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Reducing Audio Feedback Across the Global Pond

As many global teams know all too well, staying on the same wavelength in video conferencing—despite all of our modern technologies—can remain a herculean effort. In a world getting increasingly smaller, a bad virtual connection reminds us of the distance that still remains between us. For teams working against great cultural and geographical distances a good audio connection can make the difference between teams working effectively together or simply wasting each others’ time.

In a recent Bridging Distance consultation with a globally distributed team we encountered typical feedback troubles.

Our first transatlantic meeting with this organization consisted of virtual attendees in Cambridge, Massachusetts; northern Massachusetts; New Jersey; and Paris, France. As the meeting opened in Cambridge, the attendees a mere hour away were greeted with static, feedback, and white noise, though the attendees in Paris heard them with crystal clarity. Although Cambridge, Massachusetts, considers itself to have a real European flair, this did nothing to facilitate communication with the actual Europeans. What happened? More importantly, what steps need to be taken so that everyone can participate fully?

The following are three tips to ensure communication clarity across distance

mute button

 1.  The Mute Button is Your Friend.

Use it.  When not speaking, mute your computer (especially if you are taking notes, as the even quiet clicking of a keyboard is amplified and broadcast to everyone).  Muting is often overlooked as “too basic” to make a difference, but even if you think you are in a quiet location, ambient noise can be the death knell to a productive virtual meeting.  Just be sure to unmute your microphone before speaking.

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2.  Wear Headphones (Not Just Earbuds!)

Headphones with microphones will reduce feedback, such as a Bluetooth or even the headphones that are included with the iPhone.

the screamEchoes are deadly.

With headphones, not only will you be able to hear your co-participants but they will be able to hear you!

If there is more than one person physically with you during the conference you may want to invest in a Polycom Calling Kit, or similar device.

The Polycom computer calling kit enables the phone to work with the Polycom PVX desktop video conferencing application, serving as the microphone and speaker for desktop video calls. Polycom Calling Kits will heighten the level of professionalism and take your business to the next level.

Polycom also makes a more cost-effective speaker and microphone device to plug into your computer. They are each optimized for different software and computer configurations, so be careful to purchase the correct one for your needs.

While Polycom may be the gold standard, the Yamaha PJP-20UR Web Conference Microphone Speaker is an example of a plug and play echo-cancelling device that seems simpler to use than the PolyCom devices.

3.  Limit Computers / Audio Sources to One Per Room.

business-woman-in-office-with-computer-talks-on-headsetThough it may be tempting to crowd around one screen when you have multiple people at one location, having more than one computer in a room increases feedback as the microphones pick up what other team members are saying. This is especially important if you do not have headphones and do not mute your computer, thus disregarding our previous expert advice.

While the difficulties may seem daunting and at times frustrating, audio and video conferencing is worth the effort.  Being able to see and hear each other clearly across great distances will lead to a greater sense of community and better collaboration across the board and across the world.

Question for readers: Have any advice or Pet Peeves when it comes to audio / video conferencing?

Summertime for Telecommuters!

Summer.  Popsicles.  Beaches.  Kids.

School’s out. Kids are home, are you, too?

If you are one of over 3.1 million telecommuters in the United States, you have been anticipating summertime with a mixture of excitement and dread (okay, this is true of all parents, but people who work from home tend have particular concerns).

It’s a huge relief to get a break from the morning routine of rousing sleepy kids and tossing them out the door.  But now they are home all day, making demands on you, because — after all — you’re right there (and what could you possibly be doing that is more important than looking for holes in the slip n’ slide?)

So how do you do it?  How do you meet the demands of work and the demands of your kids, not to mention your own summertime interests?

Involve your kids in the solution. Find out what’s most important to them this summer and let them know that you are willing to make it happen (assuming their requests are reasonable).

Manage Expectations.  Explain that they can only get what they want when your space is respected and you can get your work done first.  If this means that every day until 2:00 you cannot be interrupted for anything less than profuse bleeding, then make that clear to them.

Set them up for Success. If you expect them to prepare and clean up their own snacks, drinks, and lunches, then be sure that they know where everything is and that they can reach it all with ease.  This might mean setting out a box of goldfish crackers with a scoop so they know how much to take; or putting drinks into easy-to-handle pitchers for younger children.

