Conference Calls Are Hard

Andy Warren, 2010-06-29

Conference calls are a fact of life for most of us. Remote offices, remote workers, clients – lots of reasons to do a call. Hard to argue with the cost, definitely a money saver. For some things they work well, for situations requiring a lot of collaboration though, they take a lot of extra effort and even then rarely as effective as putting everyone in the same room.

I’ve been doing more of them than average lately, all collaborative, and while they’ve been useful, they’ve been tiring. Especially when leading the call, I find it much harder to keep track of the current conversation, items that were mentioned that I want to loop back to, and the participation of everyone involved. Conference calls require deep listening, because minus the facial cues you’re trying to catch the audio cues that tell you when someone has more to say but reluctant, or unhappy with the direction and mostly tuning out. That kind of listening is hard work if the call is more than 15 minutes or so.

Most of the usual meeting prep stuff applies here; agenda, moderator, time boxed, docs distributed in advance, plus what is hopefully a quiet time for all involved. Last week I ended up participating in one call while driving, call dropped three times – certainly didn’t make the call go any smoother. Headset helps.

I’m surprised by how bad most of the conference calling solutions are. You announce yourself, but the software doesn’t play it for other attendees (“who just joined the call?”). You can mute your line, or mute all if you’re the moderator, but no way to mute the person who doesn’t realize they are the ones adding all the background noise to the call. Maybe just using the wrong solution!

I think that if you’re going to have people on a call, it’s probably better to have them all dial in separately rather than put a group in a room and have a few people calling in. There’s a strange dynamic there, the people in the room are having a hidden conversation with facial cues and body language that the ones calling in just don’t see – makes it more awkward and less productive in some ways.

Con calls aren’t going away, so I’m interested in finding ways to make them better, or at least less annoying!

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