May 9, 2018

How to have better conference calls

With companies expanding globally, conference calls are often the most efficient way to get teams together. But since conference calls lack the visual cues of in-person meetings, they can be awkward, tense or just plain bad. Here’s what we’ve learned about how to make them better.

Ah, conference calls. With companies expanding globally, organizations increasingly offering flexible work arrangements, and remote or virtual teams becoming a greater part of the workforce, conference calls are often the most efficient way to get cross-functional and cross-border teams together.

But these calls can be chaotic, cringe-y, or both, if all parties involved don’t consider the factors that come into play when you’re not meeting in person.

With conference calls, you’re missing the visual cues like facial expressions, body language, and hand gestures. Meaning can get lost when you’re a faceless voice on a phone line.

As contributor Peter Daisyme writes in Entrepreneur, “conference call etiquette is different than ‘regular phone’ etiquette. It becomes increasingly important the more people there are on the call, and even more important when there are cultural and language barriers.”

Assuming that you’ve already considered whether or not you need to have a conference call at all (and the answer to that is affirmative), here are the top tips for conference call etiquette and efficiency..

Be on time

This sounds like common sense, but it’s worth mentioning that just because people can’t see you, it’s no less urgent to join the call on time (plus, call participants usually hear a tone when a new person joins the call). Imagine how this scenario would play out in-person.

Tell people you’ve joined the call

Don’t be a lurker. Again, this sounds like common sense, but remember that people can’t always see you, and especially in larger calls, they’re likely not vigilantly monitoring the list of participants on the phone. Let people know when you’ve joined.

Alternatively, if you’re running the meeting, it’s equally effective to kick things off by asking who’s on the phone. If you’re in a room and in-person with some team members while others are on the phone, it’s helpful to name who’s in the room with you.

Then put yourself on mute

Background noise is the bane of conference calls. While everyone wants to multi-task (and will often do so when they have an opportunity to), no one wants to hear you typing and replying to emails when you should be focused on the call. An advantage of having conference calls is that team members can take them while they’re on the road, working from home, or in other locations – so be mindful of background sounds.

However, keep in mind that people on mute tend to tune out of calls. If you’re leading the call, there are a few ways to keep participants engaged. Ask questions, for example, or use visual cues if you’re presenting slides. Setting an agenda (see below) is also helpful, because it sets people’s expectations around opportunities to respond, participate and ask their own questions (and therefore pay attention).

Being mindful of background noises also means that you shouldn’t eat or drink during a call – unless it’s a lunch or dinner hour meeting and it’s clear everyone’s eating (in which case, we’ll go back to an early etiquette adage – don’t talk with your mouth full).

Set and share an agenda

Conversations can go off on tangents, and with a lack of visual cues, it’s even easier for that to happen. That’s why setting an agenda – and sticking to it – is important. Send it out in advance, and at the beginning of the meeting, review it as a reminder for everyone of what the goals and objectives are for the call. Everyone’s time is limited, so setting expectations is helpful for everyone involved.

Be prepared with questions and comments

If you’ve received an agenda, or know that there’s an outcome your team is working towards for the call, do your part. Come to the meeting prepared with a list of questions, and/or feedback related to what you’re working on. Again, the more everyone’s time is respected, the more collaborative and efficient your meeting will be.

Check your tech

Don’t assume that your calling technology will work. Give yourself some time to test and check. If you’re presenting, make sure you can share your screen with call participants, and that your slides are working. Set up a conference line or dial-in (avoid the “Are you guys calling me?” last-minute emails), and make sure it’s in your meeting invite (along with your agenda).

If you’re not yet convinced that the need to reduce the chaos of conference calls is a real thing, check out this video (with thanks to FastCompany and Seth Godin for earlier shares).


Danielle Ng-See-Quan

Dani is the Senior Manager, Content Marketing at Ceridian.

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