Colm Doyle A Developer Relations professional in Dublin, Ireland.

Improving your video conference setup

A desk with various items on it, including a microphone, a monitor and a DSLR as a camera.

After a year of entirely virtual meetups and conferences, it seems unlikely at this point that we’ll ever go back to 100% in-person events. Like workplaces, most events seem to be leaning towards a hybrid model, with participants attending both in person, and virtually over a livestream. So with that in mind, what investments should you be making in your setup to ensure that when you choose to participate virtually, you’re not giving a sub-par experience to the people attending your talk?

When reading the advice below, it’s important to remember that i’m coming at this from my perspective as a Developer Advocate. My job involves far more conference speaking than most, so it’s entirely possible that my setup is complete overkill for the majority of situations, but some people just like to invest in these things, so if you’re not into public speaking, but long for your Zoom game to be on point, then have at it, I’m not here to judge!

You get out what you put in

This is probably obvious, but up to a certain point, the more you spend, the better a result you’ll get. That isn’t to say you can’t lower the costs here and there, but the reality is that all these things should be considered an investment and the costs viewed accordingly. Where possible, I’ve included both expensive and cheaper options. I’ve used many of these at some point, so can stand over them, but where I haven’t had the chance to try something yet, I’ll mention that.


If you’re just starting out, audio is 100% where you should start. People will forgive poor video, but if they can’t hear you speaking clearly, then staying engaged with your content will be a real challenge.

Higher end option - Yeti by Blue ($130)

A Yeti by Blue microphone
Yeti by Blue

The Yeti by Blue is almost a defacto standard now for people running smaller podcasts and is what I use. You can adjust the gain, have different settings for one person using it versus multiple, you can mount it or have it on your desk, and easiest of all, it supports USB, so you don’t need a second piece of hardware to run it through.

For a sense of what results the Yeti gives, every episode of Klokta was recorded using one, so feel free to check that out.

Mid-range option - Snowball by Blue ($70)

At about half the price, the Snowball is Blue’s “budget” option. I’ve never used it myself, but it’s well regarded and as the name implies, is from the same manufacturer as the Yeti, so has some similar benefits.

Budget conscious option - The mic on your headphones

If you can’t afford to get a dedicated microphone, at a minimum you should use the microphone on your cellphone’s headphones. If you have AirPods or AirPods Pro, even better, use those. It’s moving the microphone a lot closer to your mouth, and the AirPods do fancy beam-forming things.


There’s no getting around the fact that $1300 is a lot for what you’d essentially be using as a webcam. But if you want to justify it to yourself, I’d point out that you can take it off the mount when you’re not presenting and you have a very good camera for taking photos of your kids, nature, friends etc.

A Yeti by Blue microphone
Sony a6400 w/ Sigma Lens

Anyway, this is definitely going to give you a serious step up from the built-in webcam you’re probably using. The Sony a6400 has super fast auto focus, an intuitive UI and a flip up LCD so you can position yourself. Pair that with a 30mm Sigma Prime Lens to give you that nice bokeh (blurred background) and you’re gonna look great.

For an example of the kind of output you can expect, here’s a recording of an event I did that was pushed through Zoom then through Facebook, so you can imagine there’s a lot of compression going on and the result I think still looks pretty good. If you skip to around the 20 minute mark, my video is full screen and that will give you the best impression.

It’s a popular choice for Streamers, YouTubers and other video professionals, so there’s a wealth of information out there on how to configure it best, plus it’s widely supported. One last thing though. The a6400 apparently supports directly connecting over USB, but I was recommended to use an Elgato CamLink 4K and did so, but that could be a way to shave $120 off your costs.

Mid-range option - Logitech Brio ($199)

Coming in at just under $200, the Logitech Brio is still pretty pricey for a Webcam, but I’ve been told by those who own them (I do not) that the quality is top notch, as it pushes out 4K quality video.

