Virtual Events: How to Get the Most From Them

I’ve attended a few different virtual events now since all this pandemic craziness began, and have built up a list of tips and tricks to help people maximize the benefits they can receive from participating in online events like these.

The last event I attended was the Magento Association’s Connect event on Thursay May 28, 2020. I really enjoyed the event, it’s definitely the best event I’ve attended so far. Previously, I’ve attended the online Adobe Connect and Microsoft Build events. Those two honestly felt like little more than a youtube channel playing pre-recorded videos. This is not mean to criticize the organizers of any event, this is new territory for lots of us! There’s definitely a trade-off between interactivity and having more polished video content.

Ok, here we go with my tips:

Test Your Audio/Video
This is important for in-person events, and even more important now. Each different platform can bring all sorts of weird wrinkles and issues. Test your audio/video as much as you can ahead of time! Just because it seems to work in Zoom does not mean it’ll necessarily work in whatever online platform that is being used. Even if you’re not presenting, it’s wise to make sure it all works. You may want to try using a DLSR camera rather than your built-in camera if you can set that up, the quality will probably be a lot better.

Test Screensharing
If possible, test out how screen-sharing works – make sure you know how to start sharing, if you have to choose a window only to share, or a part of the screen, etc. Are you still visible via your camera while sharing your screen? If you’re presenting, be sure to ask for a test session ahead of time to catch any issues.

Know Your Microphone
This is kind of related to the importance of testing audio and video ahead of time, but have an idea how your mic works. Does it pick up a lot of “other” audio? If you have a boom type mic sitting right in front of your mouth, maybe not – but then it’s going to pick up all sorts of other noises from you. If you you have a lot of background noise, maybe a different mic (or muting) is a good idea…

Font Size and Slides
Sometimes the video quality of shared screens and slides can be iffy at best – so if you are presenting your best bet is to make your slide text big and clear. This is a challenge for developer-oriented talks where a lot of code needs to be on the screen!

Maximize Your Profile
If possible, login and set up your profile as much as possible before the event. You want to make it as easy as possible to let people track you down online later – and you want to stand out in long lists of people attending, so add a profile photo if possible!

Close Those Apps
This is also important for presenting in-person, but even more for remote. Close (or mute) any apps on your computer that may interfere – especially if you’re presenting! No need to have that embarrassing slack message pop up during your presentation. Likewise, do you need all the slack “ping” sounds playing during your presentation? Or even worse, interrupting others’ presentations? And turn off your phone notifications – even just vibrate will cause noises to come through your mic in many cases.

Learn the Platform
Each of the platforms I’ve experienced has its quirks, like any other system. Learn where all the relevant controls are. Can you mute other people? How do you know if you’re muted? Is there a chat? How do you control that? Can you send private messages to other attendees? How do you see how many people are in a “room”… you get the picture.

Be Aware of Your Background
If you’re going to be on camera, check out ahead of time to make sure there’s nothing too embarrassing or distracting in your background. Check your lighting, will you look like someone out of a witness protection program because of poor lighting?

Benefits of Remote Work

As I’ve written about previously, I have a little more experience working remotely than many others who have been thrown into remote work due to the pandemic. For me, working remote is the norm so having to work from home hasn’t been a big jarring challenge, but it’s totally understandable that this “new normal” is causing problems for workers and employers alike.

I do think, however, that this is a huge opportunity for organizations – this is their chance to realize the benefits of remote work – and to discover that the changes that have to be made for an organization to handle remote work efficiently are extremely beneficial even if things go back to “normal” at some point.


The first key benefit that organizations will realize with a remote-capable workforce and ability – it gives far great flexibility. If your employees can work remotely as efficiently as when in office, it opens up options. Running out of office space, or need to close the office for renovations, etc – it’s no big deal because your employees can all work capably from home. This is not flexibility that you’d have otherwise.


Closely tied to flexibility – resilience means a remote-capable organization can roll with the punches way better than a traditional office-bound organization. We’re all seeing this right now because of the pandemic – but it could happen in much more mundane scenarios – fires, floods, power outages, etc. I once had to leave an office in a high-rise because of a fire alarm. By the time everyone filed down 18 floors and waited until 20+ floors of the building was clear – the day was lost. This would not happen with a remote-capable organization – either some of those employees would’ve been at home and unaffected, or we could’ve all just headed home (or to a coffee shop) and finished our work day productively.

Another way to look at this is that being remote-capable allows an organization to keep employees who may otherwise leave because they need to move to a new geographic location. This is an extremely common reason why employees leave – and everyone knows how expensive it is to train up a new employee. Keep them, let them work remote!

Expanding the Talent Pool

This should be a fairly obvious benefit – it’s simple supply and demand. By ignoring physical location, you are vastly expanding the pool of potential talent available to you. Even better, because of cost of living differences, your offer may be way more attractive to a potential remote employee than a local employee. The higher your area’s cost of living is in comparison, the more important this is. Silicon valley companies that don’t regularize remote work are at a huge disadvantage!

