45royale November 9, 2009

Do conference calls kill your productivity?

Occasionally I get the feeling that conference calls negatively impact my day-to-day productivity. And when I say conference calls, I’m talking about project related phone calls between two or more people. There have been so many days lately where I feel like I’m constantly on the phone. Logically I understand that the number of phone calls can be attributed to how many active projects we have and our desire to maintain a high level of client communication and engagement. But on those days, even though I felt that I was constantly busy, I really have nothing tangible to show for it. Do you ever feel that way? I hate those days. At the same time though, I know our clients are happy because we’re in constant communication with them. So why do I still feel like there needs to be a better approach to phone communication that leaves me feeling productive and satisfied at the end of the day?

A trip down memory lane

When I look at my experience with project calls over the years, I definitely have a bad taste in my mouth from previous “corporate” jobs. In particular, I worked over 6 years for what is now AT&T and conference calls dominated my day. Not only were there several conference calls during the day, most of them were at least an hour, and some lasted three times that long. Seriously, no one had time to get their actual work done because they had to attend a meeting about an issue or an upcoming project. Oh and the worst—having meetings about meetings. Even as I write this I can feel my blood pressure rising at the thought of how much time and money was wasted. However, reflecting on my experience there makes me realize that it wasn’t necessarily the amount of time spent on project calls that was the problem; it was how they were being managed. In fact, they weren’t being managed at all, which in turn lead to more confusion. And when there is confusion, you have to hold a meeting to get everyone on the same page.

How things have changed

It’s because of this jaded view on the value of conference calls that I am so passionate about managing projects at 45royale. All of my years of complaining about the way projects were run by my former employer gave me a laundry list of ways to run projects and meetings more efficiently. For example, here’s a list of five things that help me run an effective meeting:

  • Have an agenda: Planned meetings should have an agenda that is sent to all of the participants before the meeting. When you list out the items you want to cover on a call, everyone knows what is expected of them and it’s much easier to keep everyone focused.
  • He who calls it, runs it: Nothing is worse than attending a meeting with no leader. Whoever calls a meeting should be responsible for sending out the agenda, managing the participants, and sending out notes or action items following the meeting.
  • Keep it short: Most people start to lose focus after 20 minutes, so do your best to keep your project calls as short as possible. If your call needs to be longer than an hour, consider breaking it up into two calls.
  • Do a recap of the call before hanging up: Mentioning the key takeaways from the meeting at the end of the call will help keep the details fresh in everyone’s mind once they hang up.
  • Send out meeting notes to the team: Remember when I said that people lose focus during meetings? Sending out meeting notes after the call gives people who weren’t paying attention a chance to speak up if they missed something important and gives everyone something to refer back to before the next meeting.
Tone, which many people don’t properly convey in written exchanges, can more easily be identified over the phone and helps give you a better sense for how a person feels about a particular issue.

It took a lot of bad conference calls to come up with the list above. It was especially tough when we were first starting out and learning about ourselves, our clients, and who we wanted to be as a company. And turning my vision of running a perfect project into reality wasn’t as easy as it first seemed, it certainly involved a lot trial and error. But let’s face it, when you work remotely on a project (which happens most of the time in our industry) conference calls are a necessity. Don’t get me wrong, we use Basecamp and email in an attempt to keep project communication at a high level between meetings, but it’s hard to replace the value of a good old fashioned phone call. A simple call can save you hours of back and forth with your clients and colleagues. Tone, which many people don’t properly convey in written exchanges, can more easily be identified over the phone and helps give you a better sense for how a person feels about a particular issue. That knowledge may cause you to change your approach or inspire you to come up with a new solution entirely. Either way though, a quick and properly run meeting can save you time and can leave everyone feeling like they were heard; which does wonders for maintaing morale on a project.

So have I answered my own question?

Sort of. After writing this out and thinking about conference calls then and now, I have to admit they add value. But if I admit they’re valuable, why do I feel unproductive after a conference call filled day? Shouldn’t I feel the exact opposite?

I realize now that my problem stems from the fact that I wear too many hats these days. If I was just the project manager, a day full of productive calls would be considered a perfect day for me. However, since we’re a small firm, I have other roles that I have to fulfill on a daily basis. In addition to being a project manager, at different points in the day I could be playing the role of information architect, front-end developer, or even the administrative assistant. As a result, when I wear my project management hat the entire day, my other roles are neglected. That bothers me because even though I know deep down those project calls are valuable, I know that while I’m on the phone, that wireframe isn’t being completed and that page isn’t being coded.

Keeping my multiple personalities happy

In the end, I think better planning is the best way to solve this problem. We plan our project schedules and meeting agendas; now we’ll have to start doing a better job of blocking out time to make sure we have time for all our necessary “costume changes”. It will take some experimentation on our behalf, but I’m confident that we can find a solution, just like we always do. But we aren’t the only small company (web or otherwise) that put on different hats throughout the day. If you share a similar experience or have some tips about managing multiple projects/hats/etc. at once, we’d love to hear from you!

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