The Studio

A custom built telepresence space focused on connection & health during remote work

Before COVID, our organization adopted a #noscreens rule during meetings to encourage people to put their phone away, stop doing mail during meetings, and be present and focused.

With everyone working from home, there is no hashtag more anachronistic than #noscreens - but the spirit is more important than ever. Over the winter break, I started a home project to redesign a spare bedroom in our basement into a place dedicated to presence and focus in remote meetings.

I call it The Studio:

I’m fortunate enough to be able to have a separate office space for doing focus work like email or blog writing. So The Studio instead is a place dedicated to:

  • Online meetings that are 1:1 or 1:few where I can remove distractions

  • Broad presentations where I have all the support and data at my finger tips to perform and get a message out

  • Professional recordings of video

  • Applying all that I’ve learned about healthy work environments

Let’s take a peek inside:

I ended up with two modes to the studio. First is the stand-up mode where I’m actively presenting to an audience or recording:

Second is the sit down mode, which I use for 1:1’s or if something is more informal:

And here is what it looks like from my point of view:

This took a few months of iteration as I figured out what worked for my needs and style. I don’t think anyone should copy this exactly, but I do hope you can be inspired to try a piece of it out in your own rig. I’ve broken down the components of all this into three areas: Inclusion, Health, and Telepresence Quality.

Inclusion

Here are elements of The Studio focused on inclusion which enabled me to ensure I show up as my best self, focus on the meeting at hand, and reduce distractions.

Make eye contact

I invested in a teleprompter. With a simple device that projects your screen in 7 inch size (be sure to get one that can reverse an HDMI image), you can project the other person’s video feed to the teleprompter itself. This ensures your eyes are staring right into the camera. Given the size of the teleprompter glass, this works best for up to 4 people on video - but that’s not a hard limit. As a bonus, for some larger scale multi-hundred person presentations, I used teleprompter software that scrolled my script. It’s been a good skill to practice. These teleprompters can also accepts phones and iPads and there is software that will reverse text on them.

See an audience

For meetings with more than four participants, it’s been very useful to have a second screen in the distance/back of the room that can show the video feeds of participants. I reused an existing pico projector I had and purchased a 60 in “pop up” projector screen to enable this. There is something more real life about having the crowd in your farsighted view & it’s really made Team’s Together Mode shine.

Get into a living room vibe

For sit down meetings, I intentionally designed the space to avoid multi-tasking. I bought a keyboard with trackpad that is meant for connecting to Smart TV’s while on a living room couch. It prevents me from responding quickly to an email on the side during a meeting. I chose a chair that was not an office chair, but something comfortable to chat in. This is designed to get me in the right mind space for my meetings: They are about connection. It also give a casual fireside chat feel for folks I’m meeting with.

Be time zone aware

I work on a global team and thus need to know the time zones of various team members. I installed a series of clocks that are meant for patients with dementia, so they show time of day in bold letters, as I care more about the "what day is it?” and “it is work hours?” questions.

Use the environment to spark conversation

Nothing fosters personal connection like the in between moments before meetings begin. I’ve tried to add things that represent my interests in my background. Various books that I believe in and a mascot for our product are examples. I have a Towers of Hanoi game in my background and I move one disc a week (I’m hoping the world reaches full vaccination before the game is complete). Some bold looking sound dampening from Now Spinning is an instantly unique and much commented on item in my background. I find these things make me more approachable, human, and also project that craft & details are important to me.

Put social actions at your fingertips

I use a programmable button device called the Elgato Stream Deck that is attached to my articulating microphone arm. This is useful for adjusting lighting or switching cameras, but even more so it’s a great place to have hot keys for raising your hand or muting yourself in a meeting. I’m waiting for Teams to have shortcut keys for Love/Applaud/et cetera so it’ll be easy to socially react to content. I like the idea of exploring more of these at-your-finger-tips ways of reacting to what people are saying in a meeting. It’s an opportunity to foster inclusion above what one could get in-person.

Don’t monopolize people’s time

Being respectful and inclusive involves an awareness of how much time you are taking up. I got a countdown timer that is magnetic, so it clips to various metal poles in the studio.

Health

Here’s what I’ve done to encourage a healthy work environment:

Avoid direct lighting

I can’t stand ring lights. Too much direct lighting sucks the energy out of me and gives me a headache . Two Elgato Key Light Airs point up to my ceiling and I researched cameras that would thrive with such indirect lighting. It is the best decision I’ve made to prevent fatigue during marathon work calls.

Breath clean air

It is 100% worth it to have an air purifier in the room - I find myself more refreshed at the end of the day when it’s running. Also, and this is a low-tech solution, but fresh air makes a huge difference. I crack a window most days - no matter how cold - and it gives the room an entirely different sense of healthiness.