Tell them How to Contact You. My kids text me when I’m working.  Yes, we are in the same, relatively small house, but it is a non-intrusive way for them to get my attention without breaking my concentration.  Maybe you prefer that they knock on your office door and wait for you to respond.  Maybe you want them to silently watch you work until you feel their beady eyes on you.  Whatever works best for you — explain it to them and only respond when they meet your expectations.

Know their Natural Schedules. If you, like me, have teens and pre-teens, they like to sleep in.  This is a blessing to my work, as I can get a full day in before they crack an eyelid.  If your children are young enough to have a nap / quiet time, this might be a great opportunity for you to schedule a call.

Keep Your Word. Honor your commitment to your family.  If you said you were only working until 2:00, then step away from your computer at the appointed time. When you are with your children, turn off your smartphone, stop checking email, be present — fully present — for them.

Merging summertime fun into your telecommuting schedule can be challenging.  It is worth the effort.  When the sun hits the beach and you’re there to enjoy it, you know you will never go back to commuting and rigid schedules again.

Don’t forget the ice-cream.

What’s your favorite summertime telecommuting experience?

Telecommuting? It's all about Control.

Whether you’re bookmarking an article to make an after-school snack, interrupting a teleconference to soothe a crying baby, or simply reiterating to your partner that you are on the clock and thus unavailable, working at home introduces distractions that aren’t found in a traditional office space.

So how can you balance work with family, and still maintain some semblance of sanity?

Recent research on telecommuting (Kossek, Lautsch, & Eaton, 2009) has pointed to two important factors to consider when creating a positive telecommuting experience.

  1. You must perceive control over how, when, and where you work
  2. You should set clear boundaries between work and home roles

Control

As an employee, do what you can to establish your own control over your work. If you find yourself constantly changing your schedule to align with a co-worker’s, try to be more assertive in setting meeting times. Talk to your manager about having more autonomy in your job. This could mean setting your own deadlines or creating your own list of weekly goals. The more control you feel, the better you’ll perform—both at work and at home.

As a manager of a telecommuting workforce, it is important to grant your employees individual autonomy in deciding how they do their work. If they have certain hours that they prefer, or they want the option of working in multiple locations, it is important that you support their decisions. The more control employees feel over the way that they work, the less work-family conflict they will experience. Thus, they will be less likely to turnover or move on to a new career.

However, there is a delicate balance between allowing employees autonomy and ensuring a predictable flow of communication. For instance, it is difficult to coordinate “catch-ups” with employees who have highly irregular schedules. Thus, depending on how often you feel that you need to meet with your employee, try setting a regular (e.g., weekly, monthly) meeting that is inflexible. This will ensure that contact is still readily available, even if your employee is working at times or locations that don’t align with your own.

Setting Boundaries

It is also important to be deliberate in separating your work and family responsibilities. Individuals who integrate their work and family roles (e.g., using one “catch-all” email account for work and home) are more likely to experience work-family conflict. In contrast, individuals who make clear boundaries between their work and family roles experience a greater sense of well-being and balance.

Having trouble separating your responsibilities? Try creating a space in your home that is “off-limits” to family members while you are working. This could mean closing the door to your workspace, or posting a sign that says “Dad is not available until 4pm”.

Just as you communicate to your family when you’re working, you should also communicate to your co-workers when you are enjoying family time. Grant your co-workers access to your weekly schedule so that they know when you are available to answer phone calls and emails. Set a precedent of not answering communications when you are “off-duty” unless it is time-sensitive or a high priority. Setting these clear boundaries ensures that others respect how you manage your responsibilities, which will decrease your work-family conflict and increase your well-being.

Source:  Kossek, E. E., Lautsch, B. A., & Eaton, S. C. (2009). “Good teleworking”: Under what conditions does teleworking enhance employees’ well-being?. Technology and Psychological Well–Being. Cambridge, MA Cambridge University Press.

Your Global Team

Your globally distributed team is simultaneously exciting and challenging.  Obvious challenges include working across time zones and languages, but other, more subtle differences, have a tremendous impact.

Understanding the differing cultures of the members of your global team is vital to your success as a team.  Around the world, different cultures operate with different work ethics, practices, habits, and expectations.  The larger, and more globally-distributed your team is, the greater these distances are.

When you stop to learn and consider each culture’s driving impetus to success, you are better equipped to minimize the cultural differences.  For example, in countries like Korea and India, individual contributors will rarely, if ever, directly oppose the manager’s opinion. By taking this into consideration, honest feedback can be solicited peer to peer, instead of from top down.  Without taking this into consideration, and trying to impose your model of work on others, your team is likely to waste precious time and resources just figuring out how to work together.