Budget conscious option - Reincubate Camo ($39 per year)

A screenshot of a recording that used Reincubate Camo
Reincubate Camo

If you have an iPhone, then Reincubate Camo is a great investment. For about a year I paired it with my iPhone XS and got really great results. It was a vast improvement from the Logitech C920 I had.


Once you’ve settled on video and audio, you’re likely already in a good spot, but if you want to go further, the next thing I’d consider is lighting. I have two different lights I use when recording. Even one of these is going to be pretty good.

Higher end option - Elgato Key Light ($199)

An Elgato Key Light
Elgato Keylight

I use a single Key Light clamped to my desk and offset to my right. The warmth of the light is adjustable from very bluish to very yellowish, and the output is adjustable from barely on to staring directly into the sun. It doesn’t get warm and has some nice touches like being controllable from my laptop (vs a physical button).

Mid range option - Generic Ring Lights (starting from $10)

A generic ring light
Ring light

I originally started out with $50 ring light that I bought on Amazon. It’s since been discontinued, but Amazon has an almost unlimited supply of these things. What you’re looking for when considering them is

  • Can you adjust the brightness? (Ideally yes)
  • Is their a mount for your camera / phone built in? (Ideally yes)
  • Does it plug into the wall or into USB? (I prefer USB, but this is personal preference)
  • What size is it? (My one has an inner diameter of 8 inches and that feels about right)

Budget conscious option - Sunlight (free I guess?)

If you’re tapped out budget wise, but still look dark, consider if you can move your desk so that you face a window, because natural light can be pretty flattering. What you absolutely don’t want in the background is a large light source like a window or bright lamp. No amount of camera trickery will compensate well for that.

All the other things

Once you’ve gotten all of the above sorted, you’re really into over-engineering for most situations. But I love a good gadget as much as the next person, so here’s a few other bits and pieces I use regularly

An iPad Mini running Stream Deck Mobile
Stream Deck Mobile
  • Stream Deck Mobile ($25 per year): I had an old iPad Mini that wasn’t doing anything else, so I purchased Stream Deck Mobile and stuck it on a stand. It’s definitely helpful as you can configure it to control just about anything from Zoom to your lights, to playing random noises in meetings. If you don’t have a spare iPad or iDevice lying around, you can also buy a physical Stream Deck for a significantly higher cost from Elgato.
  • Elgato Green Screen ($160): I really only pull this out for videos where I’ll do a bunch of post-production, but it’s a helpful tool, especially if you can’t really otherwise control your background due to space constraints etc. The screen shot in the “Reincubate Camo” section above involved the green screen.
  • Jarvis Hardwood Standing Desk (starts at $1139): You’re going to need somewhere to put all this stuff obviously, and I put mine on a Jarvis hardwood desk. It’s adjustable over a wide range and is big enough to hold everything comfortably.

The content is still the star

The choices I’ve made in terms of equipment reflect what works for me and I’m sure many others have made equally valid choices, both more expensive and cheaper. It’s important to remember though, that at the end of the day, video and audio equipment are just tools to help make your content shine. But if that content isn’t polished to start with, no amount of fancy lenses or shiny lights will make it interesting. Be sure you invest the time and effort there before you worry about how you look or sound.

Flexibility shouldn't mean always-on

A desk with various items on it, including two notebooks, a MacBook and a pair of AirPods. One of the notebooks has a to-do list and a planner.

As parts of the planet, but not all, start to see light at the end of the COVID tunnel, many companies have started to formalize their plans for post-COVID working conditions. Technology companies in particular are considering a “hybrid” or a “fully distributed” model, whereby you can choose to either come into a pre-agreed company office for 2/3 days per week and work from somewhere else for the balance, or work in a location of your choosing all of the time, usually in line with some requirements around tax laws and local corporate entities.

But there’s another consideration being discussed in addition to location, and that’s when you work. Companies are recognizing that punching a clock and working a strict 9-5 doesn’t work for many, especially people with family commitments, or people who just like to keep a different schedule for whatever reason. There are benefits to this approach, especially when it comes widening the pool of people you can recruit, hopefully leading to a more talented and diverse employee base. But as we embrace the positives of this, we must also be cognizant of the potential downsides, so we can build protections into this new normal.

