PHOTO: Jamin Gray

Hands up if you’ve ever been in a Zoom or Teams meeting, probably with mute on and camera off, and secretly been messaging somebody else in the meeting about what is being discussed or something else entirely?

I suspect that quite a few of us are guilty of using what are effectively back channels — parallel or sub-conversations that are carried out in the background. As digital meetings have ramped up in 2020, the back channel remains an intriguing facility with both positive and negative connotations.

Formal and Informal Back Channels

Wikipedia defines the back channel as a “real-time online conversation using networked computers that takes place alongside live spoken remarks.” Broaden network computers to mobile devices and we have a reasonable working definition for the back channel.

Back channels are used in a variety of instances — in work meetings but also in larger conferences and online events. It's worthwhile distinguishing formal back channels that have a purpose and where participants are aware of their existence, from informal back channels where meeting attendees are unaware.

A further distinction on informal back channels is those that are deliberately hidden, because they are (probably mildly) subversive, counter-productive, or not permitted, and those that are not secret where there's no issue with their use — there is just no particular value in letting people know.

For an online meeting or event, the formal back channel is very useful, providing a place to post links or for people to post they have to step away for five minutes. In larger events, it also provides a place for feedback and questions, or a place to discuss and resolve technical issues for participants. At a large virtual event, an informal but non-secretive back channel may prove very useful, perhaps facilitating a real-time discussion to help the  organizing team coordinate an event.

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The Clandestine Back Channel

Informal back channels look bad at first glance. Some might see them as underhanded, particularly when they are secret.

The term “back channel” itself has negative and slightly Machiavellian connotations, conveying images of secret messages passed across clandestine chains of command; the way diplomacy and agreement really takes place behind the public façade of negotiation.

A secret back channel can have elements of dissent. In online meetings two people may be sharing negative reactions to the points raised in the meeting in real-time, or complaining about their boss, or about a colleague who isn’t pulling their weight, or even something bordering on bullying.

We've seen the equivalent during the online classes so many children have been forced into since lockdown. While the teacher delivers the lesson via Teams or Zoom, some members of the class are busy messaging each other on WhatsApp, unbeknownst to the teacher. The parallels to some work meetings is a bit stronger than they should be.

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Are All Back Channels Bad?

Although informal back channels can clearly have negative effects, they can just often have positive ones. The likely truth is that most sub-conversations are actually beneficial and don't necessarily need to be secret.

For examples, in the online class scenario above, pupils are often asking their peers for clarifications on the work. “Did Mr. Smith want us to do question seven?” While they may also be conferring around answers, that doesn’t necessarily undermine individual learning.

In a work context a backchannel with a sub-conversation going on between two or three members during an online conversation might be:

  • Sharing context and details with a colleague about a matter in the meeting which doesn’t necessarily need to be shared with everybody.
  • Seeking clarification or agreement with a colleague before committing to an action in the meeting, therefore helping move things forward.
  • Agreeing on operational matters or next steps to move things forward, helping to support the resolution of the original issues.
  • Contacting a colleague about another matter because they don’t often have contact with another person who is in the meeting.

Arguably all of these points, in their own little way, make a meeting more productive, contribute to better outcomes and getting things done. These kind of conversations can also help strengthen connections between employees who are working remotely, where it can be hard to connect with people who are perhaps not in your immediate or everyday team.

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The Danger of Distraction

One downside of back channels is the potential for distraction. When a meeting requires your full attention, a Teams alert pinging you about a new message and two separate chats already in motion isn't good for focus or productivity. Multi-tasking is rarely effective.

On the other hand, relegating some conversations to back channels can reduce the noise from a meeting agenda. There are also clear opportunities here to provide five minutes for people to complete any sub-conversations that need to happen, as part of the meeting agenda.

Back Channel Conversations: Friend or Foe?

Back channels have advantages and disadvantages. The question for people running virtual meetings is whether they should encourage, discourage or even mention them at all. It would be interesting to try and ascertain the value they bring to help drive decision making and even making meetings run more smoothly. Alternatively they just may remain a curious feature of online behavior that we all use occasionally, for better and for worse.