Data communications protocols are often divided into a control channel and a data channel. An example from electrical engineering are the “control lines” and “data lines” in an RS-232 connector. The FTP protocol uses a similar arrangement, where a control connection is opened to port 21, and a data connection to port 20. The source of this common pattern is the realization that it is fundamentally difficult to manage a conversation using the same channel you are using to have the conversation. It’s hard to say “wait, you’re sending me too much information” if the pipe you you need to send that message on is clogged with all that information.
Human conversations use a control channel as well. Our data channel, of course, is our voices. But when people are gathered in a room for a meeting there is a whole side-channel consisting of body language which helps us to have orderly conversations. E.g. if you have something to say you can raise your hand, or make eye-contact with the speaker, and know that you’ll be recognized.
As remote workers, when we conduct meetings online using voice and video chat software such as Skype, we lose that control channel. What’s worse, the data channel (the audio feed) tends to have less than stellar quality, and breaks down quickly when more than one person tries to talk at once. The result can be disorganized, choppy meetings with lots of false starts and awkward pauses.
Every distributed team I know of uses some kind of text chat room (usually Campfire or IRC) for day-in, day-out communications. It may seem sensible to avoid the use of the chat room while having a voice or video call. The presence of a chat room “back channel” can fragment the conversation and lead to a distracting “peanut gallery” as conversation is split between phone and typing.
However, a text chat room can also be used to augment your audio/video link in a powerful way. If you learn to think of the text chat room as your “control channel” during the meeting, you can run your meetings more efficiently, ensure everyone is heard, and avoid unnecessary distractions.
Instead of migrating from text chat to the phone when it is meeting time, I suggest leaving Campfire (or IRC, etc.) open during your Skype (or iChat, etc…) calls. Designate it for control use only for the duration of the meeting, and then use it to coordinate the call. Here are some examples of ways a control channel can help you run a remote meeting successfully:
- When conducting a daily standup meeting, have a designated emcee use the control channel to prompt each participant to speak up in order. This avoids long pauses and false starts as two people start to ask “who’s next?” at the same time.
- Use your control channel to gently interject when someone has been monopolizing the conversation for a while.
- If a participant has to step away from the meeting for some reason, they can announce this in the control channel rather than via voice, thereby limiting disruptions but still keeping everyone in the loop.
- Use the control channel to report dropped calls, lag, and other VoIP artifacts rather than overwhelming your main channel with people asking “can you hear me now?”
What about you? How does your team you use their various communications channels to reinforce each other?
Title photo by Harri Haataja