Toptal has a strong remote culture, to say the least. To keep up with each other, we need a tool to keep team members in sync, where we can reach any other person at a moment’s notice.
When we started out, back in 2010, cool kids like Slack were not around, so the natural choice was Skype. While we have since adopted Slack as our primary community platform, we still use Skype as our main communication channel among Toptal’s core team.
Over the years, Skype has grown a lot, and has become a versatile tool that can be used on all of your devices at once, syncing chat amongst them, and providing a simple way to call and share screens. Despite its quirks, it is a tool that we leverage every day for our internal operations.
As heavy Skype users, there are a few things we’ve noticed that might not be clear to everyone. Here are a few tips on how you and your remote team can get the most of of Skype.
There is a web version!
Yes, it is in beta, but it already works quite well for chat. The Skype browser client, web.skype.com, gives you the core functionality of Skype without needing to install a standalone app. Some people have reported it would only work for the US and Canada, but at Toptal we are using it without any problems from South America, Europe, and parts of Asia. If you install the browser-specific plugin, you can even have calls through your browser.
The web version is a great time saving option, making it easy to use Skype even when you’re away from your main computer. For example, if a conversation on your phone get’s big enough to demand a keyboard, you can log in from the nearest available computer to talk.
Group chats make a perfect home base for your remote team.
With hundreds of core team members, it would be impossible to get anything done if we all talked in the same chat room. Separate group chats make it easy to organize our team members and collaborate effectively.
Group chats are easy to set up; simply create a new conversation, add the team members, and give the group a name that is clear and easy to remember. The group chat can serve as the central meeting point for your team, allowing team members to sync up with each other, hold group calls, and communicate effectively and efficiently. A well-managed group chat can live forever. Many of the groups we created when we started Toptal are still used daily.
Skype’s new cloud-based architecture has simplified group roles to only two: Admin and Speaker. A Speaker has the standard permissions, such as posting messages and participating in calls, while an Admin can do things like kick people from the group.
Group chats can be tweaked to your team’s needs.
A recent addition to Skype groups allows you to create a unique link to be shared with others, adding them to the group when they visit the link. This helps get your team mates all in the same place. You could, for example, include the link on a central orientation document for the team, so new team members can find it easily. To create and enable the link, you must be an admin of the group, and can either use text commands (“/get uri”), or reach it from the group profile (click on the group icon).
Another new and useful feature of groups is the ability to control who can see chat history. When this setting is enabled, those that join after the conversation has already started can go back and catch up on what’s already been discussed, making it easy to get up to speed.
Skype for iOS used to be a nightmare, but no longer.
I used Skype way back when the first iPhone version came out, and it has come a long way since then. The older versions were barely usable, wreaking havoc on battery life, while delivering excruciatingly slow performance and lacking a lot of fundamental functionalities, such as searching for contacts. However, major improvements to both Skype and iOS have made these problems a thing of the past, and with a battery as big as the one on the iPhone 6 Plus, you can keep it running all day without any problems.
For a long time, these improvements never reached the iPad version, which drove me crazy as the iPad-plus-keyboard is a great form factor for a digital nomad. I can carry it around and get a good chunk of work done when it comes to IMs with my team, work on Google Documents, and email. To my relief, the best of Skype finally reached the iPad with the recent launch of Skype 6. This version improved the iOS interface to be closer to that of standard iOS apps, and brought the iPad client up to date, making it fresh and usable. Search now works across groups, users, and content of your chats.
Text commands let you keep your fingers on the keyboard.
This feature is still unknown to many Skype users, even those who use it regularly. If you type “/help” into a chat you will get information on commands you can run to make chat even better (don’t worry, these commands aren’t broadcast to the group when you enter them). Here are a few helpful ones:
- /topic groupname - This let’s you change the group name to make it simple and useful.
- /get admins - This will show you who has the admin role for the particular group.
