Can You Hear Me Now Part II

"Are you still there? Oh well, lets wait while he dials back in...."

A few weeks ago, we ran a piece entitled Can You Hear Me Now, looking at the impact of audio problems on knowledge worker productivity.  This is Part II of that story.

Audio problems impact knowledge workers to some extent nearly every day, on nearly every phone interaction.  Typically, this results in two Information Overload-related challenges: interruptions and missed information.

In practice, interruptions in the course of a phone or conference call can take various forms, ranging from dropped calls to participants dialing in late on a conference bridge and disrupting an ongoing exchange.  Anything that causes participants to have to ask for a point to be repeated – or a technical issue to be resolved – constitutes an interruption, and each carries with it a time penalty.  This includes seemingly minor disruptions such as echo, delay, GSM static, and overtalk, because the flow of information stops when someone asks the speaker to repeat himself.  In many of these situations, callers who are experiencing problems will leave a call, switch phones, and dial in again, causing even further delays.  If the caller with the problem was the one speaking, all other callers have to wait until he or she rejoins.

Since interruptions occur numerous times each day, even when they are short (and not all are), the lost time begins to add up and becomes a significant drain on the knowledge worker’s productivity.  The impact of an interruption extends past the initial event; interviews, surveys, and first-hand observation of hundreds of knowledge workers reveal the existence of “recovery time”. Recovery time refers to the amount of time it takes a worker to get back to where he was in his work or thought process prior to an interruption.  This typically takes somewhere between 10 to 20 times the duration of the interruption itself.

On a call, the same principle holds true, except it may be amplified geometrically by the number of people impacted.  In a call, if one knowledge worker is having audio issues such as echo or delay, all participants are subjected to a time penalty.  Likely there will be a minute or two of waiting for the caller to try fix the issue, followed by some small talk, and then some brief complaining about the conferencing system.  All in all, each caller may have lost as much as five minutes, which when scaled across a conference call with many participants, can translate into significant financial losses.

A lack of clarity on a call can result in not only a time penalty as knowledge workers ask for a speaker to repeat key points, but also in missed or incorrect information.  This introduces errors into work and can lead to costly problems down the line that range from time-consuming corrections in the best case to sub-standard work product being produced in the worst case.

In a voice-only communication environment, missed or incorrect information may be due to a number of factors that range from poor quality connections that garble voices, the use of mobile phones, background noise, ambient noise picked up by a speakerphone, audio clipping due to over talking, volume inconsistency, or even simply neglecting to use the mute button when appropriate.  Some of these issues are behavioral in nature, but many are not.

The time and productivity penalty for missed information is huge.  A knowledge worker may have to go back and listen to the recording of a call (assuming it was even recorded) a second time to catch or clarify valuable information, or even engage in lengthy follow up e-mail exchanges with other participants to confirm key data.  More likely, the knowledge worker will not even be aware that information was missed, and will move forward with an action item using incomplete information.  As the project moves forward, correcting an initial error will increasingly become more costly and disruptive.

Audio quality issues can have a significant impact on knowledge worker productivity; the importance of clear communications is often overlooked, but improving audio quality will not only have a dramatic impact on productivity but may have a surprising impact on an organization’s bottom line as well.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.  He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

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