Thursday, October 18, 2007

5 Reasons To Love Conference Calls

I read a lot of negative reactions to conference calls each week, usually because the call rambles on or the topic is boring or participants' dogs/children/co-workers are yapping in the background. I think this communication tool deserves a lot more credit, and here are a few reasons why:

1. They're shorter than "real" meetings.
There's only so long a conference call can go on. Even at low rates, the host is usually aware of how much money is ticking away every minute. Even with compelling topics, there's only so much information that one speaker can recite at one time. And even with a lot of people participating, the "Hey, how's it going?" part of the call doesn't include catered luncheons, coffee breaks, fighting for parking, and all the other things that add time to in-person meetings.

2. They're much easier to "read" than email.
All the emoticons in the world can't populate the emotionally blank world of email. It's certainly possible to convey emotions and undertones in writing, but who has time to do that for every email? Phone time is a great way to figure out if that brief email from your remote team lead was because he's miffed at you or because he was rushed.

3. They're much cheaper than "real" meetings.
Cost savings aren't always a reason to go virtual, but conference calls save everyone involved some significant cash. No airfare, no hotels, no happy hours, no weird group tours.... I don't recommend replacing all of your meetings with conference calls, of course, since social experiences are just as important to business as number crunching, but for really big groups (shareholder calls) and repetitive meetings, conference calls are a great option.

4. They're easy to schedule.
Because your participants don't even need to be in the office to participate, conference calls are much easier to schedule than in-person meetings. This can shorten your sales cycle and boost productivity by reducing time bloat. Why wait three weeks to meet when you can set up a conference call on the fly?

5. They work well with "real" meetings.
So your team is split between Los Angeles, London, and New York? No problem - hold the meeting in one location and connect to the other teams with a speakerphone conference call. You'll have to make sure that your off-site groups are included and that you've distributed any necessary visuals beforehand so that everyone can follow along. Everyone can hear and be heard simultaneously - just make sure your speakerphones are up to the task and you've eliminated as much background noise as possible.

Have I won you over yet? I love big get-togethers, but conference calls offer a lot of benefits that are too good to be ignored. Why do you love conference calls? Leave a comment and let me know.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day: Save Energy with Conferencing (And Other Tactics)

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day
I'm not going to join in the recent chorus of articles that praise the way conferencing reduces travel (and thus reduces the environmental impact of meetings). I hope you understand that by now. Instead, here is a list of other ways that you can use conferencing (among other practices) to reduce the environmental impact of your job. I've personally done everything on this list over the years, so feel free to ask me questions in the comments section.

1. Take public transportation. Or buy a bike. Or, at least, carpool. Or telecommute?
If we want to use less fuel and control our carbon emissions, we have to...use less fuel. Even if you only practice this one or two days a week, the impact is worth it. Better yet, make it a competition at the office to see how often everyone can get to work without driving alone.

If you can swing it, try working from home one or two days per week. What better way to reduce the environmental impact of your commute than not to commute at all?

2. Recycle.
If it's plastic, paper, or aluminum, you can recycle it. If your office won't pay for pickup (and it's not included with your building/lease), take turns dropping the recycling off at a local center each week. It's not that much work - your turn will probably only come up once every quarter.

Check local government websites for organizations in your area that accept used cell phones and old computer equipment for recycling and repurposing - often these groups will even pick up directly from your office.

3. Make less trash
Go out for lunch rather than ordering take-out if you can, and bring any leftovers home in your own (reusable) plastic container. (Personally, I keep a few in my desk just in case.)

If you do order take-out, use your own silverware (again, keep a stash in your desk) and refuse the plastic packets. (They never work that well anyhow.) Individually wrapped things really make a lot of trash.

If you bring your lunch, follow the same reusable packaging rules. It's cheaper to buy a full-size box and portion it yourself than to buy prepackaged units, and you won't be making all of the extra trash.

As a little bonus, I'd like to say that I know tradeshows and conferences are fun, but...really, where do you think your frisbees and footballs and lanyards and spinning giveaway gizmos end up?

4. Go (and stay) Digital
Making a document on a computer uses energy, sure, but not as much as when you add on printing, copying, and mailing. (I recognize that many things still need real signatures so, obviously, use judgment here.)

Presentations really can work well in the digital realm, and everyone is starting to enjoy the convenience of meeting right from the office. Job interviews, too, at least for the first round - most everyone has access to a webcam, so consider saving money on plane fares and hotels in the early stages of your hiring process by interviewing online.

5. Look for the Oddities
At one of my previous jobs, the custodians were trained to empty every trash can, every night, no matter what. My empty trash bag was swapped for a new trash bag every night until I finally worked late enough to notice. There were about 1200 people in that building, so 1200 empty and nearly-empty bags went into the trash every night. 312,000 bags per year. Needless to say, I spoke to my supervisor and pointed out the cost savings.

