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August 1999

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Ford Takes Road Less Traveled

Vancouver, Washington: Making Room for Double

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Conference Calling
by Peter Block


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Diary of a Shutdown

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Conference Calling
by Peter Block

At some unidentified moment in the last year, conference calls replaced meetings and e-mail, and answering machines replaced conversation. No sense complaining, it is now time to make the best of it.

My concern is that there will soon be a book entitled "Virtual Participation: Keys to Successful Conference Calls." This column is to save you and me from the trouble of reading that book. I, for one, am beginning to love conference calls. So much of the burden of relating is removed.

No longer distracted by a nervous obsession to make eye contact, I love not having to lean forward to indicate interest. Facial expression has never been my strong suit, and being one who runs the gamut of emotions from A to B, I no longer have to envy or be responsive to the unstated emotional needs of others.

Plus, the advantage of participating in a conference call over attending a meeting is like the preference for reading a book over seeing the movie or the joy of listening to radio over watching television. Phone meetings, reading and radio fuel our imagination, let us decide what the characters look like. I can project qualities on others without having them defined for me. I have become a modern man, happy to substitute phone time for face time.

What concerns me is the lack of ground rules for phone meetings. It is time we set some national standards for conference calling. In an era of affirming family values and finally overcoming the destructive effects of the 1960s on our democratic tradition, I am calling for a global consensus on the ethics of phone conferences. If we do not act quickly, the whole thing could get out of hand. Here is my draft proposal for establishing the proprieties of conference calling:

Problem: What do you do if you are the first one on the call and the others are late?

Recommendation: Be proud that you are the first one on the call. Accept with grace that you wait there in a mildly seething stupor of silence, wondering why others seem to have something more important to do. Don't hang up and call later so it looks like you managed to squeeze this call into an otherwise impossible schedule. Waiting in silence for others to "join" the call doesn't have to be a real downer. Granted, it is a bit embarrassing, as happened to me yesterday, to whisper into the silence, "Is anybody there yet?" and have the operator quickly chime in, " Sir, you are the only one on the call!"

Problem: What do you do when others are late in joining the call?

Recommendation: Begin the meeting when three are present and five minutes has elapsed. In this era where speed is everything, timeliness is more Godly than ever. Don't waste time with unfocused light conversation. Avoid the temptation to gossip about the ones you are waiting for. If you must wait, stay silent and privately review the agenda and prepare your comments.

Problem: What do you do when you are the one who is late?

Recommendation: When you are the one who is late, announce yourself immediately when you join the phone call. Do not wait a delicious moment before speaking and don't yield to the joy of engaging in some free eavesdropping. I know there aren't many times in life you can be on the listening end of a wiretap, but resist.

Problem: What do you do when a person on the call is someone you have been trying to talk to but you have both been so busy…?

Recommendation: Eliminate side conversations. It is uncivil to the others to reaffirm Thursday's lunch with Howard, knowing that if I do not mention it to him right now, he might forget. Better to miss the lunch than clutter the call with matters of a purely personal nature.

Problem: How do you know who is speaking?

Recommendation: Say your name each time you speak. When you have no idea who is speaking ask, "Who is that?" Don't just go along quietly hoping you will figure it out after a while. More than once I have gotten into arguments with the wrong person, only to realize later that if I had known it was Dick speaking, I would have been in total agreement with him.

Problem: It is sometimes unclear who owns the meeting.

Recommendation: Conference calls must have a designated leader. When I dialed in recently, the operator wanted the company name, the code name and the leader's name. I didn't know the leader's name and the operator would not let me on the call. So much for self-managing conference calls. Know the leader or be the leader and make it clear up- front to all involved.

Problem: What do you do when you must temporarily leave the call for personal or work reasons?

Recommendation: When you have to leave the call for a moment it is best to tell the others you will be gone. It is tempting to sneak away in silence and hope they will not notice your absence, but there is always the chance they will ask you a direct question and your silence might be misinterpreted as either withholding or a certain lack of alertness.

Problem: What are the rules for early withdrawals?

Recommendation: When you know you have to leave early, announce it just before you leave. It is rude to announce you are thinking of leaving early at the moment of arrival. It can be misinterpreted as a lack of loyalty and commitment to the call. Better to wait until the last minute and say you have to go in five minutes. It draws attention to yourself, and insures that items important to you will be discussed before the meeting is over. Some may resent it, but isn't that their problem really?

Problem: At the end of the call, if you still need to talk to someone privately, should you ask them to stay on the line when the others have left?

Recommendation: Definitely not. It is tempting, especially if someone else is paying for the call, but to pursue two-person conversations in a conference call context is a violation of common space and incurs an inefficient cost burden.

This list is only a beginning of what will hopefully become a national debate. If we are entering an era of faceless engagement, let's meet it head on. Perhaps what we need is a National Conference Call Day. One day where every person in America gets on the same line and talks to each other - a day of union and recognition. I can imagine TV specials, greeting cards, fashion wear, high-design sitting shoes and ultimately drinking cups at fast food restaurants.

If these ideas strike a chord, e-mail me. If you want to call, feel free but please arrange for some others to join us. Who knows, we could have the beginnings of a nice little business here. A small movement, even an IPO could be in the offing, highly leveraged of course. Doesn't hurt to dream.

Let's talk.

August '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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