In a world where you’re measured not by the hours you put in, but by your output, how do we avoid creating a situation where you end up working significantly more than before because of unreasonable output expectations, especially across cultures and timezones.

The pitfalls of unlimited flexibility

The clearest cautionary tale in this regard is “unlimited” paid time off (PTO). On the face of it, unlimited PTO could be considered an extremely employee-friendly policy. No more counting your days, no more stressing about whether you’ll have enough left over if your kids are sick or whether you’ll have to work over the end of year holidays.

But time and time again, unlimited PTO has led to people taking less time off. People move from a model of earning time off that belongs to them and they spend as they see fit, to time off being in the gift of their line manager, and suddenly every PTO request feels like an imposition you’re placing on your team. Some teams that embraced unlimited PTO in the past have even moved to “minimum vacation” policies to counter this effect.

Now imagine that atmosphere of imposition, but applied to when you close your laptop for the last time in a given day. You can easily picture people feeling pressured to crank out one more thing because their team has unreasonable expectations, whereas before, knowing that it was around 5:30pm would have drawn a natural line under the working day and given you explicit permission to step away from your keyboard. Ask yourself, what cultural norms should you and your team establish to recreate that “time to log-off” mentality?

Your time, your ideas?

As I write this post, I wouldn’t consider myself “at work”, but I also know that I didn’t punch a time card and sit down at my desk this morning at 9am, because Slack isn’t overly concerned with the hours I keep. But who owns these words? Do I? Does Slack?

Intellectual Property clauses are a common feature of many tech company contracts and the traditional way to establish ownership boundaries over this sort of output. Frequently they suggest that anything you create using company hardware or on company time is the property of the company. Simple enough you’d think. But consider this - I’m writing these words on my personally purchased iOS device, using software I funded myself, and will upload them to my personal GitHub. That certainly seems to make them mine. But, content creation is part of my job. It’s what I’m paid to do, so arguably Slack could claim ownership under my current employment contract. And since Slack doesn’t demand I work set hours, who’s to say what’s company time and what’s my time?

Realistically I don’t think Slack’s legal team will worry about the ownership of this content, but someone somewhere is writing the next Google. Assuming that person is employed right now, I’d imagine that their employer would be very interested in that IP. For all concerned, this is another example of how agreements will need to evolve.

Use your mobility to shape your company’s approach

Those of us in the technology sector, particularly Product Managers, Designers and Engineers, have never had so many choices of where to work. There are few other industries where it is truly a job seeker’s market. And that means that employers, at least the good ones, are hyper-conscious of the challenge of retaining talented staff and will do what it takes to hold on to people. That’s a privilege that you should use to your advantage when it comes to influencing how your company will approach these decisions. As I said in Building for the new normal, the time to consider this is now.

Decisions […] need to be made before the industry starts to fall back on what worked in the past, even if it’s no longer fit for purpose.

Companies everywhere are currently discussing what work will look like in the future, and many are circling the model where the hours you put in are less important. I think this approach can provide many benefits, but we should all be careful that we don’t sleepwalk into a situation where in the name of flexibility, we end up ceding some protections - like the ability to own our ideas or to turn off our work devices - because as tempting as clearing a red notification bubble can be, that Slack message can probably wait for tomorrow.

Et tu, booth?

Attendees at a conference

If the move to virtual events over the last year has done anything, it has laid bare the fact that sponsored conference booths, both physical and virtual, are a waste for everyone involved. Don’t get me wrong, for in-person events, I actually enjoy staffing a booth. But I think the return on investment, particularly when you’re serving a developer community just isn’t there to justify the cost. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to start thinking about how we can better spend that money.