This is just one small piece of the challenges of working internationally.

Over the years, our top consultants have shared (now) funny stories about the confusion and unintended consequences generated by the different cultural meanings of the word “yes”.

To the Western world, “yes”, means “I agree”, “I’ll do that”; but in other cultures, it means something quite different.  For example, in risk averse countries like India, “yes” generally indicates that the person will confer with the his or her supervisor and get back to you later.  In Japan, “yes” means “I heard you”; in countries like Venezuela where meetings are not for agreement, but to exchange ideas, a “yes” often means “someday”.

What are your global distance challenges?  have an interesting / illuminating story to share?

Are You Addicted to Email?

According to Radicati, “The average corporate worker spends a quarter of his/her work day on various email-related tasks. In comparison, the time spent in personal meetings accounts for about 14% of the typical day at the office, and phone conversations occupy only 9% of the typical workday.

In addition to this whopping 25% of your daily work effort, is the time it takes to shift gears in and out of your work flow to accommodate the incessant interruptions.

Recent research shows that having your smartphone at hand dramatically increases the interruptions as “checking habits” become, well, habitual and obsessive.

Email is a critical component in professional communications, yet it is a significant detractor to productivity.

That 25% of each day rapidly builds up into over 1 full work day each week.  What would YOU do with one extra day each week?  What about an extra day from each person on your team or throughout your organization?

Think about it.

Each week.

Each employee.

More than one full day on email.

They don’t like it any more than you do.

We all recognize the problem, but how, exactly, to address it?  Here’s one way:

Try setting aside “email free” time periods.  Everyone says things like this, it’s like the age-old joke of new mother’s napping when their babies sleep.  Just doesn’t happen.

But give it a try.  You will be amazed at how much more you get done.  No one is recommending that you turn off email for  day or anything drastic like that.  Just 90 minutes.

Take your first 90 minutes of the day and close your email, tuck away your smartphone and work.  If you’re in an office, put out a “do not disturb” notice or whatever you need to do to block off that time, and time yourself.  At the end of 90 minutes, take a break.  Get a healthy snack, go for a short walk.

Ideally, create a second 90-minute interruption-free block of time each day.  But I know you’re busy and the world will come to a crashing halt if you don’t check your email more often, so start with just one.

How often do you check your email?  Do you think the interruptions are significant?

Telecommuters — Get Connected!

It’s not enough to get the job done.  When your workspace is not physically connected to your team, you must make the effort to connect in other ways.

You are already trusted to work on your own, at home, unsupervised.  You must’ve already done something right.

Now that you are working outside of the office, you need to continue to “do things right” in order to be viewed as a valued and trusted member of your team.

But here’s where most companies fail with regards to people working from home — they seldom provide explicit guidelines or expectations.  And then they run on feelings and random observations to form their opinion of your abilities.

This is dangerous to your career as your ability to communicate and to meet unspoken expectations becomes the basis for evaluation.  Read that carefully — this is not an evaluation of your actual abilities.

You can rock your skill set, yet become stagnant in your career if you aren’t great at “being part of the team” that you are physically separated from.

What can you do?  Specifically:

  • Keep a consistent work schedule and communicate that schedule to both the people on your team who need to reach you; and the people most likely to interrupt you while at home (your family, friends, etc.).

– Your team will develop the mindset that you are working, available, and                                 “there” for them.

– Your family and friends will be less likely to make demands on you during                             this time (dog will not likely understand, however, and still drop balls at                               your feet and scratch at the door).

  • When you know of an upcoming interruption to this schedule, let your team know. Working from home implies that your discretion is to be trusted, so if you need to work differently on any given day, a quick heads-up to your team will go a long way to head off any frustration at not being able to reach you.
  • Communicate frequently with your teammates.  Stay Connected.  There are so many ways to talk to each other, there is no excuse to be out of touch.  Participate in phone conferences, video-meetins, company newsgroups, etc..  If these aren’t created yet — Create them!

How do you create mindshare when separated from your team?

"Replyallcalpyse" or "The Day NYU Broke"

It was bound to happen.

Every single one of us has accidentally sent an email somewhere, for whatever reason, and suffered through the unintended consequences.  But likely none of us quite so spectacularly as NYU sophomore Max Wiseltier.

Poor Max thought he was forwarding an email to his mom asking for help on a new paperless tax form request from the university’s bursar’s office.

