Rolling out the red carpet for remote meetings

Photo of Josh Bleecher Snyder
Josh Bleecher Snyder on

The world doesn’t need more words about remote meetings. So here’s a picture:

Tailscale team members queued on a red carpet in front of a microphone

Tailscale is fully remote. And remote meetings suck.

We were inspired by Chelsea Troy’s insights into remote meetings, but our attempts at meeting moderation never stuck. It morphed into a culture of raising hands and preferring awkward silences to people talking over each other. That was good.

Even better was what happened in some of our Teamflow meetings. Teamflow puts people on a 2d plane and lets you populate it with furniture and bric-a-brac. To manage the speaking queue, we added a microphone and a red carpet.

It works exactly like you’d expect. People queue at the microphone to speak, and then go back to their pixel sofas when they’re done. Simple. And yet so much better than raising hands.

The main reason is that it re-uses existing social norms. No one needs to be told how it works. And that same body of norms help with more subtle situations. If you move straight up next to the microphone, cutting the queue, it’s clear without talking over anyone that you want to jump in soon, yet it is still awkward enough not to do so wantonly.

The other reason is that gross motor physical queues work on the same time scale as the internet. A 100ms lag is enough to throw off verbal interactions. But it takes a long time to walk from one place to another, so social practices around place allow higher latency.

This shows up most visibly in the transition from one speaker to the next. It is obvious when the speaker has ceded the floor. They leave the microphone. That takes time, but we are used to waiting. Then it is obvious who is next. That takes time too, and it’s OK. No one accidentally talks over each other or is unsure when they can begin speaking.

It’s far from a panacea, but it is a bona fide improvement. And given how rare those are in the world of remote meetings, it is worth celebrating.

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