During the arguably historic snowstorm earlier this month, many of the students and faculty who normally work on the Missourian’s interactive copy desk were unable to leave their homes. For those of us working primarily on the website, that’s not a huge problem. Our Web content management system lives online. Any of us can log into it from anywhere, as long we have Internet access. And because we’re Web-first, we edit almost all our content using this system, rather than our print CMS, which is only a part of the process after the fact for our small team of print designers and editors.

So working from home is no problem. But communicating with half a dozen people in half a dozen places? That’s harder. How do we efficiently let everyone know what needs doing and who should do it?

The impromptu solution we came up with was to launch a group chat within Gmail. Most of our students use Gmail for their personal e-mail, and even those who don’t will open Gmail accounts in order to get access to Google Docs and Google Analytics, two services we make extensive use of at the Missourian. While Skype or AIM might have been more reliable and elegant, Gmail Chat was the service we could get students and faculty most easily.

The chat function lives in the left-hand sidebar of Gmail:

The hardest part is inviting each new person to chat with you, and that’s not really hard. You simply type each invitee’s Gmail address in the invitation window. Once one person has accepted, you can invite that person to chat. Then, you invite each new person from the existing chat window, creating a group chat, where everyone can see everything that is being said.

It worked really well. We looped in the interactive copy desk, our print team and the management hub. I was the on-duty news editor working from home the first night of the storm, and I found myself completely looped in to what was going on. The next day, I was able to get to work, but many of us still couldn’t, so we fired up the chat again. And we did it again on the third day, even though most of us had made it in to the newsroom by that time. A surprising aspect of the chat was this: It helped those of us in the office communicate better with each other. It’s easy to make a quick announcement to everyone (“Hey, don’t forget to use the #comosnow hashtag!”) without having to command their immediate attention or contribute to the avalanche of e-mail.

So a question for us has become: Should the group chat become a permanent feature of work on the interactive copy desk and the management hub? I’m thinking about it. Missourian folk, what do you think?