Chats are the Saving Grace of Video Calls

2 minute read

Much pixel ink has been spilt on the virtues and vices of video technologies — the Zoom fatigue, the intrusion into personal space, the ‘optimizing-in-the-wrong-direction’ of organizations trying to respond to a workplace culture that was once comprised of workshops and whiteboards and cafe run-ins, replaced now with hours of colleagues forgetting to mute, audio echo from executives who can’t be told to mute, and somehow everyone is now taking calls outside or from a boat — except for you and your cat.

I was coming into this biased; I have never had great love for meetings just to have meetings. Sometimes you’d be on a project with clear objectives, and meetings were just the expression of my teams Agile software development process — sometimes tedious, but progress was being made, even in the meeting. Other times you’d get someone with a clear sense of what the meeting was about, who it was for, how to build an agenda (and set it in advance), and you’d land on concrete outcomes and walk away with a clear sense of accomplishment and action items — the dream.

Alas — most meetings are ho-hum affairs, where for the most part it feels like work, so it must be work, so this must justify all of us being here in this Brady-bunch reality of video boxes stacked like neat and obvious metaphors for the impending panopticon. I’ve written about how most meetings without seeming purpose can be traced back to poor knowledge management.

But there’s a feature in this new Zoomworld that I’ve come to really appreciate — the Chat Window. For the most part, this seems like a tacked-on feature. And when you have talking heads diving into depth about particular points, one person jumping in right as the other was winding down, with little to no gap between them, it can be hard to get a word in edge-wise. Much less, what if the point you wanted to raise might risk derailing the conversation, or call attention to a detailed point that doesn’t need to necessarily be expanded on right now? What if you’re a junior staffer who has something relevant to add but feels intimidated by the flow of conversation (or mansplaining)? What if you’re an introvert?

I’ve come to throwing all sorts of things into the chat window — background, context, links and references, tangent ideas, even a fun quip here and there to keep things moving. And I find others like it too — there’s a semi-permanence to the chats — it’s easier for folks to digest and refer back to in the meeting than to hold on to everyone’s specific thought. And when others join in, you can add another dimension to an otherwise linear conversation that’s ocurring vocally.

There are a couple of drawbacks to the chat windows — not everyone can see them or even knows about them (which actually has some pros and cons, depending on what type of conversations you’re looking to have), and there is no great way to save the chats after the meetings as you would when you’re collaboratively working on a document or discussing in a platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams.

But all-in-all, I’m bullish on chats, and I’m hoping that it’s the foothold that organizations can use to be able to optimize in the right direction, both by improving knowledge management, but more broadly to recognize the value of text and asynchronous communication more broadly.