Ria ditched her nonprofit office job in Chicago to teach English overseas. Needless to say, that transition gave her a fresh perspective.
Conference calls often do little more than breed multitasking and snarky conversations on Slack or Gchat. At their worst, they're a full-on waste of people's time, and can drain morale if the call is poorly managed. Sometimes these calls are unavoidable, either because they're logistically necessary or because some higher-up requires them, so here's how to make the most of them.
1. Send Materials in Advance
It helps to send an agenda in advance so that people can chime in ahead of time with anything they need to add. This reduces the likelihood of people going “Oh, one more thing!” just as everyone has said their goodbyes on the call.
If you’re going to refer to a given document or other visual, it may be helpful for everyone to have it available to them during the call. Rattling off some numbers and then having to repeat them three times is bound to be a waste of time. Even if the document in question should be in people’s inboxes, try re-sending it the day before the call, especially if it was sent several weeks or months ago.
You should also make sure to inform people ahead of time if they will be responsible for giving an update on a certain project. While sometimes last-minute requests are unavoidable and managers should generally be prepared for this possibility, it’s best to give people a heads-up instead of assuming they know and putting them on the spot.
2. Limit the Invites
There are two groups of people to think about: people who need to be on the call, and people who don’t need to be but could still be beneficial to have. People in that first category are probably decision-makers and team leads with updates to provide. Identifying these people should be fairly easy.
The second category may include people who can answer any questions on a specific situation, or who are in their way into leadership roles and could benefit from being on the call. It does not necessarily include every employee or every department. Remember, spending time on conference calls may be a waste of man-power when managers could just give key updates to their teams later. If in doubt, consult with managers and team leads about how to effectively use their time.
Depending on your organization, it may make sense to invite everyone but only make attendance mandatory for certain people. This allows interested parties to join, learn more, and hopefully contribute something in the end. Make sure to communicate these differing expectations clearly—and remember, the more people on the call, the more time it's likely to take!
3. Set Basic Ground Rules, But Don't Nag
Guidelines about when to ask questions, who’s expected to participate, and remembering to say your name when joining or speaking should be communicated, perhaps in the same email that contains the agenda. Remember that these guidelines will often have reasonable exceptions, or a rookie might not be familiar with your organization’s work culture. Nobody’s going to be perfect about remembering to mute their phone, either, so make sure to not harp on people for minor background noise or other small infractions.
If something is truly interfering with the call, try a broad “Can everyone make sure their phone is muted if they’re someplace noisy?,” even if you know exactly who the culprit is. Making feedback as indirect as possible can keep well-meaning employees from feeling scolded or unwelcome.
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4. Rotate Roles Wisely
Assigning people roles without consideration for their willingness and skills is likely to only make your conference call more tedious. Try assigning note-taking, agenda-setting, and facilitation roles to people who are actually interested in leading. In other cases, you may want to seek out team members who have a vested interest in a particular call’s topic. Whatever the reason may be, make sure to let people know why you’re asking them to take the role, as this can help improve their confidence and morale.
It’s also nice to have a fresh voice running the calls once in a while. Maybe one of the regional managers is very well-liked, and your team might enjoy having him or her emceeing things.
While a random or scheduled rotation of roles may seem fair, this can backfire. The rookie may end up resenting you if you make them responsible for notes on something they’re brand-new to. It’s probably also not good to assign a duty to someone who’s responsible for handling emergencies and may have to step out mid-call.
5. Start With a Positive
While you don’t want to overdo it and seem insincere, it’s nice to acknowledge when a great job has been done, or special effort has been made. If a particular group or individual just accomplished something big, open with that, even if it’s not super relevant to the call. You can also give a shout-out to someone fresh back from a big business trip, or maybe an entire office if they’re hopping on from a timezone where it’s still early in the morning. This can set a positive tone for an otherwise draining call.
Don’t make this part too long, though, otherwise it just wastes time. Also be careful to avoid showering the same people with praise every single call, as this can backfire and decrease morale in others.
6. Avoid Detailed Troubleshooting
Staying on-topic is obviously a goal for conference calls, but sometimes you run into tricky situations where someone’s question is on-topic, but it’s complicated or very specific to their situation. If it’s not at all applicable to others on the call, don’t be afraid to answer with “That’s a tricky one that’s pretty specific to the [insert city here] office. Can we discuss this offline?”
In some cases, you can also try a more specific rationale, like “I know some folks on the HR team have another meeting to get to in 10 minutes; can we postpone this discussion since it doesn’t involve them?” The important part is to make sure the questioner doesn’t feel like their question is inappropriate or burdensome—it just needs to be handled in a different time or place.
7. Put the Least-Important Topics at the End
While the goal is always to have a conference call end on time, there are some days when technical issues or complicated problems might make it take longer. It's also possible that an emergency will pop up, forcing at least one person to jump off the call.
If your call is scheduled for longer than a half-hour, there’s a high chance that a busy manager or other decision-maker will have to run to another, more urgent meeting, whether planned or not. Try to put any time-sensitive items that require their input earlier in the call. While it may be possible to bring a missing manager back into the loop afterward, that takes time and attention out of your day—or someone else’s.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Liz Westwood from UK on November 10, 2018:
These rules could also be applied to face to face meetings.