One of the most under-utilized tools in the online meeting tool-chest is the "chat" feature. When I teach workshops on virtual meetings, there are all kinds of reasons people give for not utilizing it, but there are at least five good reasons why you should.
Why don't people use these tools? The most common reason given is that the meeting leader finds it distracting. The other reason is a fear that somehow the villagers will run amok and the meeting will devolve into chaos and a swirling, sucking eddy of irrelevant noise.
Frankly, I don't have a lot of patience with either of these arguments, because they are both within your span of control. It doesn't take very long to learn to monitor chat if you actually pause on occasion to breathe. It only takes a moment and most platforms even send you some kind of signal that there's a new message there.
Secondly, if you're actually setting ground rules and leading the meeting the feared chaos seldom develops. In fact, the challenge is usually getting people to use the chat at all, since we've all been programmed to be as passive as possible during these meetings.
Here, then, are five reasons chat is useful and (used properly) can add significant value to the team communication.
It is a rough equivalent to people chatting in a live meeting. People often make jokes, smart aleck remarks (ok, that's mostly me but still…) add comments or ask questions in a meeting. That's what builds relationships, kick-starts discussion and clears the air. Meetings where no one speaks, adds their input or has a chance to be themselves are seldom very productive. Online it's even worse. Don't fear the input, encourage it. If people start to get silly or someone starts to dominate, use the private chat to coach people.
Chat logs are great ways to capture minutes, questions and ideas. With a simple setting in the meeting platform, you can keep a log of all the chat messages people send. That way if someone has an idea or question, you can refer to it later. This also makes chat a great way to brainstorm and share the results with everyone so they can look at it later.
Not everyone is comfortable butting in on the audio. Conference calls and even traditional meetings have always been terrific for those people willing to speak up (or unable to stop themselves, as we all know). Some people are very uncomfortable just speaking up. Introverts, new team members or those with status concerns (who wants to sound like they're arguing with the boss?) will often bite their tongues. Some will also put your meeting on "mute", scream at the phone, then rejoin when their blood pressure goes down. Either way, you aren't getting input from everyone in a usable way.
People can get questions or comments in queue when they think of them, but can be referred to when appropriate. We've all been in meetings where someone's question or comment has been tabled until the time is right, only to be lost in the void. This is annoying to the questioner and doesn't help the leader's credibility. When it's in the chat, you can write it down as it occurs to you, but there's a record so you can refer to it at a logical spot in the meeting or presentation and people know they've been "heard", even if it's only in writing.
5. Many team members are more confident in their written English than their spoken English. International teams are finding that many non-English speakers are comfortable writing things out, without the pressure of trying to speak another language or hearing people complain about their accents. If you're not hearing people overseas pipe up in meetings, you might find this a powerful tool, and a way to keep people accountable: they have a choice of how they contribute, as long as they contribute.
Don't let concerns about what may happen stop you from getting the benefit of these tools. The simplest analogy is the dashboard of your car. When you're learning, you spend a lot of time scanning the dashboard madly, while trying to watch the road at the same time. As you become comfortable, you can take in all that information at a glance. The same thing applies to the "dashboard" of your webmeeting platform. With a little practice you can handle it.