In 2020, we found that one of the top challenges remote workers face during video conference meetings are interruptions--and in 2021, this hasn't changed. If you're a remote employee or have ever joined a video call, you've probably experienced the dreaded sound of echoes. You might be trying your best to participate in the conversation, and then suddenly, everything you say echoes right back into your ears. It completely prevents you from being able to think, let alone contribute to the discussion.

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Your train of thought goes right out the window, and when you say, "I'm suddenly hearing an echo," everyone else shrugs their shoulders and moves on. You try to do whatever you can to fix it, like play with the volume on your computer or re-join the video meeting, but by the time you figure it out, you're off track and your productivity is shot.

Why Is My Audio Echoing?

The next time this happens, there's one incredibly important thing you need to know: If you're hearing an echo, you're not causing the echo.

Surprising, right? In other words, nothing you do will make it go away. You hear an echo when your voice is coming out of the speaker on the other end of the call and then back into the microphone in that same room, so the person (or room) on the other end of the meeting has to change something about their setup in order for you to be able to participate again.

Getting meetings started is one of the biggest challenges facing video conferencing users. If you're hosting a meeting with video conferencing software like Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, or Skype for Business, or if you're catching up with friends using apps like Houseparty and FaceTime, you might experience voice echoing.

Here are some tips for debugging echoes so that you can get back to the conversation as quickly as possible.

1. Understand the difference between echo vs. reverb

First, let's talk about echo and reverb. These are two different things that audiophiles know about but might be new to you. In the context of video meetings:

Voice Echoing

Echo is when the sound from the speaker comes back into the microphone. This often happens because the microphone and speaker are placed too close together, causing you to hear yourself on a slight delay after you speak.

Voice Reverb

Reverb is when your voice comes out of the speaker, bounces around the room, and then comes back into the mic. This often happens in rooms with lots of hard surfaces. It's more delayed than an echo, and you might describe it as sounding "cavernous."

Echo and reverb are fundamentally the same things -- sound passing from the speaker back to the mic. The key difference is how much the sound bounces around the room before returning into the mic, which also means they each require a slightly different fix. Echo problems can be resolved by changing hardware technology. Reverb, on the other hand, generally requires changes to the room itself (like adding soft surfaces to absorb the sound).

2. Plug in your headphones

If you ever hear an echo during a one-on-one conversation, headphones are often the easiest solution. If you're talking with only one other person when you start hearing an echo, ask the other person on the call to put their headphones on. Headphone mics rarely pick up the sound from the speaker, since the speaker is in your ears.

This also works if you're in a meeting where multiple individuals are joining the meeting from their laptops in different locations. If everyone wears headphones, there's a good chance you'll eliminate the echo.

3. Make meeting attendees mute themselves when they're not speaking

Solving echo problems gets more complicated as you add more people to the meeting. There are a couple of scenarios where echo might happen:

  • Multiple people in a single conference room talking to a couple of individuals joining the meeting from different locations
  • Multiple groups of people joining the meeting from multiple conference rooms
  • Multiple groups of people in multiple conference rooms and multiple individuals joining the meeting from different locations

In the above cases, there isn't a quick solution that won't interrupt the meeting flow. However, if people can't think straight, isn't it worth spending three minutes debugging the echo so that everyone can go back to being productive? We think so.

For these more complicated situations, the fastest thing to do is have everyone who isn't hearing the echo mute themselves. That includes the groups in the conference rooms and the individuals on their laptops. One of those endpoints is the culprit of the echo.

Then, have people unmute themselves one by one. You'll figure out who is causing the problem because as soon as they unmute themselves, the echo likely will come back.

If that person is joining the meeting solo, ask them to put their headphones on. If the echo is coming from a conference room, the group should check their mic and speaker settings. They may be using two different devices, which often increases the likelihood of an echo.

4. Take control of problem-solving

The reality is, when you're remotely joining a meeting, you can't always control what's happening on the other end of the call. If you are talking to a group in a conference room, they have a lot of power over your experience, which they might not realize.

It's tough to interrupt a meeting but take a moment to think about the relative cost of the meeting to you individually and to the company. If you don't politely interrupt the meeting, everyone's time is being wasted. You might have to be a little bit pushy to get echoes properly debugged, but it might be the only way to promote a better remote work experience.

For more insights about hybrid video conferencing meetings, check out the State of Remote Work.

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