So let’s talk about the real stakeholders when it comes to booths and how they’re involved in this mini-economy of sponsorship packages:

The sponsors

For the sponsors, a booth is an opportunity to aggressively market their wares to attendees, like the conference equivalent of a silk route bazaar, usually generating leads for sales teams to build on. The traditional measure of these leads is “badge scanning”, where sponsors are issued with scanners that are then used to read your conference badge, giving them access to the details you provided to the organiser when you registered. Badge scanning is a really easy way to measure the return on your sponsorship dollars, but it’s not a particularly targeted way to interact with your community, and in a GDPR world, god only knows if it’s being done in a legally sound way.

That’s not to say that some companies don’t do booths well, but they’re the outliers from what I’ve seen at events.

Mark Zuckerberg answering questions at a Town Hall
Web Summit, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

And there’s such variance in the booth experience. You have tiny startups sinking a relatively large percentage of their budget just to get a postage stamp of pre-built space, all the way to large scale companies who will (sometimes literally) build a bespoke small village of booths.

But for the most part, regardless of the size, a company will sponsor a booth to do one thing - get your contact details to sell you something now or in the future.

The organisers

For organisers, booths are basically a way to pay the bills, which we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’re using that income to lower the cost of entry, enabling a more diverse set of attendees, and that’s reasonable. Some percentage though are just using it to maximise profits. But I seriously doubt any conference organiser proactively wants booths. They’re a means to an end, a way to pay for all the stuff they actually want at the event.

I think the only exception here is when the booth is run by the organiser. If you’re going to the likes of F8, WWDC or Dreamforce, then having booths run by the various different product teams makes sense, because really the whole event is a marketing effort, and the reason you’re attending is probably exactly to meet with the people at that company. Outside of that specific use case though, I think the above holds true.

The attendees

That just leaves us with the final stakeholder, the attendees. These are people who the event is supposedly for, but as in this article, are usually the last folks on the list when thinking about the value of the booth. Have you ever met who bought a ticket to an event thinking - “I cannot wait to have an opportunity to share my contact details with companies who want to sell me things”? I certainly haven’t. Networking, sure, but signing up to be called by a Sales Development Rep? If you believe they do, can I scan your badge, cause I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

For attendees, the “expo area” - which is a fancy name for the booth village sponsors have built, is a place to go to kill time. It’s nearly impossible for organisers to put together a schedule of content where you’ll be engaged the whole time, so there are points in your day where you’ll have some free time. During that free time, most people will grab a coffee and head to the booth area to wander around.

And this is where we get back to virtual events and the role they’ve played in bringing down the booth ecosystem. If you’re sitting at your desk, or your couch, or wherever you’re working from that day, when you have downtime in between the content (usually the primary reason someone attends an event), would you rather go to a “virtual booth”, or would you, I dunno, do something productive like make some food or catch up on work.

The environmental impact of all this

And none of this even takes into account the environmental costs of booths. There’s the impact of flying in the staff, the materials used to build the booth, the materials to produce the leaflets, the swag, the shipping of all that to the venue, the time it takes to produce all those things and more. And for a lot of organisations, these materials are considered single-use, even the very booth itself.

On the Developer Relations team at Slack, before the pandemic put a halt to in-person events, we made the decision to cut down on per-event custom booths, focusing instead of something we could re-use. We also decided that when we gave out swag, we could give items that were extremely low impact, or at least somewhat useful. Nobody needs another company branded 50c pen in their life.

With in-person events starting to be planned, I think we’ll definitely see some large budget events, especially the self-organised types like Dreamforce or Google I/O, but society continues to quite rightly frown upon organisations who ignore their environmental responsibilities, so I don’t see my team’s approach changing here. If anything I suspect we’ll be more aggressive.

Be an authentic community member

If you’re trying to be authentically part of a community, you need to ask yourself what value are you bringing by having a booth at an event?

Maybe you’re doing it to give your community an opportunity to come ask you questions, and certainly once COVID restrictions begin to ease and it’s safe to do so, there is value in having real life face to face time with your community, but if spending money on a conference ticket in the hope that the right person is staffing a booth is the only way your community can reach you, then you might have much bigger problems with your outreach strategy.