What he, in fact, did, was click “reply all” and PRESTO, BAM-O, his message hit the inbox of every single one of his fellow students — all 39,979 of them!  Yikes!

As realization dawned, Max fired off a quick apology, but it was too late.  His errant message “triggered a rare, University-wide revelation,” wrote Kelly Weill in NYU Local.  “We simultaneously realized that any message, complaint, whim, link, video, or GIF could be sent to nearly 40,000 people in an instant.”

And the messages flew:

“Does anyone have a pencil I can borrow?” asked one.

“I want us all to be happy,” said another.

“Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses, or 1 horse-sized duck?” posed yet another.

That was just the beginning.  Many students took the opportunity to send out Nicolas Cage photos (in both regular and crazy).

Weill continues, “We had been given a great and terrible power.  For a moment we contemplated responsibility, then gleefully tossed it aside in favor of posting pictures of cats.”

The culprit, ultimately, was a poorly managed listserv.  Apologies were made, lists updated, all ended well.

As you go about your daily email today, take a little extra caution around that “reply all” button.  You never know what havoc you may wreak.

Share your funny / tragic “reply all” story!

Newsflash: Sarcasm hard to Communicate Electronically

There’s a study for everything. Psychologist Justin Kruger, PhD, and Nicolas Epley, PhD, of the University of Chicago have published their results (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 89, Nov. 5) that illustrate how sarcasm isn’t easily communicated electronically.   Is there any wonder in this result?  Without that eye-roll, verbal emphasis, pause, or wink, sarcastic remarks often fall short of their intended mark.

Krurger and Epley find that people overestimate both their ability to effectively communicate their intended tone in an email message and their ability to correctly interpret the tone of messages written by others (whether funny, sarcastic, or serious).

Why?  The disconnect has been attributed to egocentrism — when people have a difficult time detaching themselves from their own perspectives and understanding how others will interpret them.

But this isn’t about you.  Right?  You get it.  Others could use the help, but you – you’re funny, clever, and your co-workers and friends “get” your snark.

Unfortunately, not at often as you think.

In the initial part of the study, participants sent messages via voice recording and email.  The speakers and writers each anticipated a 78% success rate in effectively communicating their designated messages.  The participants recording their messages were close — 75% of their messages were received as expected.  But only 56% of the email messages were correctly received. That’s little better than half!!

Wait!  It gets better — the receivers of said messages anticipated a 90% accuracy rate.

Wow.  That’s a lot of unmerited confidence on both sides.

Inspired by previous research by psychologist Elizabeth Newton, PhD., Kruger developed additional experiments to delve deeper into the social phenomenon of egocentrism and hypothesized that the sender assumed that the receiver had the same understanding of intentions, motivations, and information.

In 1990, Newton tested the ability to tap out the rhythm of a well-known song and predict listeners’ ability to guess the song.  Tappers predicted a 50% success rate.  Success rate was actually 2.5%.

Reason being, according to Kruger, is that tappers “hear” the full, complete, song in their minds as they tap, but listeners hear only the random tapping.

“It’s impossible not to hear the song as you’re tapping away,” says Kruger. “So you have a hard time separating yourself from your own perspective and realizing how impoverished the listeners’ data really are.”

Comparatively, email writers “hear” their intended tone while forgetting that recipients don’t have access to all that extra information.

Kruger and Epley repeated their first experiments, but this time the email writers were required to read their messages aloud before sending.  Half of the writers read their messages with the intended tone, the other half assumed an opposing tone —  sarcastic tone for a serious message, or a serious tone for a sarcastic one.  Epley explains that the point was to force participants to step outside of their own perspective and to negate some of the egocentric impact.

It worked.  Participants who read their messages as intended still over-estimated the recipients’ ability to accurately interpret the message, but those that read their message in an opposing tone no longer did.

How can this help you?

Anyone who has ever been asked if they really meant something they said in an email that they thought was clearly funny or sarcastic, can attest to the unintended consequences of misunderstood tone.

When composing an email that contains emotional content, read it out loud.  Read it in various tones of voice.  Remind yourself that there is roughly a 50% chance of being misunderstood.  Ask yourself if this is a message better delivered over the phone or in person.

Do you have a great story about unintended consequences of an email that you or someone you know sent?  We’d love to hear it.

Save Our InBoxes!

Email overload.  It’s getting out of hand.  We spend an alarming amount of time each and every day simply responding to email messages.

