Matts lounge screenshot
Matt’s Lounge welcome webpage

Synopsis:

For many people and organizations trying to work remotely for the first time, timely and effective team communication has likely become one of the pain points for scaling up teams.

While the tried and true solutions of phone calls, instant messaging, Slack, and emails work well, sometimes the lack of opportunity for in-person and real-time dialogue can lead to missed opportunities in certain situations.

In addition, workplaces naturally provide an environment where discussion groups can form, grow, and move spontaneously. In the move to remote work, having an equivalent analogue is important.

So, to draw inspiration for how remote teams communicate effectively, why not look to the world of video games and audio voice chat servers?


Screenshot of Mumble GUI
The mumble voice client user interface

Video games and VoIP servers go together like peas and carrots:

In video-games, large gaming groups often need to communicate through voice in real time while dividing tasks up to appropriately-sized sub-teams.

Gaming groups generally favor voice chat servers such as Mumble due to its ability to host multiple “channels” and “sub-channels” that users can selectively jump into on-the-fly.

Some video game players have also noted that instant messaging platforms such as Discord or Slack with many channels, distractions, and instant messages, can feel like a “busy train station”, whereas a well-moderated voice chat server can feel like a more homely club:

pcgamer.com/ventrilo-and-teamspeak-arent-dead-why-diehards-refuse-to-switch-to-discord/

Personally, I think Slack is great at being able to organize different types of activity, but it can become busy or distracting in large organizations. The focus on Instant Messaging (IM) can also serve to enable disruption for people’s focus.

Instead, I’m generally more of a fan of a combination of emails, putting in technical comments through GitHub, and person-to-person dialogue instead.

While videoconferencing tools like Zoom can provide a good platform for teams to communicate, it’s also not always necessary to have video chat.

Simplicity:

For the 90% of the time where it’s not necessary to have video, having an always-on voice chat server can also serve as a good “landing pad” for discussions.

Probably the biggest benefit to Mumble as well is its simplicity: it just does audio chat, and it does it really well. It’s high quality, no-frills, and easy to use.

Mumble can also work great for large, medium, small groups, or even hosting a mix of groups with people moving around between channels.

Try it out:

Grab a friend, download the Mumble client for your device, and head on over to Matt’s Lounge.

I probably won’t be there, as I will be social distancing myself away from this reality and into the worlds of videogames and books these next few weeks.

Setup:

To set up this website and my Mumble server, I used something called “Docker containers” which allow for software like Mumble and WordPress to be deployed as ready to run software-in-a-box ‘containers’.

If you’re adventurous or experienced with Linux, you can check a Docker config for Mumble here

Otherwise if you’re just looking to get a voice chat server set up, you can create a Ubuntu Linux “Droplet” server with “one click” here and install Mumble with the following guide:

digitalocean.com/community/tutorials/how-to-install-and-configure-mumble-server-murmur-on-ubuntu-14-04

Other benefits:

If you’re looking to choose a communication platform for remote work, some of your concerns and challenges could include:

  1. Is it secure?
  2. Is it private?
  3. Will this for sure still work in one month, and 1, 5, (or even) 10 years?

While other communication platforms may be able to satisfy one or two of these, your own private Mumble server can satisfy all three.

Ubuntu Linux (the operating system that you’d run your server on) and Mumble are both free and open source (+) software.

This means that they’re available free of cost*, and that anyone can look at the code that controls how the software runs and audit and improve it for security or privacy concerns.

In addition, Linux and cloud hosting providers such as Digital Ocean or AWS have a pretty strong following, and won’t be subject to the same pitfalls of individual technology companies, potential congestion issues during the current lockdown period, or economic conditions throughout the years.

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*The mumble client software (which users can install to connect to your server) is completely free, as is the server software. Your company’s IT department could likely set up a Mumble server quite easily on existing infrastructure.

While the software is free, renting a virtual server to run it on (if you need one) isn’t. DigitalOcean has easy to use Droplets available starting at $5 / Month. Other providers can be found for slightly cheaper.


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