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The technology is there, but somehow many conference calls still end up more trouble than they’re worth. Matthew Jenkin explains how to make them work for you
Love it or loathe it, the conference call is likely to continue playing a central role in employees’ lives as more and more companies embrace remote working. It may be a fantastic way to communicate with remote teams, but it can also be one of the biggest threats to productivity.
People talk over each other, lines are intermittent, and it’s easy for people to get disengaged. In fact, a survey from Intercall(1) found that the majority of workers (65 per cent) are guilty of doing other work during a conference call. More than half the people on the line are eating, just under half are in the bathroom, one in five are shopping, one in 11 are exercising and six per cent are taking another call.
So, with 53 per cent of professionals working remotely(2) at some stage during their week, here are seven ways to master the art of the conference call.
Day and time really do matter
Finding a slot in everyone’s busy calendar for a conference call can be a headache – particularly if your team is working remotely from different countries and in different time zones. However, research shows that timing is indeed everything if you want to get the most out of a virtual meeting.
The morning is the time when we are most productive, with behavioural scientist Dan Ariely(3) claiming we are at peak productivity between 9am and 11am. The later in the working day you hold a meeting, the less capable you are of making decisions and judgements(4).
Data also suggests that even the day you hold the conference call can make a difference to how successful it is. Tuesday appears to be the winner(5), as it’s early enough in the week that there is time to take immediate action on any decisions made. Not to mention that being so soon after the weekend, your team is slightly fresher and not as run-down as they may be towards the latter stages of the week.
Nail the agenda
It may sound like a no-brainer but an easy way to keep call participants interested is to really nail the agenda beforehand and ensure that it’s circulated with the initial invite. “The more detail you can include about what you’re talking about, why you’re talking about it and who needs to talk, will really cut down the potential for daydreaming,” explains Chris Ogle – a business development manager at Flow Digital who regularly holds conference calls to discuss web strategy.
Andrew Dipper, head of content and search marketing at technology recruiter Anderson Frank(6), agrees. He adds that participants should know in advance how to join the conference call, what will be discussed, and what they are expected to contribute. If a note-taker is being assigned for the call, outline who this is and what is expected of them during and after the conference. Last-minute calls are usually a disaster as nobody has the time to prepare and therefore will struggle to contribute anything valuable.
Get to know each other
Participants on the call might be scattered across the four corners of the earth but building a relationship with each other before and during the call will help reduce any awkwardness. In a blog(7) about his time managing a team of remote working reporters, journalist Butch Ward says he would always try to meet his team face-to-face whenever he could, despite the long-distance travel involved.
Of course, if that’s really not practical, then at least try to find out more about participants during the call. Ward says having everyone announce their presence at the beginning of the call helps him picture who’s sitting around the virtual conference table and it gives him a chance to make a checklist of who’s on the call, so he can make sure everyone’s voice is heard.
Keith Ferrazzi, the CEO of consulting firm Ferrazzi Greenlight(8), suggests that organisers implement a moment at the beginning of each call where, for the first five minutes of the meeting, “everyone should take turns and talk a little about what’s going on in their lives, either personally or professionally.” It’s a great ice-breaker.
Don’t be funny
Save the jokes and banter for the bar after work. In fact, don’t even laugh. Ross McCammon(9), articles editor for GQ magazine, says he adopts a far more serious persona than he would in a physical meeting. Humour tends to backfire in a conference call setting where visual emotional cues and body language can’t be read.
Alyssa Bantle, global curriculum manager at Crown World Mobility, coaches employees to overcome cultural differences when working in international teams. She says humour during a conference call can be used as a means to bring people together, but be careful. Irony, wordplay and poking fun can be endearing to some, but can also be hard to understand and may even cause offence.
A conference call may be a fantastic way to communicate with remote teams, but it can also be one of the biggest threats to productivity
Less is more
Keep conference calls short and concise. There are no prizes for wasting everyone’s time in a marathon meeting. According to productivity expert Laura Stack(10)
, 45 minutes is the best length for any meeting. She adds that if the meeting must last longer, split it into 45-minute periods separated by a substantial break.
Ogle agrees and warns that too many variables can lead to a messy conference call experience. “By variables I’m referring to the number of devices on a call, number of people involved, and only using a conference calls for things that absolutely can only be progressed via a conference call,” he says. “Just because you are able to have 12, 20, 50 people on a call, doesn’t mean you should.”
When key decisions need to be made, it is best to limit the amount of people you include in your call. With larger group meetings, it’s useful to keep the Asch Conformity experiments(11) in mind – particularly if you are including more junior members of the team. These experiments undertaken by Solomon Asch during the 1950s state that: “Conformity tends to increase when more people are present, but there is little change once the group size goes beyond four or five people.”
“Conformity increases when other members of the group are of higher social status. When people view the others in the group as more powerful, influential, or knowledgeable than themselves, they are more likely to go along with the group.”
Understand cultural differences
Cultural clashes and colleagues with different accents or varying levels of English can provide obstacles for global conference calls. Bantle says that on the surface there are all the obvious complications of people talking all at once and misunderstanding each other. But on a deeper level there are the underlying reasons for misunderstandings – the cultural differences in the way we listen, interact and communicate. Failing to understand or accommodate those differences can make a call very difficult indeed.
She gives the example of a team from the UK talking to colleagues in Japan. The Japanese workers may find it hard to keep up with their fast-talking British friends who feel under pressure to contribute to the call. While cultural conditioning means the Japanese employees are politely waiting their turn to speak (which never arrives) and as a result it appears they have nothing to say.
To avoid this mess, she advises callers take the following steps. Firstly, to overcome any language barriers, take turns and avoid interrupting. For example, if you are leading the call then perhaps set rules for turn-taking. Then clarify and confirm what has been said. Make a point of asking if you have heard correctly; urge people to repeat complicated ideas and phrases. Finally ask if everyone on the call has understood what was said. If not, do something about it. Acknowledge others so they know they have been understood and don’t repeat themselves.
Video may have become an increasingly popular means of communication in our personal lives, fuelled by social media, but many businesses are still reluctant to embrace it wholesale for conference calling. However, according to recent Wainhouse Research(12) 74 per cent of employees who use video and webcams during meetings like the ability to see colleagues’ reactions to their ideas, and nearly 70 per cent feel it increases connectedness between participants.
Indeed, a 2017 Forbes Insights(13) study of 333 executives revealed that 62 per cent of respondents agree that relative to audio conferencing, video conferencing significantly improves the quality of communication – a figure that rises to 73 per cent among high-growth companies. In addition, 50 per cent of those surveyed believe video conferencing also improves the degree of understanding.
However, Ogle warns against dropping audio conferencing completely. “Wherever possible, try to stick to webcam meetings with phone dial-ins,” he says. “You can’t underestimate the value of eye contact, but if you’re banking on everyone’s web connection to be working like a dream, expect a dodgy meeting. Phone lines are a bit more reliable so try to stick to the strong points of both elements."
Matthew Jenkin is a US-based journalist and the former editor of Guardian Careers, The Guardian newspaper’s community site for job seekers and career changers