Why?  And, more importantly, What can we EACH do to reduce this problem?

For years, we have been coaching people, teams, and organizations on the importance of managing email.  We have helped countless groups establish protocols that have helped to increase productivity and to unchain people from their ever-growing inboxes.

But it’s not enough.  Current research has shown that the average amount of time that each person spends during their workday on email is growing.

We need to get the word out, and here’s an excellent resource that can help you today.

It’s called the Email Charter.

The core principle in action is that every single one of us has to take responsibility for reducing the amount of time spent on email by our colleagues.  Here’s problem, as viewed through this lens:

For each email that you write, you are creating “work” for others.  Our instincts tell us it takes longer to write than to read, so reading an email should take less time than it did to write it, right?  Wrong. It takes longer to respond to an email than it does to write.  Here’s why:

When you “check your mail”, your process is more apt to be like:  scan your inbox; decide what to open; open it; read it; think about whether you need to respond or not; compose the response; edit your response; send your response.

Every time you engage in this process, you are removing yourself from your flow of work, you are diverting your attention and it takes time to regain that rhythm.

Now, think about this — every time you compose an email message, you are creating the same interruption of work for someone else.  Here are some very common email “habits” that add to the overloading of our inboxes and unnecessary consumption of our collective time:

  • Open-ended questions that are time-consuming to answer.  For example, “What are your thoughts on this?”, “How do you think we should proceed?”  Quick to ask, not-so-quick to answer.
  • “CC” – so easy to click and add multiple recipients, but each additional recipient exponentially increases the amount of time your email is consuming.
  • “FW” – forwarding and/or cutting and pasting text from other resources creates an increasing burden of time as your recipient scrolls, reads, and sorts through to find the salient points.
  • Links and videos – easy to add, but each link and video can take minutes to view.

We love the internet.  We love our email.  It takes an iron will not to linger and peruse all the wonderful, distracting nuances of the world wide web, and to share our discoveries with others, and they with us.  “Just copy a link, paste, and send … and boom, the world’s cognitive capacity takes another hit!”

All of these things contribute to the massive consumption of our work week.  We need to get it under control and we need to do so now.  I don’t recall any of my job descriptions (ever) including “checking email” as a line item, and yet, when I’m not careful, it can consume my day.

Email Overload

What’s going on here?

Our research, completed in 2010, revealed that the average person spends 30 minutes PER DAY deleting, or thinking about deleting, email!!

When did email become our work product and why do we have so much?!  It’s getting out of hand.

No one expects you to be a drone and tap away at your computer endlessly, tied to your machine for every minute of every day, but 3o minutes deleting email?  Over the course of a standard work-week, that’s 2 1/2 hours.  In a month, 10 hours; in a year 120 (15 eight-hour workdays).  That’s a lot of time you’ll never get back.  And that’s just you.  Multiply that over your project team, department, or company, and you just might feel a little ill.

Why?  Why do we get so much email that we don’t read?  I’m not talking about email lists that you sign up for giving you the latest sales from your favorite store.  Those aren’t counted in this research.  This research focused specifically on work-related email messages that were sent by real people to real people.

Does this mean that, even after all this time, many people still don’t understand how to use email effectively?  Yes, indeed it does.

What can you do?  They answers are not as simple as they appear on the surface (as is true for our most persistent problems).  For the sake of this article, we’re going to take a look at how a simple shift in your attitude toward email can help reduce the number of unwanted messages that you send and receive.

First, understand the purpose of the “TO” and “CC” fields. “TO” requires action.  “CC” requires none, it is a “for your information only” indicator.

Second, use “CC” sparingly.  Sending your manager or team leader multiple messages every week in which no action is required from them is just an annoying way to say, “look, Boss, I’m doing my job!”; “look at me!  look at me!”; “still here, working away!”  like some yappy little dog.  If you don’t feel trusted to get your work done, then that’s a different conversation you need to have face to face with your team lead.

Finally, resist the temptation to “CC” your team lead / manager whenever you feel a dispute is in the works and you want an “official” record of your position. This culture of “CYA” – “cover your … ahem, derriere” leads to unnecessary email messages and wasted time.  Take your dispute off-line and work it out in person.  It will be infintely better, trust me.

We get too much email.  We send too much email.  We delete too much email.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Start taking control through the judicious use of the “CC” field.

This article is the first in a series designed to help reduce your email overload.  Please share with us any comments / stories you have about your own email situation.