Support different work styles and meeting lengths

It took me many months of tweaking to figure out exactly how I wanted to use The Studio. I started with a sit down office chair but that felt a little bit too much “My Fellow Americans.” I tried only having a standing studio but I noticed myself slouching during longer meetings. So I netted out on two modes - one that is fully standing with no escape valve to sitting. This is great for presentations and to keep the back healthy for shorter calls. And then a fully sit down mode that I described above.

Make everything adjustable and listen to your neck and eyes

I installed monitor and laptop stands, microphone arms, and tripods. Pretty much every device can move up and down or pivot. This is really important for constantly being able to adjust eye level/neck strain/tune audio reception. I find what works varies day to day so the flexibility is important.

Reduce eye strain by maximizing farsighted views

Once I decided that the studio isn’t for individual work, there was no need to have my screens close to my face. This really helps with eye strain. In my sit down mode, the monitor is about six feet away. In stand up mode, I have a projector screen that is about 10-12 feet away. I’ve adjusted font and zoom level appropriately.

Reduce echo to reduce unconscious mental load

I was surprised by the sense of tranquility achieved by adding some sound panels and cork board to the room. It has a subtle but important impact on my state of mind, helping slow things down and find presence. The impact here reminds me of wearing noise reducing headphones on an airplane.

Be able to look at yourself without a screen

We added storage space to this room as we set up the studio and some of the cabinets have mirrors for doors. It’s surprisingly frequently useful to have a way of looking at yourself that isn’t through a video screen.

Telepresence Quality

It was important to get the basics of audio/visual quality right to show up as my best self and the most real life that I can. My goal was to reduce the mental load on other participants and maximize the amount of visual and body language cues. Advice on the internet about this abounds, but here was what I went with:

A camera that can keep you in focus and subtly blurs the background

I didn’t do a lot of research on camera. I knew the style I wanted - me in focus, slight blur in background - and wanted to chose a manufacture who had embraced using their tech as webcams. I bought the previous generation of Canon EOS M50 , as the latest was out of stock, and it came with a kit that enabled power supply from the wall & a good lens for my scenario (EF-M 22mm f/2 STM). I’d look at the Sony line if I had to do it over again.

A backup web cam

Unfortunately, the Canon software just isn’t reliable enough to be 100% assured that it’ll work for a critical meeting. So I have a backup standard webcam - the Logitech Brio. The Brio is by default pointed to my sitting location while the Canon by default is on the standing location. The Brio features Windows Hello login support and good software for configuring field of view and zoom.

A microphone without distractions

The Elgato Wave-3 is a solid microphone. Easy setup. Makes me sound like a radio host. Only con is that it’s not very omni-directional - needs to be within a foot or two of my mouth or it gets a bit of echo. Most of the time it can be out of frame, but just barely so, and I am often a bit self conscious about whether it is placed right. I am still on the hunt for a good microphone that can capture an entire room without sounding like a Wall Street earnings call, although the one embedded in the Logitech Brio is not bad.

More info on lighting

I mentioned above that the primary lighting are two Elgato Key Light Airs. It is software controlled in intensity and warmness. Easy to set up. Makes a huge difference in video quality. I removed the cam lighting right above my set-up to avoid direct lighting from above. I also put in a spot light behind me that I can turn on with a foot pedal.

Cool looking speakers that deliver good sound with no chance of distortion

There is a warm place in my heart for the Creative brand harking back to my early computing experience installing Sound Blaster cards. =) The USB-C & Bluetooth Creative Pebble speakers look sleek and are perfect for audio calls. I had some issues with USB-C connection dropping but Bluetooth has been fine. I avoided any speaker that plugged into Line In as I didn’t want to deal with static and distortion.

Adjustable position monitor & keyboard tray

I originally tried the studio without a monitor - my hypothesis was I would be more focused on the meeting and reduce eye and neck strain. But I find the number of meetings I can drive or attend from The Studio doubled if I have a larger screen to project from, especially if the monitor height can be adjusted. I went with a monitor with no trim and this stand.

Inventory of Stuff

Coda on Privilege

We end most of our posts on Mind The Beet with a reflection of privilege and visibility to some great volunteer and charity opportunities. And boy, if any post we’ve done on Mind The Beet needs a reflection on privilege, it’s the post on how I spent the Grown Up Money on a side house project.

I’m so thankful for the opportunity that the technology industry has provided to support our family. I’m passionate about providing that to as many people as possible. I’ve discussed before how we support our alma mater’s diversity in engineering and student projects efforts. I especially like the funds that pay for creative student technical projects and student clubs.

I also respect my colleagues at Microsoft who volunteer for a program called TEALS. It embeds Microsoft engineers in high school computer science classrooms. I felt like I never got a practical/vocational view of the tech industry until I was much older and having practitioners contextualize and inspire youth is critical to growing the number of families who benefit from the economic growth of tech.