Who likes conference calls?

In order to be happy at work, you have to know what makes you unhappy at work.

I hate conference calls.

I like talking on the phone to one person at a time. Sometimes, it works well with three people, provided two are together in the same place. But start to have five, ten people all dialing in to a conference call service and I know I will be frustrated at some point during the call.

Why?

As a general rule, there’s no discipline. You can hear people on the call typing on their keyboards, or shuffling a lot of papers, or doing something else besides paying attention to the call. While it sounds extreme, I believe conference calls have become the work equivalent of Muzak: they’re background noise while you do something else at your desk.

But here’s the thing: we would not be having this call if we didn’t need to do some work together and it’s horribly unpractical and time-consuming to hold the same meeting bilaterally with all of the participants.

And, the technology is not easy or error-free. Often, you find that the number doesn’t work, or someone has the wrong access code. The list is endless as to why a call starts 15 to 20 minutes later than it was scheduled for. This adds to the distraction factor: I might as well do something else while I wait for the call to start and once the call starts, I carry on doing whatever it is I used as a filler.

Conference calls have another big handicap: there are no visual clues to aid communication. We can’t see when one person has stopped talking, or another would like to jump in. Often this means people talk over each other, and the call becomes a series of fits and starts:

“Please, go ahead.”

“No, you go.”

“Really, I’m finished, you go.”

“Well, if you insist.”

And somewhere in the middle of this mediocre comedy routine, someone else jumps in. It’s like having the 1960s cartoon chipmunks Chip and Dale play in your head on an endless loop.

We have so many tools today to allow us to work remotely, across geographies and time zones, and with people in different physical locations than we are in. I’m the first person to benefit from these technologies—it would be impossible for me to do my job without them. Here’s the thing that I believe we overlook: all of these enabling technologies need enabling behaviors to make them work effectively.

Here are some things I try to make conference calls as effective as possible:

  • Keep it short. The quality of any call over 30 minutes long is probably going to degrade as it passes the 30-minute mark.
  • Keep discussion to a minimum; conference calls are most effective when they inform a group of people about key information.
  • Have a strong moderator who keeps order during the call: such as explaining the purpose and calling on people rather than letting anyone talk at any time.
  • Only schedule a conference call with the people who need to be on the call and make the topic important enough to keep their attention for the duration of the call.
  • And, for the days I’m really frustrated, I call out the folks who are “misbehaving.” I have often asked participants to mute their phones or drop off the call if whatever they’re doing at their location is noisy.

Effective communication is really hard and I know I make a lot of mistakes every day; it’s something I will always need to work on. Here’s what helps me: when something doesn’t work well, I try to diagnose why it didn’t and come up with corrective actions. Why? Simply because who wants to be unhappy at work?

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