Why Silent Meetings Can Be The Most Productive

Want more productive, transparent, participatory meetings? Shut up and Skype.

True collaboration—where we actually influence each other’s thinking and develop collective plans and work—has been aided by numerous online communication platforms. In 2010, we at the Post Growth Institute discovered one incredibly productive, flexible and democratic means of virtual collaboration. It has since proven the foundation for developing our Free Money Day and (En)Rich List campaigns.

The method: our monthly meetings are held in silence. We log into Skype—as we would for voice and/or video conferencing—but then our whole meeting is conducted via typed exchanges (as is possible with other chat-based platforms, such as Yammer). Two years into holding silent meetings, 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 brings pre-typed, dot-point updates and discussion items to meetings. 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 groups 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 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 can be a bit of 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. 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.

The irony of this all? We’ve been finding collaboration is not just about being heard; it’s also about providing the platform for silence to do its work. In a world of overwhelming noise, could collaborating in virtual silence be more powerful than we ever realized?

[Image: Flickr user Mik Salac]

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2 Comments

  • Advansys

    It's good to see others finding similar ways of using Skype in an organisational context. Skype has become our main method of written collaboration. Similar to your use of capitalized words, we add hash tags to key IMs during discussions, such as #Idea, #TechNote, #ToDo, #Suggestion, #Question. To take productivity a step further, we wrote an application (RecollX) which enables us to search across the full chat history for these tags and export the results to a file or the clipboard.