If you really want to help the community, maybe the better approach is to work with a local community organiser to use what you would have spent on booths to fund their regular meet-up, the one that will continue long after the conference venue has been converted to whatever the next show in town is.

When you struggle to write

A cropped image of a mechanical typewriter

It’s staring at you, making you feel stupid. It’s an empty page, or a blinking cursor in a document of zero kb.

You want to write something. The will is there, but the idea just won’t come. You look back through your previous ideas, you voraciously consume content. Podcasts, other writers posts, your favorite websites. You seek out inspiration like a dry sponge, you wish for liquid. But it’s not coming and you’ve promised yourself you would write more, and you want to stick to your schedule. So what can you do to get going?

Tend to your ideas like a garden

I’ve said before that when I have an idea for a piece of content, as soon as I can, I write it down. Writing it down can mean many things. Sometimes it’s a paragraph or two, sometimes it’s some bullet points, but more often than not, it’s a single sentence.

I think of this like planting seeds in a garden. Some will grow almost instantly and be ready for publishing that week. Others may take weeks or months to bloom. It’s that garden of ideas that I visit whenever I’m stuck. If you don’t already, start tending to your own garden of ideas, and hopefully you’ll always have some content ready to harvest.

To produce, you should consume

If you’re in the business of creating content, you should also be consuming as much content as you can too. This isn’t a case of “good writers borrow, great writers steal”, but more that reading the work of others will help you form an opinion on topics that interest you, and from those opinions you’ll be able to write content that appeals to you and hopefully others.

I often say that when you can’t get a designer to help you build a visual asset, just do it yourself, because they’ll either be ok with what you’ve made, or be so horrified that they give you a better asset. Either way, you have the asset. Consuming other people’s content is kind of the same. You either find an topic you agree with and want to expand on, or you feel so strongly that you want to counter their opinion.

Give old content a new home

Martin Beeby from the AWS DevRel team has it absolutely right when he talks about assets and activities. In most Developer Relations work, creating new content doesn’t always mean writing a blog post. You speak on podcasts, you record videos or talk at events.

Sometimes the best way to getting out of a rut writing-wise is to take something that’s already been fully formed and look at ways to repurpose it. So try taking a blog post and turn it into your next talk. Or rewrite it into a script for a podcast episode.

When all else fails, just write about it

I was once involved in a conversation about the point of internal company hackathons, and a point raised by someone there really stuck with me. He said that we all have ideas we want to pursue that aren’t on the roadmap, or funded. They’re the kind of idea that if you just get started, you’ll be able to rapidly prototype it and make your case. But it’s finding the time to get the ball rolling that always blocked you, and that was were the hackathon came in. It gave you the space to get started.

Unlike regular hackathons, I reckon that writing about your inability to write something is probably a chip you can only cash in once, but when you do, you might find that everything else clicks back into place and you’ll have your 1% written. Now to just write the other 99%.

Building for the new normal

A shot of a video conference with a woman who can be seen smiling on screen. A man is sitting in front of the computer.

As the world starts to look toward a post COVID work environment, the commonly accepted wisdom seems to be that a Monday to Friday 9-5 routine in a central office is no longer the default expectation for knowledge workers.

Instead, particularly in the technology sector, a lot of companies are moving to either a fully distributed workforce, or a hybrid one where you spend only a small percentage of your time co-located with your team. And whilst most of the focus has been on what that means in terms of physical real estate and employee compensation, I think the interesting long term changes will be in the digital tooling that we all rely on day to day. A lot of these product and organisational trends have been bubbling under the surface for some time now, but over the last few months and in the coming years, those trends have started to accelerate, bringing about a new way of working that some believe were inevitable. In the past year, developers rushed to adapt tools to a fully distributed environment, but the challenge presented by the next twelve months and beyond is how to make those tools work in the hybrid environment many of us will inhabit.

So in a world where someone new to the organization can no longer learn how it works by sitting next to their teammates and tapping them on the shoulder, how should your existing tooling adapt and what new approaches to tooling does this new style of working enable?

