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Voice chat changed everything in our remote team

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

Ask any given person, what she or he has been missing most while working remotely during the pandemic. Almost everyone will say: "Bumping into someone, meeting with people beyond scheduled conference calls and formal settings or spontaneous chats at the coffee bar. The 'social glue' which keeps teams and orgs together in the long term. But is there really no way to have these effects?

A typical day at the office

It's Monday morning and I notice I am running a bit late to get to our office. When arriving, my colleague Henning is already there, waiting at the coffee bar. I join him with a cup in my hands and we start to chat about our weekend, family, the latest news and what is on our agenda this week. Then each of us goes into his private room and starts working. Later, while writing this blogpost, Henning drops in and asks me about some details for a project we are working on together. As quickly as he showed up, he disappears again. After lunch, I go into his room, accompanied by a colleague of mine, whom he does not know yet. I introduce the two to each other and we have some small talk. Then, we take off again and get back to work.

Sounds like a normal day at the office, does it not? Except, we are 2080 km away from each other. Henning in Oldenburg, Germany, me in Lisbon, Portugal. And my colleague I presented to Henning? I have no idea. She was probably in Bonn, Germany, as well. How did we do this? Exactly: with a channel based voice chat software. In this particular setting with Discord - which has basically become our virtual co-working space with private rooms, meeting rooms and, well, we now even have an auditorium for large-scale events with speakers and guest speakers.

What exactly voice chat is?

This is best explained by describing where it comes from. One of the older voice chat brands is TeamSpeak, which started as early as 2001 (when we still paid per minute for being online and our modems made these weird noises to connect to the internet - remember?). Just as Discord later in 2015, it had been designed to allow gamers to coordinate and cooperate in competitive games by talking to each other on voice channels just like being on a walkie-talkie. The focus was on low-latency, bandwidth efficient, reliable and crystal clear audio communication. But, since then, it has not only become a space to play games but also to meet and spend time with friends - and colleagues: A communication hub and community tool.

Wait! Gaming??

Are you wondering, why we are getting into gaming features in a business and organisational context? Why we are talking about this niche of nerdy male teenagers? Well, over the years, this niche has grown to a worldwide market of 180 billion US Dollars as compared to the 100 billion US Dollars of the entire, global film industry. Discord alone is worth 7 billion USD in 2021 with 300 million registered users, 6.7 million active servers and 140 million monthly active users. And, looking at the U.S., the "nerdy male teenagers" have finally grown up and are in fact 34 years old in average, own a house, and have children. And 41% U.S. gamers are women...

Discord Serious Play

Just as LEGO bricks have been successfully transferred from our kids' bedrooms to the business and team context as "LEGO Serious Play", others picked up the idea of TeamSpeak & Co. and transferred them into a business look and feel, as well. Presence, for instance, a small South-Korean start-up, just recently launched its app which is entirely designed for business settings - and immediately teamed up with Slack. One could even assume that Slack itself - and later Microsoft Teams from Slack - took over the "channel-approach" of the gaming voice chat apps, as it is so effective and incredibly easy to use. Pure speculation, of course. TeamSpeak already promotes its software for business use-cases as well. And they list the NASA as one of their clients on their website...

This is how our discord server is organised in audio and text channels. If you want to have a look around, and experience it first hand, simply follow this invitation link, create a free account (if you are new to Discord) and visit us at our virtual office.

Now, what is so special about this voice chat thing? - Voice channels!

The main functionality TeamSpeak, Discord and similar apps started with is "voice channels", which could also be described as room-based voice chats. This was meant for players to organise in different teams on the same server, which could then play against each other. Each team having their own, separate room to communicate with their voices via a head set. Breakouts, in fact. The main difference of this feature compared to a call on MS Teams, Zoom or whichever business conferencing tool you are using is that you do not have to arrange, schedule or invite for a meeting or call someone. Instead, you enter an already existing room (aka channel) and within a fraction of a second, you will be talking to the people who are already in this room. Plus: everyone is autonomous and can freely move from (breakout) room to (breakout) room, at any given time - contrary to any other breakout-room solutions in common business conferencing tools, where you are more or less stuck in a specific room. Plus plus: no-one has to technically organise breakout-rooms in the first place - they are simply there. And, as the name says, the focus is on audio and text, not video. Something else which makes it special is the speed: It is insanely fast to switch from one channel to another. And with just one click. In Zoom or MS Teams it will take you several seconds to enter a call. In TeamSpeak, Discord or Presence you do not even notice it.

Why not video?

