Communicating Effectively in Virtual Teams: Part 1 of 4

We all know that effective communication is critical to every well-executed project. Everyone involved in getting that next product to market must constantly exchange bits of information with many people. Everything from project proposals to release-to-manufacturing documents must be created, discussed, edited, reviewed, approved and distributed.  All of these information exchanges require clear communication for the outcome to be a good one.

These days, project team members rarely all sit in the same building let alone the same city, state or country. Time zones, language barriers, and cultural differences add additional complications that make interactions between people even more difficult. These are the realities of today’s distributed (virtual) teams. Fortunately, there are some excellent technologies available today that, if used appropriately, go a long way to reducing the communication difficulties we encounter in our distributed project teams.

In this multipart series, I will discuss how four of the most common communications technologies should be used to improve project execution for virtual teams. They are the telephone, instant messaging (IM), e-mail, and voicemail. In this first part, I will discuss the telephone.

The Telephone

The most ubiquitous tool in our communications kit is the good old telephone. The underlying technology has changed a great deal in the 132 years since Bell received the first US patent for the telephone, but the result remains the same: faithful reproduction of the spoken word at a remote location. However, even our most advanced telephone technologies have problems in virtual teams if not used correctly.  As examples of what I mean, I would like to discuss two types of telephone devices in more detail: the speakerphone and the cell phone.

So, let’s start with the speakerphone. As terrific as it is to be able to talk to our colleagues sans headset, using the speakerphone mode of our desk phone, or those ubiquitous Polycoms sitting proudly in the center of our various conference room tables, can be a major irritant to those at the other end of the connection. The common problems we experience are echo, half-duplexing, background noise, and weak signal. All of these problems add confusion and frustration to a phone call and often cause people to ask, “I didn’t get that, could you please repeat?” This wastes time and lengthens meetings that are already too long and too frequent (a subject for another article). Let’s examine each of these problems in more detail.

Echo

How often have you called someone for a quick chat and heard, “Let me put you on speakerphone.”  You then hear a click followed by the hollow sound of an empty auditorium. The more acoustically “live” the room is at the other end of the phone, the greater the echo. I don’t know what it is about echo that bothers me so much, it just does. Worse still is being in a conference call with several connected sites, all using a speakerphone! The fix is easy: don’t use a speakerphone if you are alone on your end of a phone call. If you must use a speakerphone, sit close to the microphone and talk quietly to reduce the echo.

Half-Duplex

The concept of full and half-duplex comes from the early days of telephones and describes the type of connection between two parties. Half-duplex refers to situations where only one party can speak at a time because the channel only supports the flow of information in one direction at a time. An example of a device that operates half-duplex is a walkie-talkie. Each user must push the talk switch to talk and release to listen. To hear the other party, you cannot be talking. Full-duplex is like a normal in-person conversation where two or more people can talk while hearing the others talk at the same time.

The problem with speakerphones is that they are not really full-duplex. They are actually a voice operated half-duplex device. Whoever talks louder dominates the channel with the other parties essentially cut off. I’m sure you have all experienced this. You make a comment only to realize they didn’t hear a word you said because they were still talking and had control of the channel. Obviously, this makes efficient communications very difficult. The best fix is not to use a speakerphone. If you must use one, be aware of the half-duplex problem and make sure you really have control of the channel when you start talking. Be courteous to others by giving them plenty of talk time and letting them finish before jumping in. As the old saying goes, “We were all given two ears and one mouth. They should be used in that ratio.” 

Background Noise

I’m quite sure this is obvious to everyone, but all speakerphones will pickup background noise with the same sensitivity as the person speaking. They do not differentiate between the desired information and noise. For this reason, it is vital that you reduce or eliminate all extraneous background noise during a phone conference. Examples of common noise sources are paper shuffling, table tapping, overhead or video projector fans, paging systems, squeaking chairs, computer fans and disk drives, and background conversations. The last item deserves special mention. I have been on the dial-in side of a conference call in which a high-end conference phone with a number of satellite microphones was in use. During the presentation, two people at the far end of the conference table made frequent and unflattering comments to each other about the speaker’s lack of knowledge on the subject about which he was ‘supposedly’ an expert. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize that those of us on the phone heard every word because they were sitting very close to one of the satellite pickup microphones for the speakerphone. You get the idea. Minimize background noise, including your own! If you must exchange information with others during a meeting, bring your laptop and use instant messaging (more on this in a later post).

When you are using a speakerphone in a room with more than yourself present, be sure everyone can be close to the speakerphone or one of its satellite pickup microphones. If you have one, pass around the wireless microphone accessory, but keep in mind that this is disruptive for rapid information exchange, as everyone must wait while people pass the microphone to the person who wants to speak. If there are a large number of remote participants, the best solution is to skip the common meeting room and have everyone dial into the conference from their desks so they can use their headsets (and not their desk speakerphones, please!) This maximizes the audio quality for all participants and has the added benefit of encouraging the presenters to use electronic sharing tools rather than the conference room whiteboard, thus insuring that everyone understands (or misunderstands) the presentation equally.

Weak Signal

The technical descriptor of the quality of data transmission is signal-to-noise ratio. I just talked about the noise part, so what about the signal? In our case, the signal is the relative loudness of the voices on the phone call. Weak voices are just as bad as excessive background noise in reducing the intelligibility of a conversation. To address this issue, all participants either need good quality headsets or need to sit close to the pickup microphone on the speakerphone. Satellite microphones in large conference rooms help, but people still need to divert their voices toward the closest microphone. The only surefire way to prevent weak signal problems is not to use a speakerphone at all and have everyone participate from their desk phones. However, beware of noise canceling headset microphones. If not properly positioned next to one’s mouth, the noise that the microphone cancels might very well be your voice!

In part 2 of this series, I’ll cover cell phones and their unique set of problems.

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