Collaborating in Virtual Silence
“Silent” virtual meetings are flexible, accessible, democratic, and efficient.
True collaboration — where we actually influence each other’s thinking and develop collective plans and work — is a thing of beauty. The online space has opened up numerous platforms for such collaboration.
Yet the excitement of new partnerships also brings the prospect of new distractions. When we agree to assemble, virtually, for a higher working purpose, how do we actually ensure our work proves as meaningful as we had hoped?
As members of the Post Growth Institute, we would like to share one incredibly productive, flexible and democratic means of virtual collaboration upon which we stumbled in 2010. We say ‘stumbled’ because it became the default method for our Skype conference calls ten seconds into our first attempt for nine of us to connect via video across different time zones. It has since proven the foundation for developing our Free Money Day and (En)RichList campaigns.
The method: our meetings happen in silence. People log into Skype (as one would for voice and/or video conferencing) but then the whole meeting is conducted with participants typing out their exchanges. Two years into holding silent meetings, at least once each month, the benefits just keep appearing!
A productive use of time
Having typed meetings makes our lives easier when it comes to transmitting information amongst the group. With an agenda already established via email, each of us bring pre-typed, dot-point updates and discussion items to meetings. This saves a great deal of time as pre-written text can be inserted quickly by copying and pasting.
In contrast to video conferencing, silent Skype allows us to continually leverage the cognitive surplus of our group. Participants have the ability to reflect on what’s being shared without the distraction of someone speaking and the constant need to actively listen. In typed meetings, there is also no need to toggle between video and chat when someone sends a file or link.
Silent Skype eases the processes of decision-making and establishing next steps. Throughout the Skype chat we have a practice of typing ‘ACTION ITEM’ and ‘KEY RESOLUTION’ in capital letters as a way of noting these important moments.
Extracting important follow-up information, particularly delegated tasks, becomes as simple as searching for those phrases within the transcript. In the days following each meeting, the transcript — selected, copied and pasted into a text document from the Skype record — is shared and archived for both present and future team members. A missed meeting is not missed information. And the minutes? Already done. How easy was that?!
Accessible and flexible
Dramatically less bandwidth is needed for typed chat than for audio and video-conferencing. This makes silent Skype a more viable method for people living and working in areas with slow Internet connections, and means people are less likely to unexpectedly ‘drop out’ during meetings. Typed meetings are also more accessible given not every version of Skype allows group audio and video-conferencing.
The flexibility of silent Skype has been a pleasant surprise for our international group. Without voice, holding a meeting across time zones becomes possible; we can participate without fear of waking others who might be sleeping nearby. A similar dynamic occurs internally. People can easily step out of the chat without disturbing the group’s flow (a simple ‘ brb ‘ suffices!). Upon return, catching up is as easy as scrolling back through what has been missed.
Silent Skype allows for the fact that we all have multiple demands on our time. If one of us is going to miss a meeting, we simply email through our update to be included, and review the transcript afterwards to keep up to speed. Typed meetings also enable us to share documents and links easily, in real time. We can even work on a shared Google document while meeting.
A democratic way to work together
The gentle, participatory nature of silent Skype fits perfectly with our group’s desired approach to social change. The typed method accommodates people who are more comfortable reflecting before speaking, whilst those who prefer speaking off the cuff still have an equal chance to share.
The soft nature of silent Skype also makes it easier for new team members to step in as valuable participants in meetings. For example, a new person can take on the Chair’s role almost immediately. Leading our text-based meetings is far less intimidating than doing so in person, since there is very little need to mediate the conversation. Inexperienced Chairs can see how others have done it by simply looking through past transcripts.
Skype has a brilliant feature that allows participants to see when someone is typing (by showing either a moving pencil alongside that person’s name in the conversation panel or text saying ‘so and so is writing’). Our tacit rule is that, as long as the meeting’s Chair sees that someone is still typing, the conversation remains open. This format of meeting also allows multiple team members to type simultaneously — it’s literally impossible to interrupt someone! In a somewhat nuanced way, these aspects flatten power relations. The absence of a physical presence (including voice) accompanying proposals put to the group reduces a sense of pressure when it comes to making collective decisions. We all have ample time (and silence) in which to vote and/or respond.