Learning through discovery

The traditional model of your teammates explaining how a tool works, showing you how a tool works, and finally letting you try those tools for yourself will, I believe, fail to deliver.

Tools for this new future of work will need to focus not just on the initial onboarding experience, but will also need to work with existing collaboration tools like Slack, Teams and even email, to make usage of the tool visible in ways that allow people to learn the particular quirks of how their team uses it.

Let’s take code review for example. Imagine you’re a new engineer, and you’re in a project channel in your company’s Slack workspace or a Workplace by Facebook Group. It’s day one and you can see Pull Request notifications from the GitHub app, so you now know that your team prefers to do their code reviews there. Importantly, you didn’t have to already be subscribed to GitHub email notifications, because modern collaboration tools shouldn’t rely on outdated patterns like the information silos that are email inboxes.

When you click into the review, GitHub is already showing you what the CI/CD pipeline looks like because the list of checks are surfaced right beside the merge button. Some tools even post information like coverage reports directly into the pull request. And because Pull Requests are all about collaboration, you can get a sense for what matters to your team when code is being reviewed, because you’re doing it all together inside the GitHub UI.

You’re being guided through the whole process, from the pull request being surfaced in a group setting like a channel, all the way through to providing you with a list of CI tools that you’ll need to familiarise yourself with. It’s this kind of collaborative behaviour that needs to exist in all tooling.

Collaborative by design

I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost count of the number of times over the last twelve months that I wished I could just round up my team, jump into a meeting room with an actual whiteboard and some post-it notes to just figure something out.

Whilst Google Docs in particular has been held up as an example of best-in-class collaborative document editing, I’ve yet to see the experience of being “in the room” replicated well in a digital tool. It’s entirely possible this is just a function of my own personal working style, but I’ve had enough folks express similar thoughts to me that I know I’m definitely not alone or even in a small minority.

The tools that are needed for the next 5 years and beyond will have to weave online and asynchronous (or indeed synchronous) collaboration into the very fabric of their product, not as a mere feature or add-on.

The Room Where It Happens

Early in the second act of Hamilton, Aaron Burr laments the fact that he wasn’t in “the room where it happened”. As someone who has spent the bulk of his career working from Ireland, but with the majority of my teammates in a California HQ, I can definitely sympathize with how Burr felt.

How many times have you been the only person dialling into a meeting room full of people, and felt like you’re observing the meeting instead of participating in it? In one way, forcing everyone to work from home has been a great leveller in this regard because when everyone is on zoom, no one group dominates conversation. In the whiteboard scenario I mentioned, when you involve video conferencing, I think you have two equally awful choices - Either point the (inevitably poor resolution) camera at the whiteboard and hope the folks on the zoom can make it out, but then have no way to contribute, or you use some kind of online mind mapping software where everyone in the physical room has sit in front of their laptops and the folks on zoom have to choose between looking at the screen or seeing their colleagues. Google Jamboard feels like a step in the right direction, but not every company can afford to kit out a room with a full video conferencing setup and spend $5,000 on a fancy whiteboard.

Some changes that need to happen, for meetings in particular, will be larger, like the whiteboard collaboration use case, but others will be smaller affordances that make life easier for the people running the meeting. Today for example, when you get a meeting invite, your options are Yes, No, or maybe. Perhaps in the future, when you answer yes, Google Calendar would ask you if you’ll be attending in person or over Zoom/Hangouts. Then the system can ensure you’re assigned a meeting room that (a) is the correct size and (b) has the facilities you’ll need in terms of cameras / whiteboards and more.

Whatever the solution, the experience of dialling into a meeting will need to be re-imagined or the people who choose to work outside one of the company’s hubs will once again be relegated to the role of observers. And in this hybrid world, regardless of where we choose to work from, we all deserve to be in the room where it happens.

Seamless security

If you can’t rely on traditional security approaches like a strictly controlled office network, how do you secure tools? People will inevitably follow the path of least resistance, so the key as always with security is balancing the most secure route with the most convenient route, especially when you talk about data leaving an organization.

