When two people are talking in the virtual office, often there will be a quick need to "conference in" another person or two, either for a quickcall or for a longer conversation. This is easily done with the three-way-call feature available through the phone company.
Three-or-more-way Phone Calls in the Virtual Office
The call can be extended to more than 3 people if the participants on the "ends" of the call use their three-way feature as well, up to arbitrary numbers of participants. This is sort of a low-tech approach to group discussion, and has the problem of cutting out call-waiting for the 3-wayed participants for the duration of the call. But since group calls don't occur all that often anyway, it's not a huge problem. And if one of the participants has a more advanced conference feature, s/he can arrange the conferencing for the group without even that small inconvenience.
Conference calls should be used much more rarely than 2-person calls, as they have the same problems that meetings do in physical offices: they take up the time of many people at once, probably inefficiently since at any particular moment only some of the participants might be actively engaged in the discussion topic.
The time wasted in a virtual office conference is less than that of an equivalent physical office one, because workers can actually get something done at their computers (browsing email, maybe even something more intellectually demanding) while keeping an ear cocked for a subject change to a matter of real interest. Of course, if a worker is this uninvolved in the meeting, there is a real question as to whether the worker need be in the meeting at all. But for the inevitable useless meetings, the virtual office has a real productivity advantage.
A point of etiquette: when lurking in a conference in this way, the worker must have a mute button on his/her phone so that any work sounds (typing, paper shuffling) s/he generates won't bother the other conference attendees. A related nicety is that any parties in a physical location with significant background noise should keep their phones muted whenever they aren't speaking; small background ambiences multiplied by the number of participants in the call can add up to an objectionable or even intolerable noise level.
Often, the virtual office will be connected to a physical office. In such cases, there is an unfortunate tendency for the physical office attendees to assume they should use a speakerphone and should cluster themselves in a room around the speakerphone. This is usually nonoptimal for the same reasons mentioned in the etiquette section of the two-way phone page: the audio quality is greatly degraded for remote listeners. Furthermore, the physical site attendees have an irresistable tendency to use body language rather than vocal gestures, leaving the remote attendees out of important parts of the ongoing communication.
If there are only two or three people concentrated at a physical site who are participating in the call, a much better solution is for each of them to attend via individual headset. The sound quality is much better, everyone naturally uses vocal instead of physical gestures, and the physical site attendees gain the advantages having their computers available for reference during the conversation.
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March 25, 1996: created.
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