Could your company order unbleached paper products for the bathroom? Provide recycled office supplies? Supply refillable pens rather than cheap ballpoints? Put a water filter on the sink rather than ordering bottled water service? Buy coffee for the break room that was made without destroying or polluting the land on which it was grown?

There are many small ways to lessen the environmental impact of your job. There are many more than I've listed, and most likely some of what I've recommended won't work at your current position. The most important things to remember: you don't have to be a perfect environmentalist, it doesn't have to be a political issue, and every little bit helps.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Web Conference Review

I had the pleasure of attending two more riveting web meetings this week. There were a lot more pluses than minuses, but I have several of each to share with you.

The good:
  • Both used live polls to tailor their content to the audience, which made parts of the presentation much more relevant. (For the conference that actually seemed to be changing things during the conference, it looked like the presenter chose which graphs/slides to show while the poll results were up. To copy him, just make alternate versions of audience-dependent slides and show/hide them in your presentation while the audience is looking at something else, like poll results. Don't try to paste in new images - you run too many technical risks.)
  • Both started at 5 after the hour, but scheduled the presentation to start right on the hour. The time change was announced on the welcome screen, so it was only visible after login. The upside of this? Everything got off to a smooth start, and most of the attendants were there for the first slide.
  • Vibrant, energetic, captivating speakers. Speakers who weren't reading off of scripts, speakers who actually cared about their topics and were well-prepared.
  • I learned that Wainhouse Research has proclaimed ease of use the most important factor in choosing new collaborative technology, by an overwhelming margin.

The bad:
  • Made-up words like "rearchitecting"...please, there are so many real words in English that never get used. Try them first.
  • One presenter wasn't familiar with his slides, which led lot of flipping around. This was good in that it kept the presentation informal and friendly, but kind of annoying on my screen. The speaker's talent made up for lots of these gaffes.
  • One presentation was full of what I will affectionately call "Digg content" - a lot of unsupported generalizations and statistics without sources (and sometimes even without graph just compared 75% to 26%). Your audience is already online, and verification is just a few clicks away.
The takeaways:
  • Speak well and plan well
  • Accommodate your audience in content and timing
  • Know your presentation
  • Check your facts and give your sources
  • Make it easy for your participants to attend - send reminders, overstate the login information, overstate your goals
I also had the pleasure of sitting in on a conference call, which prompted the following tip:
If you have questions about your individual contract, role, tasks, performance, hairstyle, etc., do everyone a favor and save them for a private call. I didn't enjoy being late for my next task because a remote co-worker didn't know when her contract expired.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Carnival #5: Collaboration

Welcome to the October 10, 2007 edition of the business communications carnival. We had a great turnout this time, with too many useful collaboration tips to count! I highly recommend all of the articles below; topics range from general workplace and team rules to tools for more effective teams. Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful submissions!

Luke Houghton presents The wiki way of thinking posted at Luke Houghton, saying, "Workplace collaboration is one of the most important things there is in business today. A wiki is a software tool for collaborating. In this post I discuss some things I have learned from implementing a wiki."

Warren Wong presents Why You Should Show Appreciation posted at Personal Development for INTJs, saying, "Why you should show appreciation for the little things people do and how to go about doing it."
This was a requirement at one of my previous jobs; no one could be considered for a supervisor position unless he or she had demonstrated a consistent level of positive peer feedback. Who likes feeling underappreciated?

presents Tom Peters Recommends The Dream Manager posted at The GreatManagement Blog.
Even if you don't buy the book, the takeaway from this summary is clear: your organization, big though it may seem, is just the product of...people.

Karel Vandenberghe presents Web 2.0 vs Web 3.0: multi-platform mass collaboration and mashups posted at Open Innovators - Open innovation and crowdsourcing, saying, "Multi-platform Mass Collaboration and Mashups will be key elements in the future evolution of the internet."
Don't worry, there's no Web 3.0 yet. Check out the great advice on how to futureproof your projects, which applies even if you're not a developer.

The Career Counselor presents Etiquette for the Office Cube Culture posted at ask the CareerCounselor.
My favorite tip: be quiet. My edit: no one thinks your ringtone is as cool as you do. Working together includes the social aspects of work, too, not just the typing and number-crunching parts.

David B. Bohl presents Luck: Helping Each Other and Paying it Forward posted at Slow Down Fast Today!, saying, "An ancient Greek named Menander said, “If we always helped each other, no one would need luck.”"
Why wait for luck to come your way when you can make your own...or your team's?

Jay Gordon Cone presents The "must-have" skill for every leader posted at Interaction Associates - Thought leadership and practical tools for collaboration.
Is it the ability to prove ROI? PowerPoint skills? You'll have to click through and find out (but it's worth it!)

