This is a guest post from Ed Morris, an ecologist practitioner for a large protected areas network in Canada.


I work for a large organization. I’m a public servant and an applied scientist. We have a main office, but many of us work in regional offices that are each separated by several hundred kilometres. Face to face meetings are increasingly rare, and you won’t see us attending conferences. So how do we stay in contact with one another? Mostly through email and conference calls. We’re addicted to Outlook.

It’s too easy to compose an email, add attachments and just keep adding names to the distribution list. Everyone does this, causing our in-boxes to balloon. Then the senders of emails are often disappointed with low response rates, and those few responses that do arrive are sometimes hastily thrown together at the eleventh hour. That’s not the outcome anyone wants.

As for conference calls, it’s easy to snoop into peoples’ calendars and schedule them into meetings. We’ve dropped the formality of using Robert’s Rules of Order. Yet, too few of us have the self-awareness to be a good participant, and fewer still have the skills to be a good moderator. We can all think of people who speak long and often, and others that never speak. Big booming voices that sit next to the phone, and quiet voices that sit beyond the microphones’ range. We’ve experienced people who have difficulty staying on topic. We’ve experienced people who derail the discussion with their alternate takes. Full disclosure: I am sometimes one of those people too.

I was about to make major revisions to a landscape ecology model, but wanted to discuss it with certain peers first. I loathed the prospect of writing a long-winded email, as it is a complicated subject. I also loathed scheduling a conference call with this particular combination of personalities. Neither communications tool was going to give a satisfactory outcome.

What did I do? After some thought I booked individual person-to-person phone calls. This decision will be obvious to some of you, but it was a lightbulb moment for me. It felt weird to break away from the ‘limited choice’ of email or a conference call. This is the unintentional corporate culture we’ve created.  

Those calls were fabulous. I set my phone to hands-free, and recorded them with a voice recorder. I posed questions, and did my best to be quiet while my peers spoke uninterrupted. Personality traits that would have been disruptive in a conference call never surfaced. We explored subjects in a way that we never could in a conference call. At one point I wondered if I should go to the trouble of editing the recordings into a podcast-like summary. Maybe. In any case, I have the information I need to proceed, and I know that my peers are more likely to endorse the final product.

Think about breaking away from the false, limited choice between email or conference call. A series of person-to-person phone calls can take more time, but it will be productive time. It is also more personal, which contributes to making you and your peers form a team in practice, not just in name. Maybe that too will help the next time you find yourselves in yet another conference call.