Frankly, this can appeal to our less-industrious selves. How often, when we could take the opportunity for face-to-face communications, do we resort to something else, usually email, because it’s easier, quicker, and there’s the cover-my-behind feature email offers that a personal discussion doesn’t?
Yet, we recognize that we lose a lot without the face-to-face interactions. Most communication objectives are less effectively addressed via email, text messaging, or instant messaging than they are when delivered live, in person.
Conference calls (and I’m referring to voice only, not video conferencing) often present an interesting opportunity for mixing virtual and non-virtual interactions. Given options, our penchant for face-to-face communications may preclude us from insisting on everyone participating virtually, when, in fact, that may be the best practice.
Specifically, think about when team members are geographically dispersed, but there are multiple team members in each location? How do you organize the conference call?
I would guess that most of us will gather team members in one location together and call in to the meeting as a group. That is, everyone gathers around a speaker phone in one room and participates as a group with the rest of the team. You could have multiple groups of team members participating as sub-groups from different locations.
The thinking is: If we can’t all be together, at least some of us can.
There are definite benefits to this arrangement. Those in the same room can share documents or other visuals that may not be easily distributed virtually, for example.
But there are definite caveats to this practice, as well. If you’ve ever participated in a conference call with this kind of arrangement, you know what can happen. People who are together will often make signals or faces to each other that are not shared with those on the other end. Nods of approval. Or disapproval. Looks of surprise. Or confusion. Eyebrows raised. Eyes rolling. Hurry up or Blah, blah, blah hand gestures.
This doesn’t always happen, and I don’t think people are necessarily trying to be disrespectful or undermine the session. It’s just that if we’re sitting there together, we can’t help but fill in the gaps with non-verbals that are inevitably the privilege of only those in physical attendance. Positively or negatively, it is very easy to create an “us” versus “them” feeling.
Consider that the best thing to do with conference calls may be to deny everyone the benefit of the non-verbals. If one person has to be on the phone, everyone should be on the phone. It puts participants on a level playing field and minimizes the less constructive non-verbals.
There are lots of benefits to our increasingly geographically dispersed world. Our world has gotten smaller and we get much more exposure to people and places than ever before. These are exciting times for projects.
But until we have a reliable Star Trek-like transporter to get us all in the same place at any time, getting through our virtual days we must.
Employ the “If One Person is Virtual, Everyone is Virtual” rule for conference calling and see if it doesn’t mitigate some of the less constructive communications — that is, the messages that are seen, not heard.