FitBuff presents Negativity is Contagious, Are You Immune? posted at's Total Mind and Body Fitness Blog.
I'm not sure about the "science" behind this, but it's true even without that - if you bring negativity into your team, guess what you're going to receive? I've been on several teams in which the motto was "Give what you need, get what you give." It works startlingly well.

That concludes this workplace collaboration edition. The theme of our next edition will be Presentations!

I was so inspired by those presentation blunders that I'm dying to hear more. So, tell me, what are your presentation nightmares? What's the worst - or best - presentation you've ever attended, and what made it so terrible (or great)? What can we do to stop the spread of the 300 slide presentation? Please remember: posts that do not address the designated topic will not be included in the carnival.
Submit your blog article to the next edition of the business communications carnival by using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Improve your Email (Bonus: Presentation Disasters)

In keeping with the upcoming workplace collaboration carnival, here are my three favorite ways to improve your office email skills right now [more reference/inspiration at Web Worker Daily and elsewhere online].

1. Wait at least 15 minutes before you hit "send" (5 minutes if it's truly an urgent reply).
During that time, work on another task and then reread the sender's original message. (Be sure to save a draft before you change tasks.) Make sure you have correctly understood what the email's author was saying and that you've answered his/her questions. Exchanging information is, I assume, the purpose of all email, but you might be surprised how often the wrong information gets sent in the race to hit the "send" button.

2. Use paragraphs and bullet points liberally.
It sounds crass, but a dense block of text can be intimidating to your reader (even for interoffice communication - admit it, how many times have you skimmed "for the main point" of an important but long email?). If your action items are buried 20 lines deep, you are less likely to get the information that you need. I'm a fan of the lyrical and winding missive when I'm on my own time, but I've long since learned to keep my work emails quick and direct.

A related recommendation is to use bold, italics, and even colors to clue team members into the structure of your email, especially if it's on the long side. If you can anticipate that your reader is just going to scan, you might as well set your writing up to get a semblance of your point across.

3. Rethink the need to send the email altogether.
Could (or should) you just research this information yourself? If it's really urgent, would a phone call make more sense? The time to complain about inbox bloat is over; do your part to fight it by reducing the amount of email that you send to the bare minimum.

Everyone's time is limited at the office, so make the most of the chunk of your day that is spent sending, reading, and replying to email. I'd like to recommend that you organize and archive your email for easy reference, but those tips could easily fill a series of posts, so look for that information in the future. A parting tip: turn on automatic spell check (your future will thank you).

Here's the bonus: Presentation Disasters (I challenge you not to laugh at - or relate to - these terrifying presentation moments. These stories make reading directly from PowerPoint slides slightly less offensive.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Collaborative Meetings?

Zane Safrit's recent post on collaborative meetings fits in perfectly with the upcoming blog carnival theme of workplace collaboration - be sure to check it out! We've never had any pastry presentations here, but maybe it's time to start!

There are a lot of definitions for collaboration out there, including "
[the] act of cooperating traitorously with an enemy that is occupying your country " (not such a good one for the office) and the more apt: "a structured, recursive process where two or more people work together toward a common goal—typically an intellectual endeavor that is creative in nature—by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus."

So, basically, working together - effectively. Group projects in the office bring up many of the misgivings and questions that they did even in elementary school. Will one person end up doing all the work? How will credit be shared? What will we do with the slackers? How do we ensure that everyone's voice is heard, especially when offsite workers are involved? How (and when) do we set goals and determine success?

How do we collaborate effectively?

The right tools can make the job easier, like web conferencing, instant messaging, conference calls, and even plain old meetings, but a web conference session does not guarantee effective collaboration! Here are some things to think about when beginning a collaborative project:
  1. Why is this collaborative? Would it make more sense to work with a different structure?
  2. What will we gain from collaboration? Different viewpoints? A stronger team?
  3. Who will be included? Can we benefit from utilizing employees from different departments?
  4. Can we use an open, collaborative dialogue to improve our overall practices? Are we doing things redundantly? Wasting time or resources some other way?
  5. What happens if something goes wrong? To whom are concerns addressed?
  6. Is this a flat team (no leader), or is there a management structure?
  7. How much consensus is enough consensus? Do we need 100% agreement?
  8. How will knowledge be shared? Do team members already know and/or work well with each other?
Strong collaboration can really streamline processes throughout a company or other group. It can also build a stronger team by helping everyone feel clued-in to the big(ger) picture, rather than leaving employees who are lower on the totem pole to toil at assembly line-like tasks. However, there is a time and place for repetitive, even tedious work as well; not everything should be collaborative, not even every meeting. How could you implement collaborative strategies in your company - for meetings, projects, or other tasks?