Young woman talking on the phone while ironing clothesIf you’ve ever managed to do some on-the-clock work by telephone, you’ve probably realized you can do work from just about anywhere; phones haven’t been tied strictly to landlines in ages. You can take a call from your hands-free device in the car, while waiting at the airport, or while in the comfort of your pajamas.

For remote workers, their mobile device is more than a phone line, it’s a lifeline. Perhaps the best way to communicate sensitive information or built rapport with your team is simply by allowing them to hear your voice. But as any telecommuter knows, a ringing phone is usually an interruption in a already hectic schedule. How can a phone quickly return to being a remote worker’s best friend?

There’s one technology that many people wield with the same precision that a chef handles a knife: the mute button. A quick press covers the sound of a cough, a sneeze, a screaming child, or a noisy dog. This use of mute is respectful and appreciated—although most of the time, entirely undetected.

Where the mute button gets tenuous is when it’s used during long stretches at a time. It doesn’t take much concentration to put away the dishes, so why not pop on the mute button and unload the dishwasher while someone else is talking? The same goes for laundry, routine cooking, or other domestic chores.  Why not knock out a few inane tasks while the other person is yammering away?

Telecommuters armed with the power of “mute” may believe they can be more productive with a greater level of multitasking. With the speakerphone and the mute button together, organizing papers in the office or rifling through the spam folder is unknown on the other end. And if it is a large, multi-party conference call covering a topic that doesn’t impact you directly, why not process email or get other work accomplished? It’s killing two birds with one stone, right?

The problem with this strategy is that human beings cannot truly accomplish two separate intellectual activities at the same time.  Multitasking is a myth. Sure, you can carry on a conversation while riding a bike or sweeping a floor, but most of us cannot read text while listening to someone else speak about another subject.

Remote workers especially need to be wary of the allure of the mute button. It’s too easy to dismiss people at the other end of the line as wasting your time. If someone talks for more than two or three minutes without interruption, at least offer an affirming word or phrase, such as, “Right,” or “Keep going.”

That way, they know you’re there. And more importantly, you’re really paying attention. Don’t overuse the mute button. Be present when you’re talking with someone. If you feel your mind drifting toward doing something else, speak up! It might be time to change the conversation.

About the Author


Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. Robby runs a business improvement consulting company. His focus is helping organizations and individuals to become more efficient, more effective and more satisfied at work. Robby is a regular contributor in several regional magazines and has been interviewed by national publications such as the Wall Street Journal. His latest book is The Unbeatable Recipe for Networking Events. You can read more and see a complete list of books here.


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