The most common form of synchronous communication available and used by virtual teams everywhere is the conference call, often referred to as the teleconference though for the purposes of this article I will use conference call as some individuals and organisation use the term teleconference interchangeably for video and telephone conference calls.
The teleconference is such a common feature of organisations that it is taken for granted almost everywhere it is used, little training is given beyond the functional instructions as to how to use the equipment to connect locations, yet with a little extra planning and foresight they can become much more effective.
Conference Call Physical Environment
The physical environment for your conference calls is more important than many would consider, many conference call base stations have a limited reception range meaning that for many installations only those seated close to the microphone are able to be heard and therefore participate in the larger discussion. They will be heard in the room they are located however and as such can lead to local discussions or the exclusion of those in other locations. To solve this, either deploy multiple satellite microphones in a room or aim to have all participants seated inside the reception zone of the microphone.
Background noise and visual distractions can also be a real problem. Background noise will lead to poor audio quality, which in turn leads to poor communications, visual distractions such as having your room with windows at street level or looking out into a busy office can lead to a lot of distractions from external sources. Aim to have your call in a quiet location, away from external visual stimuli.
Conference Call Participant Disengagement
There is little that is more frustrating on a conference call than knowing or at least suspecting that the participants at another location are disengaged from the discussion. This can become apparent by long delays between questions being asked and responses received as the other end takes their handset off mute or asks you to repeat the question as they were busy with a crossword or answering an email. As a general guideline, I would recommend that everyone is encouraged to be active participants in a conference call, that they leave their cell phone in their pocket or better yet at their desk and that mute functions are only used when there is a genuine need, such as to allow a speaker to present their material without any interruption, beyond that, mute should not be used, and personnel must be attentive to the meeting or leave the call.
Bringing other distractions to a teleconference should also be avoided wherever possible, maintaining the mental “presence” can be a challenge in a long conference call on the best of days but with the attraction of email keeping the mind on the meeting gets only harder. I was once part of a conference call between two rooms equipped with video conference equipment, part way through the call one of the attendees at my end of the call turned on the video equipment, giving us a view into the other room where we saw one of the senior guy’s at that end sitting with his feet up doing a crossword, this was a disappointing experience for many at my side of the call, both seeing this senior officer of the organisation so actively disconnected and also seeing the rest of his colleagues not doing anything to keep him engaged.
Strategies For Effective Conference Calls
Combined with avoiding the issues discussed above, there are a few things to aim for when trying to hold effective conference calls;
- Keep the meeting focussed – Aim for a meeting in which every participant has a part to play or has skin in the game, they will be more engaged and will be more likely to attend.
- Keep it on schedule – long rambling meetings are difficult in a co-located environment, having a long rambling conference call is even worse as attendees mind’s will start to wander, set a schedule and keep to it, take additional items off line or into separate meetings.
- Keep them brief – no conference call should really last longer than about 1 hour and even that is starching it a little, set a time scale and keep to it.
- Do not pander to latecomers – if someone arrives late to the meeting do not go over things already discussed, this is extremely disrespectful to those who were there on time. Let the latecomers catch up after the meeting.
- Be conscious of the time at other locations – This is especially important in multi timezone virtual teams, some of the personnel attending may be doing so late in the night, early in the morning or on their weekend or public holiday.
Done correctly conference calls can be highly effective, following these few tips can make quite a difference to the effectiveness of your meetings.
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