Queuing up

Distributing speaking time can be tricky when meeting face to face, but it is usuallly worse in virtual meetings. Especially those spanning long distances. In my current team, I learned how queues in remote meetings can make them better for everyone. Here’s how we queue.

Queues matter

As a Dutchman in Bristol, UK, where I lived for ~3 years, I’ve had to learn how to queue. Growing up Dutch teaches one about cycling, consensus and clogs, but it leaves most folks behind on the queuing front. Skills are sometimes culture-based. You see, when a Dutch train arrives, people will try and stand close to the entrance. When the door opens, they will try and push themselves in before others. Brits do this differently: they first look for a queue, form one if none exists, and so on. Most likely there are still significant gaps in my understanding of it all.

Anecdotes aside, fair queuing is important. In any kind of organisation. In a recent interview, a female Dutch cabinet minister shared how the prime minister always seemed to let male counterparts talk earlier and longer. It was resolved with promises to improve, but this is way too common in meetings everywhere. Some talk a lot, others find it hard to join in (I’ll say that I’ve been both depending on circumstances).

The queue bot

Since I started working with the W3C, I’ve learned to love a meeting management system that is old, but very effective. Meetings at the W3C are generally scribed: one or more people volunteer to write down who says what. This happens on IRC, which is a bit like Slack, but much older. It’s also not just a service, but an open and long proven protocol for which you don’t need (but can have) an account. That’s useful for us, as our meetings typically involve people from outside our own organisation.

Anyway, in W3C meetings, the group usually shows up both on some video conferencing platform and simultaneously on IRC. When the meeting is ongoing, if you want to speak, you type:


This puts you on the speaking queue. Other meeting attendees will generally be on IRC, too, and see this. The chair of the meeting (usually) ensures that people speak in queue order—those who jumped on first, get to speak first. Unless there are practicalities, like the subject they were on queue for.

If you want to remind yourself or others of the subject or your point, you can write:

q+ to ask about comms plan

There are lots of hacks, like qq+ (put me on the queue, but skip to the front), and there is a bot in the meeting that will keep track of who’s on queue. If anyone asks q?, the bot responds with a list in the right order. I know, a machine that learns!

The bot, called Zakim, was named after a bridge near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I learned recently. In turn, that bridge is named after a human rights activist. It does more than just queuing, it also manages meeting agendas and who’s attending.

Wrapping up

Meeting with this system doesn’t guarantee equal talking time, nor does it pretend to, but the visible method of queuing is really nice to have, especially in virtual meetings. I wonder if other organisations have tools like this, and if not, why not?

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