Many of us have dealt with inboxes filled with endless back-and-forth emails. While chat apps like HipChat and Slack have decreased the number of emails, there are now dozens of chat messages that wander, are disjointed, or don’t reach conclusions. Chat, which initially seemed to be the antidote to overflowing email inboxes, can be as overwhelming and ineffective as the email overload it was meant to solve. Jason Fried, Founder and CEO at Basecamp, famously captures this state of chat: “Group chat is like being in an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda.”
It’s important to know how to use chat and when it has lost its effectiveness. Only then can it begin to live up to its promise of effective asynchronous communication.
What makes for effective group chat?
Chat is not useful across all situations. It is helpful for these scenarios:
Knowing when a team member is available for communication.
Participating in quick one-on-one or small group discussions.
Creating a culture of transparency by keeping people aware of what is happening across teams.
Promoting team bonding in remote collaborative work environments.
What are the symptoms of ineffective chat communication?
Chat causes more harm than good when:
Group chats resemble endless meetings with no clear agendas or outcomes.
People request input and then have to wait a few hours for responses. Or, team members chime in hours after an issue has been resolved.
Multiple conversations occur simultaneously in the same chat room making it hard to follow a single conversation.
Important information goes unseen or becomes lost in the endless abyss of the chat scroll.
How to solve the challenges of chat
Once our team shared concerns that group chat was eroding attention at least as often as improving productivity, we settled on these steps to remedy the situation.
1. (Re)frame the discussion topic and capture the results.
One reason online chats become overwhelming is that there are so many moving pieces but no clearly defined outcomes. Start a chat conversation by stating clearly what outcome you need and by when. Say, for example, “If anyone wants to share feedback on the latest product video, please chat me your thoughts directly by end of day today.” This is an actionable request that gets information shared to specific recipients instead of the whole team.
Whether you’re a team leader or member, you can step in to reframe a discussion and synthesize results. You can say, “From what I’ve heard, XYZ are the pros and cons of the situation and we’ve decided to move forward with Option A. Does everyone agree?” Once the team confirms this, capture the decision in a central place outside of the chat record so it’s easily accessible.
2. Move extensive conversation elsewhere and use chats as a reminder.
At Meeteor, we discovered that online chats are most effective for quick conversations. Extensive feedback sessions or discussions are better navigated on a shared document that stays in context, rather than risking becoming a muddled chat discussion. You can post the shared document link in the chatroom and give a deadline for providing feedback.
3. Know when to turn chats into focused conversation.
When conversation is complex and nuanced, it’s best to gather “in real life” for a meeting to address the issue. Here are some signals that it’s time to switch from chat to a meeting:
You need to type paragraphs of text to explain your thinking.
The topic of discussion has multiple points that each have their own sub-conversations.
You are referring to specific content in a document or image that makes it hard to follow your thinking.
When a conversation requires multiple people collaborating and negotiating in real-time, meeting outside of chat is best.
4. Use the chat record to set up an effective meeting.
When you start the conversation in online chats and then realize that you need a real-time conversation, leverage what’s already been said in the chat stream. Copy the questions and perspectives that emerged in chat and turn them into agenda items. Include a copy of the chat discussion and any related documents as pre-work to review before the meeting. With this thoughtful preparation, everyone can join the meeting prepared for a productive conversation.
Final thoughts on chat
Since our internal review session on chat, we’ve taken a few other steps to promote healthy chat usage. We’re conscious of keeping our “fun” discussions in one specific online chat room so the conversation does not seep into other work-specific chat rooms, and we’ve reduced the number of emoji and gif responses. These, along with the steps described above, have resulted in team members reporting feeling less distracted by chat and more able to focus on getting work done.
What have been your challenges with chat? How do you create effective group chat?