When I started facilitating my first distributed meetings, I ran into a problem that many encounter: my primary collaboration tool would fail. It usually involved one person “losing connection” or in some cases the whole collaboration software system crashing for everyone.   Regardless, it meant that someone in the conversation was unexpectedly disconnected or not equally connected.

One way to solve this is to make sure you have a separate phone line as well as your collaboration software running during the meeting. However, this does not always work. In the first case I mentioned (one person loosing connection), you may not realize for some time that the person has been disconnected, especially if it’s by phone line.  Also, that person disconnected by phone cannot easily notify others and they miss important information in the meeting.


When thinking about this problem, I suddenly recalled a common scene from the original Star Trek television series. Any time they wanted to communicate, the communications officer would state “All hailing frequencies open, captain!”

It occurred to me, that we were not using all of our “hailing frequencies” in our distributed meetings. So I experimented with having a chat backchannel in my meetings. It helped resolve many of the problems I had encountered and actually allowed for a more rich communication between the distributed participants. One new technique was the “buddy system” I wrote about previously. Another was enabling participants to ask questions when they could not easily break-in on the audio channel or to have some sidebars which actually kept people more engaged in the conversations (you might want some working agreements about these sidebars).

Opening Frequencies with a Backchannel

Here is what I’ve found works well for the chat backchannel:

  • Have a separate application or chat window on another screen that is not shared.  I prefer a separate chat window/app so I can quickly use a keyboard shortcut to switch over to the app and monitor or respond to messages.  I’m often asked what chat application works best.  (2021 update) I’ve used Slack and similar chat-specific tools instead of the specific built-in chat for a meeting app. Why? If someone loses connection to the meeting app or that app service goes down, you cannot communicate. Previously, I have used Hipchat, Yammer, Flowdock, TodaysMeet, Neat Chat, and backchan.nl (only Flowdock is still available as a stand-alone chat).  Let me know if you find other useful chat tools for the backchannel. (end of update)
  • Make sure everyone in your meeting is also in the backchannel for the meeting.  You might want to have this backchannel published in your calendar invitation or in visible working agreements in the meeting.
  • If you have a mix of co-located and distributed participants (i.e.,hybrid remote), use the Buddy System.  If everyone is distributed, the prior guideline of having everyone in the chat channel is sufficient
  • Preferably, if you have a separate “app”, enable a non-audible notification when your participants send a message. I like this visible notification to show up on my screen shared with participants.  A “bouncing icon” is the most popular option these days. When this notification shows up, everyone can see on your shared screen that someone is trying to get everyone’s attention.  The bouncing chat icon reminds me of a raised hand.  

I’ve been using this backchannel concept for several years now and find it very useful for me as a facilitator and for my distributed meeting participants.  Thinking back to that communications officer in Star Trek, Lt. Uhura,  I later learned that “uhura” is a Swahili word meaning “freedom”.  I found the backchannel did give us tremendous freedom and flexibility in our distributed meetings.  If you try it, let me know how it worked for you and if it freed up some conversations.