About twenty years ago, I was introduced to a newfangled business tool called the teleconference. Here was a way of talking to a team of people in multiple locations by using just the one dial-in number, and it could be managed very simply from the desk phone (not many mobiles at that time). For my initiation, we had a team of about twelve people across three cities in conversation, and we were all very excited. The wonder of modern technology never ceases to amaze.
The teleconference has now evolved, and become a normal part of doing business. It is a common and essential tool for many organizations, and executives and managers can be involved in multiple calls each day. Indeed, some complain of a day of “back-to-back calls”. Over time, the teleconference will give way more and more to the video conference, but for the moment the teleconference is a tool that is used extensively across all levels in business.
Whilst the teleconference has brought much benefit at low direct cost, there are some serious productivity traps. Indeed in some situations, the teleconference is often seen as a chore which adds little value. Here are some of the ways that value can be compromised on a teleconference:
1. The race to multi-process
Too many conference calls involve significant multi-processing by participants which can be a major distraction from the subject at hand or the decision to be made. Chat room conversations are the worst offenders, and often these generate multiple exchanges between people on the teleconference that are totally peripheral to the subject. Worse still is the habit of people setting the call to mute, and then conducting an entirely separate conversation in the background. How this helps to make better decisions or conversations defies belief.
2. The straggler co-efficient
Over the years, I have come to learn that the more frequent the teleconference, the greater the percentage of latecomers. This applies in particular to daily or weekly calls. Teleconferences that occur less frequently, such as monthly or quarterly, have the effect of bringing people to the call more or less on time lest they miss key but infrequent messages. Put another way, the number of latecomers or stragglers is in direct proportion to the frequency of the calls. Stragglers can seriously impact the flow and quality of the call for everyone.
3. “Sorry – I was on mute”
The mute button on a phone is a powerful tool in itself. Unfortunately, some participants will hit the mute button, and carry on a totally separate discussion or activity. This is a frequent occurrence. In extreme cases, participants may actually leave the call completely to quickly grab a coffee. The mute button can also be used as a means of privately venting some emotion or anger at comments being made. Occasionally, the mute button is overlooked in error, and the resulting public comments can add a somewhat entertaining dimension to the call. The mute button is important to shut out extraneous noise, but using it to effectively opt out of the teleconference would seem to compromise the quality of the call.
4. The dreaded mobile phone participant
Some years ago a senior colleague of mine had two very simple rules for teleconferences – no mobiles and no speaker phones. Whilst this sounds a bit draconian, his point was a good one highlighting the need for everyone on the call to be able to hear all participants clearly and without distraction. There will always be good reason for someone to be on a mobile, but doing so from the train station or near a nosy road is not exactly conducive to a good teleconference.
But all is not lost. Here are some simple guidelines that can help shape more productive teleconferences:
- Clearly articulate the purpose of the call. Be clear on whether the call must result in a decision or whether it is just information sharing or discussion.
- Outline and follow an agenda with some structure. This is so simple yet so often ignored.
- Gather the right people for the call, and avoid the rent-a-crowd syndrome.
- A good teleconference starts on time and finishes on time.
- An even better teleconference is a short one. Many calendar systems default to a 60 minute time slot, but some calls should be set for a more suitable shorter duration.
With some focus and adherence to the above guidelines, much can be done to ensure the teleconference does not degenerate into an endurance test.