Tips for teleconference calls

Last week I participated in several mixed attendance meetings. That is some people were present in the room and some were dialing in. In my case I dialed in (sometimes as the sole person on the phone) to meetings where several people were present face to face in a room. None of these were great experiences or felt like being a productive use of time. Perhaps because the organization I was working with is not very disciplined in either meeting organization or in teleconf protocols.

Most meetings I've attended there do not have an agenda, the person calling the meeting does not usually act as a chairperson i.e. a control point, people shout over each other, they talk to each other on points – despite pleas for 'one meeting' a phrase that has just entered organizational vocabulary, and very few action points are recorded or picked up for action.

Fortunately organization members are at least partially aware that their meetings leave a lot to be desired, and have put up notices in the common areas headed: "Are your meetings effective?" with some points on how to address deficiencies. However, it's noticeable that no points are specific about how to handle dial in attendees, who have particular challenges in participating in badly controlled meetings. Key among these:

  • First people in the room forget they have people on the line, so there is no convention of saying "This is Tom speaking … "
  • Second face to face participants do not speak into the microphone so it is very difficult for dial in people to hear and follow what's going on.
  • Third the fact that the meeting is ill-disciplined means trying to unravel several competing conversations.
  • Fourth, the chairperson, or anyone else rarely invites people on the phone to contribute or offer thoughts so it doesn't seem to make much odds whether they're on the phone or not.

These experiences led me to start formulating a guide 'how to run a mixed teleconf/face to face meeting'. But then I realized there must be some already available which proved to be the case. The best one I found came from the CIO magazine

The author, Esther Schindler, makes the point that,

"You may be great at orchestrating an in-person meeting, but running an effective teleconference requires new skills. … It's easy to forget that people who are not physically present have no access to your nonverbal cues. They will lose place, lose focus and lose attention to the meeting. In a meeting room, you intuitively notice if your audience doesn't get you, and instantaneously adjust, but virtually, you won't notice if they don't get you; they won't tell you. So you have to be clearer-more explicit."

The piece goes on to note that: "In a combined audience situation, it is very important to continually think about the remote users' perspective, … They can't see nods of the head around the table, or actions like looking through papers for the answer to a question. They also can't hear low-volume conversations. It's the meeting moderator's role to provide an audible connection with remote attendees. During a pause in the proceedings, for example, describe what is happening, so remote users understand the silence. … Direct commentary loudly and clearly towards the microphone, and encourage other participants in the room to do likewise."

Other useful pointers – those that came up in several of the guides I looked at – include

1. Send the agenda and supplementary information in advance
2. Include ground rules such as when/if to put your phone on mute, use of the 'on hold' button
3. Ensure the technology is working before the meeting opens. Have a technology back up plan (ready before the meeting begins).
4. Start the meeting on time, define the meeting objectives, invite the right people, etc
5. Ask people state their name as they begin to speak
6. Invite people to participate by name. One suggestion, from the comments on the CIO article, is to go around the virtual table; inviting each participant to speak for 30 seconds and no one can interrupt. Note that "Silence doesn't necessarily mean someone has nothing to say or is finished finished. Ask them explicitly, 'Anything else?'"
7. Keep participants focused and engaged during a virtual meeting. It's easy for people to multitask when they're in the meeting it's even easier if they're not physically present.
8. Build trust and social capital – make it clear that the contribution of those not present in the room is as valuable as the contribution of those present in the room
9. Maintain momentum between meetings – start by following up the meetings with a note of what's been agreed and the action items arising.
10. When you're on the phone remember you're still in a meeting. Don't say things you'd think twice about saying if you were in the room with other participants.

Circulating a list of good practice points, on its own, will not make any difference. Enough people in the meetings must model the good practice behavior demonstrating that good practice results in more efficient and productive meetings – that way, one hopes, the norms of the meetings will change for the better.

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