Communicating Effectively in Virtual Teams: Part 2 of 4

In part one of this series I talked about the problems with speakerphones in virtual teams.  In this installment, I’ll discuss the problems with another type of phone, the Cell. 

Most modern cell phones have a built-in speakerphone feature, and will therefore also have the problems mentioned in the previous article when used in this mode.  I won’t repeat the problems and recommendations for speakerphones here, but cell phones do have several other nasty problems that I will discuss.  They are: latency, dropouts, and signal fade.  

Latency

Most modern cell phones digitize the user’s voice and transmit these data packets to cell towers, which route them through the phone networks to the receiving cell phone where the data is converted back to voice. All this processing takes a finite length of time. If you want to measure the delay, dial another cell phone that you can hold to your other ear and listen to yourself talk.  The delay can be several tenths of a second.  This may not seem like much, but it can tremendously disrupt the natural timing cues we all utilize during conversations.

How often have you been talking with someone on a cell phone when you’ve had to pause to say, “No, you go ahead,” or, “I’m sorry, I’m talking on top of you.”  This happens because you and the other party have gotten into a verbal oscillation.  The reason for this is best described by feedback theory, but that is beyond the scope of this article. So, the simple explanation is this: 1) you thought you had a lull in the conversation, so you start speaking; 2) what the other party heard was their lull, plus your lull, plus the slight delay from the processing of the phone data twice (round-trip); 3) this in turn made them think they could say something else just as you were start to speak. The result is very annoying. The fix is to slow down and pause an extra bit of time (a half second or so) before jumping in to make a comment.  For a hyperactive talker such as me, this is extremely difficult to do. 

Latency also shows up in VoIP (voice communications over the Internet) connections where the “phone” equipment is your computer and headset, and the phone network is the Internet. Therefore, selection of a good VoIP service with low latency is essential (for example, Skype is exceptionally good on a fast Internet connection).  The goal is less than 50 milliseconds, but up to 100 milliseconds (1/10 of a second) is tolerable.

Dropouts

I’m sure you have all been talking with someone on a cell phone only to have your connection dropped, forcing you to redial.  Beyond being an annoyance, this can be devastating to a conference call.  I have dialed into dozens of conference calls where the host participant (the person with the account for the conference service) started a conference call scheduled to last an hour.  Sometime during the call, after everyone was connected and introduced, the host’s cell phone connection drops.  Since he was using a conferencing service where the host had to be present for the other connections to persist, well…you guessed it, we all had to dial back in again. This took another 10 minutes and the lost time caused the meeting to run longer than scheduled.  Dropped conference calls from cell dropouts are a big productivity hit. 

The fixes for dropouts are pretty obvious: a) be sure you have a reliable cell phone service if you plan to dial into more than a few teleconferences a year (are any of them truly reliable?); b) try to select a conferencing service that allows you to change the host mode such that if the host departs, the conference continues (we had such a service in the last company I work for); and c) don’t use a cell phone for important calls or conferences.

Signal Fade

Unlike older analog cell phone technology, modern digital cell phone connections do not deal with weak signal in a user-friendly way.  Analog cell phone connection quality would just get increasingly scratchy as the received signal weakened until the noise was so bad that the person to whom you were speaking became unintelligible. Modern cell phones are digital, which means they hold their voice quality perfectly until a threshold of signal strength below which data packets are lost entirely and the signal becomes choppy or drops out altogether. When combined with latency (discussed above), you have a recipe for a wasted phone call. The fix is easy: be sure you have enough “bars” before starting a conversation or teleconference, and try not to move around too much as this can cause the signal strength to fluctuate.

To summarize, it is probably best not to use a cell phone if you are the host of a teleconference.  In fact, unless you are easily able to mute your phone, it is definitely best not to use a cell phone if you are participating in an open line teleconference. In general, cell phones are poor devices for effective voice communications between virtual team members, as conversations tend to being frequent and lengthy, and the fatigue that cell phone frustrations inject into one’s day can be significant.

Next time we will talk about how best to use instant messaging to improve virtual team communications.

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