so that employees who only want voice can simply pick up the phone, rather than running the teleconference through the Teams client on the conference room PC.

Lessons learned:

  1. Employees do not want video as much as they did when we were fully remote. Attorneys often choose the days when they have practice group, departmental or committee meeting to come to the office. It seems like they are getting the necessary dose of face time on these occasions when they are in the office such that when they do meet virtually, they do not want video.
  2. Audio is more important than video. These service-based solutions made a lot of improvements to audio alongside the improvements to video including, but not limited to, background noise cancellation and HD (aka wideband) audio. When choosing hardware double check that it supports HD audio.
  3. Go with 4k on cameras, instead of 1080 when possible. All cameras that zoom use digitalzoom, primarily or exclusively. Some cameras also include an optical zoom, but the optical zooms are a fraction of the digital zoom range. A 4k camera will still output a relatively high resolution even when the digital zoom is zoomed in all the way. A camera with a 1080 chip will output a lower resolution when zoomed.
  4. Big rooms can be tough. Daisy-chained HD speakers\mics will provide great audio. It is the video that is sometimes a problem. As far as I know, a PC running Teams, Zoom, etc. can only support one camera. The typical set up is a long table a la a Board Room that seats 10 or more people. For that many people we needed a camera that can zoom and frame the table – i.e. a PTZ camera – but even then the view is small, sometimes useless, for the participants on the other end. Some PTZ cameras include an ability to swivel to different participants as they speak, but they are too slow. I’m looking for a better solution for meeting rooms this size. I hope to get more answers on this point in the session at ILTACON re: conferencing technologies.
  5. Some cameras come with a remote and some require a mobile app. My personal opinion… get a model with a remote. I do not want a camera that also requires me to buy a mobile device. Remotes do not go missing.
  6. Searching for products on Google was not productive. I only found the cameras we selected by looking at the CES website for cameras that won CES awards. None of the hardware we bought came up in search results on Google. There are many choices out there.

If you want to know more then please make use of ILTA’s Connected Communities, specifically 1) the Communications Technologies community and 2) the Desktop & Applications Services community. I’ll answer any questions that I can, but please know that I am not an expert. In fact, I still have questions of my own. If you want to hear what an expert has to say in person then mark your calendar for ILTACON, specifically the session #1613 “Conference Rooms – What do we need now?” on Wednesday, August 24th which will include a panel of four experts.


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