Finally, a meeting tool that considers how remote teams actually work
by Tobias van Schneider
The world has finally gone remote without looking back. And with this new era, it’s time to improve how we collaborate online. That begins with a new meeting tool.
As teams were forced to quickly adapt to remote life this year, we picked up existing tools and filled our calendars with remote meetings. We were thrown headfirst into this environment and we made it work because we had to. Now it’s time to more consciously shape, and improve, how we work as remote teams.
Online meeting tools have been bad since they first existed. They are confusing and clunky. Weirdly gated and difficult to access. Always intrusive and in the way. Yet we’ve used them every day because we didn’t have many other options.
A meeting tool made specifically with creative teams in mind, Around is the first tool I’ve seen that acknowledges and addresses how people actually work together online – and makes it better.
This year, the word “fatigue” has literally become synonymous with big-brand meeting tools. Yes, it’s partly due to the sheer amount of online meetings we’re having now. But assuming meetings won’t go away anytime soon, it only makes sense to improve our process and tools. And Around is a good place to start.
Less intrusive, more energizing
We’ve become accustomed lately to our colleagues seeing our bedrooms. It’s become normal to show up to a call wearing sweatpants or see children running around half naked in the background of our videos. And while it’s great that the messiness of real life is accepted now, it doesn’t exactly feel right to invite our clients and coworkers into such a deeply personal space every day.
On top of that, we’re staring at our own faces in high-definition all day on these calls. The energy and attentiveness that requires, even for the least vain of us, is exhausting and unnatural.
Around recognizes how intrusive meeting tools are and aims to change that. One of its most appealing features is the AI camera framing which focuses on your face and eliminates background noise. That may be a window, a child, an unmade bed or a partner working from the same office. With the camera tight on your faces, all the distractions and intrusions are removed. It also uses AI to silence background noise, so a barking dog or siren outside your apartment isn’t disrupting everyone on the call.
Around also offers video filters (what they call “anti-fatigue” filters) you can add and change with a click. At first they might seem fun but unnecessary. Then you realize how lovely it is to soften the video and feel a little less exposed on camera. Even just a black & white filter feels nicer, so you’re less self conscious and more focused. Or you can just change your whole face to an emoji, if you prefer.
As a highly independent, meeting-averse creative team, any sort of conference feels like an invasion of space. We usually do our calls with audio only, to avoid having to show our face and our coffee-cup strewn home offices. While we expected a visual call to feel awkward and forced, it was fun on Around. Turns out, it’s nice to see the faces of people you work with sometimes. (And when it’s not, Around has audio-only rooms.)
Floating mode: The closest thing to being in the same room
The best Around feature is one that should have existed ages ago. The app allows you enter “floating mode,” where your video transitions seamlessly between windows and floats on top.
Current tools force you to jump between your browser, apps and other tools, back and forth between the work and the meeting. It’s annoying, disorienting and distracting. It’s especially nerve-wracking when you’re presenting your screen and fumbling to navigate while others watch. We’ve all Frankensteined configurations so our meeting window is squished in one corner, and our work in the other. It never works well.
With Around, this is no longer the case. As we reviewed designs as a team, our faces floated above it. When we switched between our design tool, our browsers and Slack, our little videos stayed with us at the top of the screen. It felt like we were in the same room together, reading expressions and having a more naturally collaborative conversation. We were focused less on the mechanics of the call, and more on the actual work and conversation – which is how it should be.
Our first question when we started a design review in Around was: "OK, how do I make you the presenter?"
We quickly found out those annoying features aren’t a thing in Around. If someone wants to present, they just share their screen. When it’s the next person’s turn to present, they simply take over. Everyone’s on the same level, in the same room, with the ability to easily participate or lead the conversation. While our old tools would have you believe that’d lead to chaos, confusion and burning office buildings, it just worked.
Around's conversational features give everyone a chance to pitch in. If you want to jump in quickly with a question, just type H and a raised-hand emoji appears next to your face. To share quick feedback or praise without interrupting a conversation, just type it as a comment and it appears below your video. The GIF and emoji reactions add some levity and energy to the room as well.
Even better, you can easily chat and share screenshots or images (at native resolution) within Around as you talk. As soon as someone drops in a screenshot, you’re taken to Image Sharing mode where you can view the images in a gallery (as opposed to in a sidebar squeezed in the corner of your screen and quickly buried). If you send a chat, it’s immediately visible and sent as an email to all members after the call ends. If you send a link, it appears under your face in the call so we can quickly find and click it.
For those teams that will eventually be hybrid-remote, Around also has a feature called EchoTerminator, which automatically syncs people's mics if they're in the same room. That way everyone can gather with their own laptop like they're used to (instead of huddling around a conference room TV), without any echo or feedback.
Overall, everything feels less stiff and more free-flowing in Around, making it easier to work together. The conversation moves with you just as it does in real life.
A tool that just makes sense
Have you ever set up a meeting with old school meeting tools? First you need the right access to the tool, depending on the license the company has. Then you need to navigate through clunky UI to figure out how exactly to schedule the call. Then you need to copy & paste a confusing paragraph of text, numbers and links into an email or calendar invite. Oh, and there’s a meeting code. Make sure you have the meeting code. Or don’t. Sometimes you don’t need it and nobody’s ever sure when or why.
Why is it so complicated?
With Around, you just enter the room and you’re in the meeting. My team set up a HOVS room, sent me a link and we were all instantly connected (it felt a lot like gaming platforms in this way).
If you decide you need to take a Slack conversation to a face-to-face meeting, you all just jump in the room from the Around app. If you want to schedule a meeting for the future, you click the button and a short link is automatically copied for you. It’s easy because… why shouldn’t it be?
I’m a firm believer that our tools should stay as out of the way as possible. The more naturally they integrate into our lives, rather than forcing us to integrate to their system, the better. From everything I’ve seen so far from Around, this is their goal. They’ve recognized the soul-sucking, energy sapping nature of our existing tools and built something that supports how we naturally work and communicate.