As an example of following the path of least resistance, you would be astonished at the number of people who conduct business over consumer messaging apps like WhatsApp or Signal. It honestly boggles my mind until you consider that the alternative for most people is email, which despite being the defacto standard for decades, is, well, not very good.

It lacks all sorts of features that people have come to expect from messaging, like the ability to leave or join a conversation, or inline attachments that actually work well, and just the societal expectation of a formal style of communicating when emailing.

So given that alternative, people chose what they were comfortable with. The path of least resistance. But the likes of WhatsApp or iMessage are, by their very design, consumer messaging tools. They lack features that are table stakes for corporate messaging, like e-discovery features to comply with legal requests, data loss prevention systems, audit trails and more. It was this gap that Slack leveraged when they launched Slack Connect.

Connect took the consumer level features that the every day user enjoys, with the enterprise protections that a company needs to protect themselves. And because sending a DM or creating a multi-company channel in Slack Connect only requires the other party’s email addresses, it’s pretty easy to create the connection, so there’s no real need to lean on your consumer messaging app of choice. Which is a good thing, because whatever about the company’s legal obligations, if you’re going to maintain a good work/life balance, it’s probably better not to mix how you talk to your friends and how you talk to your customers.

Flexible schedules, not 24/7 ones

When I talk about an entire class of products weaving something into their fabric, the most recent product shifts that come to mind are closely connected to each other - the adoption of “social” features such as algorithmic ranking, and the shift to a “mobile first” mindset. Both of these were transformative in the software industry, came within a few years of each other, and many would argue, haven’t been 100% positive.

The tendency in both these shifts was to chase engagement metrics at all costs, which led people to craft addictive experiences where success was based on how long you kept people in your product without considering if that cumulative time was a net positive for your user’s physical or mental health.

In the current shift, especially for the work based tooling I’m talking about, we have an opportunity to learn from these mistakes and create experiences that add value, but are respectful of the work/life balance of our users.

This isn’t about your product dictating work schedules to people, but instead creating new incentives that don’t encourage constantly checking in with colleagues. What you’re looking for is ways to give users control about how they guard their time, and from a cultural perspective, encouraging the use of those guardrails. You want to offer this flexibility, because in all likelihood, the schedules of your team can vary wildly, and employees will start to expect their work schedule to be flexible. As examples of tools that are already started to weave this into their design, you could look at Slack and Google Calendar.

Slack encourages users to tell it when they want to be available and when to leave them alone through custom “Do not disturb” schedules. Similarly, Google Calendar recently rolled out the ability to more granularly control your availability for meetings, as well as setting repeatable periods of “out of office” time, where they would automatically decline meeting invites without you having to be notified.

The digital water cooler

Perhaps one of the most controversial side effects of moving to primarily digital communication is the extent to which some companies want to, and can, decide what employees can discuss at work.

Obviously the notion of company policies around acceptable behaviour at work have been around for some time, but it’s the extent to which a primarily digital environment allows employers to actually monitor and enforce these policies that’s different now. It’s a lot harder to see what goes on “around the water cooler” vs in your company tools.

With all of our workplace communication flowing through those tools, the line between casual conversations with colleagues and what you’d expect to appear in a court document is blurring further and further.

Features that enhance user safety, or legally important things like e-discovery are usually less controversial, but the extent to which your tooling is perceived as enabling the suppression of speech in the workplace is a harder line to toe.

The time to consider these problems is already here

We’re now over a year into this forced global work-from-home experiment. What was previously a fluid pandemic mandated experience will soon become like poured concrete, setting quickly and hard to change after the fact. Decisions about the kind of tooling we want to create need to be made before the industry starts to fall back on what worked in the past, even if it’s no longer fit for purpose.

As the people who are ultimately building these tools for the future of work, it’s our collective responsibility to be sure that the products we design help to create the best possible environments for everyone. We owe it to ourselves not to dodge that responsibility.