Discord actually has a video function, but I have rarely witnessed anybody using it. Because it makes a huge difference in how you interact with the tool as with the people on the other end. Presence, TeamSpeak or Discord have been designed to be running as a minimised window in the background. As audio apps, they eat up almost none of your computer's resources and internet bandwidth when being connected. This makes it perfect for using it all day long, if necessary. Videoconferencing quickly pushes your system, consumes much more power and bandwidth and lets the computer fans kick in fast and consistently. But there are other reasons as well for audio only. In a previous blogpost, we already described why we often opt for shifting our focus to audio while conferencing with customers and colleagues. And maybe you also remember the quick rise of Clubhouse. The social audio app took a conscious and probably clever decision to "inspire" itself by Discord & Co. and built their app based on audio only. With this approach, they easily attracted high level personalities from the business world and politics. And all this mainly, because it is another dimension and a different experience in human communication when you only listen to the person. It creates intimacy and the feeling of being close. And makes you much more relaxed, as you do not have to expose yourself or your environment visually. It is spontaneous, really uncomplicated, and as such lowers the "price" you pay (in terms of barriers to overcome) to access meaningful conversations. In the end, you do not have to dress up, ensure a good lighting and tidy up your room before "spontaneously" chatting with someone.

But I do need video...

If you definitely want to keep the focus on videoconferencing, then Gather, Sococo or Wonder might be a very good choice for your team. As a workaround, you could also set up a permanent Zoom call with a small team of colleagues, mute yourself and push the space bar (push-to-talk) whenever you want to say something to the team. This will not give you the functionality of easily switching rooms, though. The same goes for Videofacilitator, except that autonomously switching between rooms is made extremely easy for everyone. In fact, Videofacilitator is the first videoconferencing tool I know, to live up to the TeamSpeak and Discord experience. Also, setting up rooms (aka channels) on MS Teams can - more or less - do the trick. Once, somebody started a call, say, in the channel which is called "coffee bar", other colleagues who want to join for a coffee break can simply drop into the call and have a chat.

I know - it's not the same: But this is how you could try to recreate a bit of Discord feeling in MS Teams by creating channels and joining people in a "coffee bar call" which can be kept running all day long.

But does it work in a business environment?

Yes! I mainly refer to Discord and TeamSpeak, because those are the platforms I personally use since 2012 (TeamSpeak) and 2017 (Discord). In 2016, my colleagues and I organised an international conference in Morocco - remotely. Since the Moroccan Government decided to block Skype at that time (in these days, Skype was still quite popular...), and landline calls to Morocco had an awful sound quality (we could hardly understand each other), I ended up introducing TeamSpeak to the preparation team. Finally we could listen to each other in an unrivalled, clear audio quality. It felt like a blessing. My accountant would not believe me, though, that I rented a 'gaming' server for work ;). It took some convincing and explaining to my colleagues, but finally it worked. With the launch of Virtilitation, we switched to Discord, because it is so much more accessible to new people - and simply easier to use. And we put more emphasis on it as a community and social media tool.

GDPR compliance

But although the current TeamSpeak 3 client looks hopelessly nerdy (it feels basically very much like a 2001 app...) we still keep it on our radar. Because to my knowledge, TeamSpeak the only company from whom you can expect the highest level of data security, privacy and GDPR compliance as they offer self-hosting / on premises as well as sheer endless possibilities in terms of customising and rights management. You and your IT-team have basically the full control over every aspect of the software.

Many people still wonder, what Discord actually is, which brought up various (failed) attempts to explain it. This video does a pretty good job, though, I believe. At 1:07 voice channels are explained - the feature we are mainly using it for.

Speaking of privacy: There are surprisingly many so called 'push-to-talk' apps or 'walkie-talkie' apps on the market, which offer many of the functionalities of TeamSpeak and Discord and are already adapted to business use cases. But they regularly also include very extensive location tracking and activity monitoring features which allow employers to follow their employees permanently. They even go as far as transcribing everything every employee says into text and storing it into a log. What makes perfect sense in some settings (e.g. security companies) is a nightmare for any open, trust-based company culture. Would you like to talk to your closest colleague about your private life on such an app? Exactly. GDPR compliance will be a show stopper in many contexts and for many companies. But, instead of Discord (USA) or Presence (South Korea, using AWS), Teamspeak (Self-hosting possible) might be the most interesting and serious choice for many companies. TeamSpeak 5 (yes, they jumped "TS4" - and spent more than 2 years on beta-testing "TS5") is out to come and has finally an attractive user interface, while keeping their high standards. The reason why we are using Discord instead is that we use it mostly like a social media platform.

Bottom line

If your team or org are constantly working in a remote or hybrid setting, then channel based voice chat is something I highly recommend you experimenting with. We usually have a hard time convincing our consultant colleagues to give it a try. Once they do, though, they are over the moon and do not want to miss it anymore. By the way: This morning, Henning was not on Discord - he is finally in his well earned holidays. And it immediately felt a bit lonely... Talk to you soon at our Co-Working Space?

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