Update for 2020
I am a fan of all modes of tele-anything because I find it to be one of the two great things that electricity enables for us (the second one being refrigeration).
When talking one-to-one on the phone, all is well because there is an understood “dance” we have all learned around taking turns. But when talking one-to-many on the phone, it works well if it is a 1-way broadcast — but a teleconference is a “conference” versus a tele-pontification. Instead, the painfully chaotic dance that comes to happen on a teleconference call with many-to-many is the subject of a lot of great Internet humor, like my all-time favorite:
Videoconferencing is just as challenging because there is never a clear protocol on how best to take turns — besides raising one’s hand or waving some sort of printed emoji-on-a-popsicle-stick to express yourself. The simultaneous chat windows that are available now alongside a videoconference are esp useful because they allows more information to get shared in parallel — in the event that one person is monopolizing the line with their blah-blah-blah.
Pure chat has the advantage of enabling everyone to talk at the same time, which has its own problems built into the paradigm. It is also problematic when you are running across multiple timezones as it is impossible to catch up on all communications left in a chat channel. It is akin to walking into a major party six hours after everyone has left, and you’re left to piece the puzzle of what happened on your own.
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That said, chat and other text/image exchange forums are what we all depend upon when collaborating remotely. And I am definitely not knocking them down as they are the foundation of all-distributed work environments. They have served us well for decades, and will likely continue into the next century.
Remote working veterans generally eschew meetings and modes of synchronizing via teleconference or videoconference, and tend to prefer chat chat and other text/image repositories to communicate. Folks who are used to working only on-premise love to synchronize and consume time together. The reality is that you need to figure out the right balance for the tasks that are hand. There’s an important balance to strike between async and sync modes of communication when working all-remote.
The reason why videoconferencing can be good even within an asynchronous, all-remote culture is because there’s two things that can be uniquely achieve for all participants:
1. If we can’t collocate in space to show shared commitment, we can at least collocate in time to do so. By doing so, we are implicitly teaming.
2. Connections across people need to happen for strong collaboration — so I work to make explicit linkages between people during my videoconferences.
I deeply believe that videoconferencing provides a vital means to strengthen a team in a distributed work environment. But it’s important to keep in mind that it is less about communicating, and more about bonding. That isn’t an easy thing to make happen when you are in a sea of talking heads, but activities like listening to the same music or doing corny things like holding hands across screens can do the trick sometimes. It is a space where a lot of creativity is needed, so I enjoy the challenges immensely. I’ve come to learn that async is an important partner to sync — otherwise you can easily get stuck in videoconferences that run aimlessly and waste everyone’s time. Or as Matt Mullenweg has constantly reminded me:
It’s prudent to listen to Matt on this point. I did. —JM