A final, but significant, aspect of the democratizing dimension of this approach is its transparency. What better record for groups, companies or, where appropriate, the public, than an entirely accurate meeting transcript?
Building great relations
Team building could be seen as a challenge for our disparate group, situated around the globe, even when the profile pictures of all team members are at the top of the screen to remind us exactly with whom we’re engaging! Surprisingly, however, silent Skype has proven a useful tool for relational engagement. Humour and wit commonly find their way into our conversations via emoticons, puns and bad jokes. Rather than detract from the direction of our work, such interludes are a welcome break that make silent meetings fun!
Typed meetings also allow us, as participants, to be very intentional with our language, contributing to civil and productive discussions. Since our comments aren’t visible to the whole group until we press ‘Enter’, we have an extra moment to reflect and revise our thoughts before making a statement. This can mean more formulated, less reactive responses to things that, had the meeting been in spoken form, might have sparked a fiery exchange.
This method also helps cultivate interpersonal relationships within the group. For instance, if something arises during a meeting that may require follow-up with only one team member, silent Skype makes it easy to have one-on-one ‘ backchannel ‘ chats, even while the meeting proceeds. This means urgent matters can be addressed immediately, reducing misunderstandings or oversights, without disrupting the broader group meeting.
Limitations and applicability of the approach
Admittedly, some things are lost when engaging solely through text, and working without access to facial and tonal communication can feel a little ‘removed’. To overcome this, we all make efforts to have regular contact with each other using different means. We have one-to-one Skype video conversations; daily email exchanges; and — although rare — several opportunities have arisen for team members to meet and work together in-person. So as long as silent Skype is not our only mode for relating, our experience is that, overall, it enhances, not detracts from, our relationships.
While the silent approach certainly increases our group productivity, stress levels can often be elevated during the meetings by the relentless speed our efficiency is enabling. Since none of us hold the ‘ talking stick ‘, it can be tricky to know whether we should respond immediately to questions our team members might be raising as part of a broader point or hold off (whereas with voice this can be communicated simply through intonation or volume). As a team, we are slowly developing ways of negotiating these complexities. For instance, beginning a longer idea with a quick statement that we’d like feedback at the very end, or posting a longer idea one sentence at a time, can let team members know their patience is appreciated. Also, as our relationships with each other strengthen over time, we are more able to be frank and direct about our needs when it comes to ‘floorspace’.
Overall, these brisk, content-heavy meetings can be intense and exhausting! Processes that might normally take place over a matter of days are compressed into an hour or two, and multiple time zones always mean a late night or early morning for some of our team. In order to deal with these challenges, we have had to be deliberate about setting time limits for meetings and enforcing breaks from our work following the launch of big projects.
Given the rise in remote collaboration, silent Skype may be of use for a wide range of organisations, movements, and companies. The method favours groups whose members can type quickly and is therefore less suited to people’s participation via web-enabled phones. Having silent, typed meetings could also suit those who want to collaborate virtually but need to multi-task throughout meetings (for example, parents). From the experience of our team, the method works best for groups that have made efforts to get to know each other first, via alternate means. It is not suitable for groups requiring anonymous meetings, given the transcript remains within the group’s Skype history (now owned by Microsoft). The size of meetings seems to matter little. We’ve successfully trialled silent, typed meetings with participant numbers as small as three and as large as eleven. Whilst Skype is blocked in some parts of the world, this method should also work for any chat-based platform that has a conferencing option, such as Windows Live, AIM, QQ, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, ICQ, MySpace, Sametime and Gadu-Gadu.
The irony of this all? We’ve been finding collaboration is not be just about being heard; it’s also about providing the platform for silence to do its work. In a world of overwhelming noise, could silence be more powerful than we ever realized?