Enhancing Organization

This is probably worth a post all of itself, but the very act of making your organization ready for remote work will drastically enhance your organization, especially when it comes to project management. Remote workers need to be able to see everything necessary to work on a project – status, what is done already, requirements, deadlines, etc. The very act of pulling all this information together into one place, accessible to everyone, is also a huge boon to non-remote workers. It’s a win-win!

Cost Savings

Finally, what is probably the most obvious advantage of having remote workers – cost savings. By not having to pay for as much (or any) office space, a huge expense is removed from the balance sheet. Add in all the associated costs – insurance, power, internet access, cleaning, catering, etc – it makes a difference. Some of this should certainly be passed on to the employees in terms of salary increases or something else, but the fact remains that a remote organization is much leaner than a traditional brick and mortar office-based shop.

But… How Will I Know They’re Working?

I think the real reason behind much of the reluctance of organizations to embrace a remote office is the perceived lack of control. After all, how do you know your employees aren’t just playing video games and drinking their days away if you let them work from home and (gasp) set their own hours?

The real problem here is not a remote office issue – this is a management issue. Employees obviously need to be responsible and do their work. But this is not a factory floor – you can’t just measure how much time they spend staring at their screens and take that as measure of how “good” an employee is.

The issue is figure out the real KPIs (key performance indicators) that are appropriate for each role in an organization. This is not easy and never has been! But getting this right gives an organization an enormous advantage, both in terms of employee productivity, happiness and efficiency.

What you should not do is set up some sort of ridiculous surveillance system to make sure your employee is sitting in their seat and doing whatever you think they should bed doing. Employees should be rewarded for doing their jobs well, and you should be doing everything in your power to empower them to figure out how to do their jobs productively and efficiently.

If an employee slacks off and doesn’t get important work done, their KPIs should reflect that, and there should be consequences. And if they can get their job done right, their KPIs should also reflect that. Whether they’re sitting in their seat 8-5 is completely irrelevant and counterproductive. The point is to have empowered employees you can trust.

Remote Work – My Take

Ironically, I’d been planning on writing some travel-related posts here – never quite got around to it and now as pretty much everyone must suddenly work remotely thanks to the pandemic, I decided instead to write up some tips for those companies and individuals working remote for the first time.

I have worked remote for the majority of my time since 2002 or so. Most of that time has been either working at home, or wherever I happened to be at the time. My experience includes working for myself, or for an organization that was mostly not made up of remote employees. Of those organizations, one handled it pretty well… the other not so much.

You do You
So, nearly every remote work article I’ve seen talks about building a separation between your “work mode” and “live mode.” That’s great, but if it’s not working for you – find out what does. Everyone’s needs and job requirements are different. What makes sense for one may not for others.

I’ve been working remote for most of two decades. I’ve never had an office where only job stuff happens. I’ve always tended to migrate around the house and yard as I work, I find that a change of location and scenery helps me focus. That’s what works for me. Experiment, and see what works for you.

Learn to work with basics
Because I travel so much, I’ve learned to work with just the laptop. I’ve tried using giant monitors, or multiple monitors and honestly it doesn’t work – for me. One advantage I have then is that I can work pretty much anywhere I can sit down relatively comfortably – couch, hotel bed, desk, etc. All I really need is internet access.

Getting online is a key requirement. Our home wifi is decent but can go down. Hotel wifi is notoriously bad. It pays to know how to use the mobile hotspot mode on your phone when you need it – hopefully your phone and provider makes that possible!

Set up your app and mute yourself!
Do yourself a favor and learn how to set up whatever app(s) you use so that it starts up with your camera off and your mic muted. You can always turn them on manually once your meeting starts. This can prevent embarrassing mistakes!

And please, please mute yourself when you’re not talking. Zoom likes to change view to whoever it thinks is speaking – so if you have a dog barking or other noises in your background, it can be quite annoying to everyone else.

Apps like Zoom are very bandwidth intensive – you may get some mileage out of turning off your video if your connection is struggling. I know the pundits like to tout the benefits of being able to see the other people in your meeting, but in my experience most meetings revolve around a screenshare and having all the other people transmitting video does seem to strain a poor connection unnecessarily. So, in my opinion, it may be better for organizations to ask their employees to not have their video on by default.

Trust your employees
This brings up another much discussed element of the our new remote work world -some companies and managers can’t seem to figure out how to handle workers who aren’t in the office.

If your organization can’t seem to figure out if an employee is contributing when their not sitting in an office… you have a larger problem than how to handle remote work! Figuring out the right way to measure this is not an easy task, especially for developers. This is not a new problem – and there’s tons of discussion out there about it – but a very important one for leaders to focus on and continually try to improve. This pandemic may be just the chance to figure this out and reap the other benefits that come with having remote workers!