Two-way Phone Calls in the Virtual Office


The most important mechanism for getting things done in the virtual office in a timely fashion is the quick one-on-one phone call. This is the virtual equivalent of catching someone in the hallway or ducking your head into their cubicle with a quick question. Most virtual office calls last one minute or less, and practiced virtual officemates are even quicker. Here's a transcript of a typical quickcall:

     Ring. "Hello?"
     "Hi. I was looking for that new code you were going to upload this morning..."
     "Yeah, I had to wait on that because Frank needed a quick new feature right away. But I'll have it up later this afternoon. Is that soon enough?"
     "Yeah, that's plenty soon. But I will need it by 4."
     "No problem, I'll definitely have it by then. Ok?"
     "Ok, thanks! That's all I needed..."
     "Ok, Bye."

The whole conversation takes 30 seconds from start to finish. It is a pure information exchange, with no social content. Even the pleasantries are pared down to the bare minimum; it's almost like two modems talking, with Hello/Hi and Ok/Ok/Bye/Bye as the sign-on and sign-off protocols.

Why Quickcalls Work

Quickcalls can be more effective than the most common physical-office equivalent, the quick hallway question. In an office people are often away from their desks (trying to find other people, no doubt), so an intraoffice call is usually ineffective. The usual process is to walk down the hall seeing where the person is. This can involve walking past several possibly diverting situations to get to a person's office; the odds of an interception before reaching the goal-person are fairly high, making the average hallway question take 5 minutes on average instead of 30 seconds.

In a remote-worker situation, quickcalls go through more than 90% of the time (because there's nowhere for people to go away from their desk!). It's just-in-time information dissemination: in the same way that it's more efficient to have objects delivered to a factory just as they're needed in order to save on warehousing costs, it's more efficient to be able to get quick answers when they are needed, rather than having mechanisms like email for getting answers later. email can be very useful too, but often the typical email hour-long delay in getting a simple answer can impact productivity.

The other nice feature about quickcalls is that they can fit into a call-waiting diversion. One can ask a question and get an answer in the quickcall format in almost the same time it would normally take to say "I'm on the phone" and "call me back when you can". Rather than having to wait an indeterminate amount of time for a call back, the whole matter can be settled on the spot. This sort of quickcall reduces phone tag, which can otherwise turn 30-second back-and-forths into multihour or even multiday voicemail odysseys.

Common Implementation Problems

A common mistake made by newcomers to the virtual office is to make calls longer when they could be quickcalls. This causes them to request a call back when they find out that someone's on the phone or is busy concentrating, rather than just blurting out the question and getting the quick answer.

The solution is to think for a moment before placing a call, to try to pare down one's question to a minimum size, so as to be able to ask it in the quickcall format. Or if the call is clearly too large for a quickcall, try to form a quickcall of the most important piece of it, or the part for which an answer is most urgent. Often approaching it this way has an unexpected advantage: it turns out that the partial question is really all that one has to have, so the question turns out to be a quickcall after all.

Common Concerns

A commonly expressed concern is that although quickcalls are great for the caller, they're disruptive to the call receiver. The concern is that they break the receiver's mental flow.

This can be true for "high-impact" calls; those that take longer than 30 seconds, or require much thought from the recipient. However, quickcalls are low-impact. This means they keep the recipient from needing to flush his/her mental state in order to process the call. S/he can remain in a semibemused state through the call, give the information requested, and then sink back into flow as soon as the call ends.

It's also desirable to keep the quantity of such calls to a fairly low level, as a series of quickcalls rapid-fire can disrupt flow just as a single long call would. When one is getting too many quickcalls, it's probably an indication that one had better document whatever it is that all the calls are about so that callers can get the information through another channel. Emails in general and daily status reports in particular help with dissemination of information that would otherwise result in large numbers of quickcalls.

Longer calls

Sometimes a quickcall won't do, such as when two people have to work together to design something. Workers should check with each other when they initiate such design calls, to make sure it's a good time for a non-quickcall. This can also be good practice when one has a big-question-that-could-be-a-quickcall-if-it-has-to. If the person can be interrupted, the quickcall can devolve into a more rambling information/social exchange. In the example quickcall conversation above, the "Ok" is the signal giving the receiver an opportunity to either end the call or to indicate a willingness to talk longer.

A special form of longer call is the group-editing or design session. This is used when two people need to read or edit a document together. They talk by phone, and at the same time either both look at or edit the same document on their individual computer screens, or they send faxes back and forth to each other while the are conversing. The former assumes that they each have phone headsets, allowing hands-free speech, and the latter assumes they each have an extra phone line allowing fax transmission while their conversation continues uninterrupted.

Phone Etiquette

Virtual office workers have a special phone etiquette, parts of which might seem unnatural or rude but should be trained into the workers as the most efficient way to survive in this environment. First, everyone must learn to use verbal "gestures" instead of physical ones; for instance, it seems an obvious point that the listener can't see you nod your head, but not everyone understands this at a visceral level. Another example is to more often use back-channel communication (yep, uh huh, even grunts) to show that one is listening or is involved. It can be hard at times to tell whether silence at the other end is due to the other person thinking for a moment, or is due to some distraction at their physical location; frequent back-channel "I'm here and involved" communications help with this.

Typing during a call is usually audible to the other party. It is acceptable if the typing is related to the call, such as when coediting a document or jotting down notes about the subject matter. But it is not acceptable to read or write email, or to "get just a few little things done while we're talking", as it is a fact that one can't devote one's full attention to a speaker when one is trying to do something else at the same time.

This is really just a specific case of a general rule: be aware of the audio quality you're supplying to a listener. Another example of this is the use of speakerphones rather than handsets. Unless one has one of the ultra-fancy echo-cancelling speakerphones designed for boardroom use, one should stick to a handset or headset. One problem is that the speakerphone mushes the speech for the listener, making you hard to understand. Another problem is that the speakerphone picks up background noise, further degrading the intelligibility of the speech. And finally, most speakerphones are half-duplex, which means that both parties can't talk at the same time. This eliminates much back-channel communication, as well as preventing the remote party from interrupting the speakerphone party. They might as well be sending emails back and forth to each other instead of talking, for all the interaction that is possible in such a speakerphone conversation.

So the speakerphone is just a bad idea, and in fact there's never any reason to use one in a one-on-one conversation: the headset is a better solution that provides all the same advantages. Since the headset is also needed for collaborative work of other sorts, each virtual office worker really ought to have one.

Substantive changes:
    March 25, 1996: created.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Colwell, All Rights Reserved
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