- /setrole skypename admin - If you are an admin for a group, you can make someone else an admin, too.
- s/oldword/newword/ - This is a great way to quickly fix minor typos in something you just wrote. Essentially you can edit a word of your most recent message using the format s/oldword/newword/. (This is one I couldn’t even find in the Skype documentation. I discovered it by accident long ago, when I was working in Vim and typed into Skype by mistake! It doesn’t appear to work on mobile versions but it does work on Skype for Mac.)
There are many more commands, which you can read more about here.
You can join a group call at any time.
This is not the newest feature but it’s particularly useful. If a call is running and you didn’t join initially for whatever reason, you can do so later. Keep in mind that if you are just starting Skype up, it will take a few seconds after you login to properly sync the group statuses and determine there is a joinable call ongoing. Don’t go all trigger happy clicking the call button of a group you know has a call ongoing; this could start a new call and confuse everyone. Just wait for the Call button to become the Join button.
Skype can be your main phone number regardless of where you are.
Skype has a whole suite of awesome features that let you use it just like a regular telephone, no matter where you are in the world:
With a Skype Number, you can choose a local telephone number in more than 20 countries, and calls to this number will go straight to your Skype account. This lets local family, friends, or customers reach you easily, no matter where you travel.
And if you are on the move, or out of range of a stable internet connection, you can set up your account for Skype Forwarding to your mobile number. When you are offline, or aren’t answer incoming calls on Skype, they will automatically be redirected to your mobile!
Both services come with small fees, but the prices are reasonable and should fit easily into a business budget. I keep a Skype Number in Palo Alto, California, so that Toptal clients and core team members in the US can reach me easily. When I travel to other countries, I simply put a local SIM card in my phone, and set up Skype Forwarding to that number. Voila! I can be reached at any time, no matter where I am. It sure beats paying for international calls!
You can carry on simultaneous calls on different devices.
If you’re as busy as I am, this one is terrific. If you have started a group call and need to get away for a few minutes to make another call, you can just keep the call running on your main device and use your phone or other Skype-enabled device to make the second call. This is good, since your other option would be to kill the group call, and have everyone else restart the call without you.
Make sure you have a good connection, especially if you are the host of a group call.
Skype is changing from P2P to Cloud Based network architecture, but if you host a group call the quality of the host connection is still important. If the host connection is not ideal, the call quality will be bad for all participants. If the host has a solid connection, the call quality will be good for everyone and only the person having connection problems might have bad quality.
Muting yourself is key for call quality
This one is simple. If you are not speaking, mute yourself.
At first it might feel like you are going to lose time when responding to others and make the call feel unnatural, but it only takes a little practice to realize this isn’t a big issue. You can really contribute to the call quality this way since your background noise can make the call quality terrible and prevent others from speaking or hearing what is being said. This is especially important on group calls. And don’t think people won’t know it was you! Skype for Mac and Windows will clearly show who is “speaking”, or making the most noise, so everyone will know you are trying to do the dishes as you talk on Skype.
If you are on a desktop or laptop, Skype’s Push to Talk (PTT) hotkey is a great way to handle this. Mute yourself when the call starts. Then, whenever you want to speak just hold down the hotkey combinations. While you hold down the keys, an indicator on your screen signals that you are no longer muted. On Mac, the PTT key combination is [control]+[option]+[command]+[up arrow]. On Windows, the hotkey can be enabled and configured by following these instructions.
If you are on mobile I recommend you use headphones so you can quickly turn your headphones’ mute on and off during the call.
Skype is a great tool that has evolved from a simple VOIP application into a robust collaboration tool that allows remote teams to seamlessly work together and stay in sync. Over the last five-plus years, we’ve had ample opportunity to test the limits of Skype, and find it to be a dependable service we can count on. Skype is constantly improving, keeping up with the changing internet ecosystem.
Skype has been excellent for Toptal. If you are working on a distributed team, I highly recommend making it an integral part of your organization.