Conference calls: How to go from communications hell to heaven in just three steps
Audio conferencing is, without doubt, one of the most criticized tools in the business world. Professional people often blame it for being the epitome of wasted corporate time. But is that fair? Indeed, what is it about meetings and telephone meetings? Are they responsible for lost time, technical problems, the perpetual delay in decision-making, even extreme boredom? In short, are they the root of all business evil?
This, in fact, is getting the wrong end of the stick: Users must learn how to master this tool if they are to get any real benefits from it. And, in that sense, audio conferencing is just like any other digital tool.
Can we really blame the telephone for a delay in decision making? The question is rhetorical, I agree, but it is not as if there are a lack of solid arguments. Let’s look at the criticisms directed at conference calls, analyze the root causes of the ill-feeling towards them, and ask the right question: What can be done to improve the ROI of a conference call? And in doing so, let’s go from hell to paradise, with a simple flap of an angel’s wing.
The manager spends his life in meetings – and he is not alone!
According to a 2015 survey by Workfront, US executives spend approximately 8% of their working time on “wasteful” meetings. Assuming that they spend nine hours per day in the office and work approximately 240 days per year, this makes up a total of 172 hours, which is 3 to 4 weeks per year in useless meetings. That’s the real villain of the piece – the meeting. A cliché in management discussions. Meetings would be useless, they would waste time, or even that it is displacement activity – allowing us to believe we are working when we are doing something else. Or it’s just a time to catch up with last night’s sleep! It is certain that, on the hell side of the balance sheet, abusing meetings is a very bad idea.
It’s not just in Europe that meetings can be too long. I have rather painful memories of many meetings stretching over entire weeks, specifying information systems, certainly very expensive, but nevertheless. We stayed for weeks locked in rooms without windows. Something that I never witnessed on the continent, but have often had to go through in the US and UK. You do not need to be a genius to guess the results of those kinds of meetings: Talking too much, saying and mostly doing nothing.
Change your view: Meetings aren’t the problem, management is
But let’s go back to paradise. It is not the meeting itself that is the problem. On the contrary. A well balanced and limited meeting with a good agenda, rigorous minutes and assigned, actionable outcomes is not only useful, it is essential.
A conference call is even more useful because it facilitates things which would be completely impossible otherwise. Have you ever tried to get people together over several time zones at the same time, without spending a penny for air tickets?
In fact, I’m going to make a confession that, I hope, will not seem too outlandish: I’m a big fan of conference calls. One should refrain from opposing them to Web conferences. It would make absolutely no sense – conference calls have, for 15 years at least, involved a subtle mix of Web interfaces, online management and telephony.
While I’m literally in love with Web conferencing and webinars, of which I was a pioneering user more than 15 years ago, I never gave up on the conference call. On the contrary, I make conference calls almost every day.
Reading this study published by the SMB Group analyst during a Webinar in February 2017, I realized that small US companies have no intention to stop using audio conferencing and the development of new ways of making conference calls will do nothing to change that.
What is more, they are right.
A Conference Call in Real Life. This satirical video by Tripp & Tyler underlines, with both malice and intelligence, how conference calls work – and some good and bad practices.
Conference calls: Three key steps to go from communications hell to communications heaven
Here are, from my extensive experience, some simple tips which, if you follow them, will ensure you never again say “meetings (especially telephone meetings) are useless!”
Step 1: Before the meeting, cast iron preparation
Strangely enough, to save time, you must take the time to prepare in advance – and that takes time! The more time you spend preparing, the more you gain in the meeting (on this subject, see my other article on the ROI of digital in business on this blog).
So, you should arrive with well-prepared documents which will allow the various participants to take part in the meeting at the same pace as you and at the same level of discussion. And you must avoid at all costs the thing that I experienced in my example of the meeting that lasted a week – informal discussions that are not on the agenda. While this is not recommended for a physical meeting, in an online or telephone conference, it is vital to keep tight control over the meeting.
Before starting the meeting, everyone should be told that the meeting will not exceed a certain duration (ideally, half an hour or three quarters of an hour and never beyond one hour). This will prevent your participants from getting impatient (and their minds wandering).
Then you must prepare an agenda. Knowing exactly what you are going to discuss may sound obvious and yet… It will also let people know what the purpose or goal of the meeting is. As in any business activity, the multiplication of objectives makes their achievement less likely. My advice is to stick to a maximum of one (preferably) or two objectives per meeting.
Then, we will have to make sure that all the participants have the right information. Firstly, that they are all furnished with the correct telephone numbers to call in from their different countries (in case this conference is international). Then, just as important, the relevant preliminary documentation for the meeting.
You must also arrange a Web conferencing tool that allows screen sharing. This will have a twofold impact: On the one hand, you will be able to share the documents or the minutes of the meeting live and make sure that everyone concurs with them by the end of the meeting, along with the resulting action items. It will also make it possible for participants to work on the same document at the same time, which can prove very effective. For example, I once created a legal document with several lawyers and managed to finish it using a Web conferencing tool in less than an hour despite the complexity of the exercise. There is no doubt about it: This piece of work would have been much more difficult to complete in person.
[A note in passing: Why in this case do we simply not recommend Web conferencing? My experience has shown me that audio conferencing solved a significant problem: The problem of connecting to voice over IP over a professional network. It may sound odd, but in the corporate world, there are many barriers to security and use. To succeed in your audio meetings, you must not take risks but, rather, just use the simplest tool of all. That’s also why I like audio conferencing. It’s a simple tool that allows you to meet at a lower cost and in a very efficient way. The icing on the cake: With Web-managed conference calls, you can police your calls and silence a microphone if necessary. You can also record a conversation, which can be very useful especially when note-taking is made difficult].
Stage 2: During the meeting, absolute order must prevail
Said like that, it does not sound very democratic but it is very important. A phone meeting is a workspace. And as such, it is also a space of discipline. Some behaviors should, therefore, be excluded and immediately prohibited such as reading email while others are working, performing a task while another is in progress, moving or even leaving the meeting unexpectedly.
Therefore, you must prepare well in advance and make it clear to the other participants that the goal you have set from the start is an integral part of your agenda and that it will be respected to the letter. Thus, any participant that is really involved in the meeting will have no wish to leave it because that would run the risk of them also leaving the negotiations on the goal.
By doing this, discipline will be maintained naturally by the rhythm that you impose and not by any repressive and dictatorial show of force.
You must also police people who use their mobile phones. That’s why Web-managed conferences are particularly useful. Directly from the Web interface, you can click on the name of the required participant and you can mute their microphone so that, even if they are joining the call from a very noisy place, you will not be permanently distracted by any background noise.
You can also ask participants to take part by “asking for the floor” and giving it to them, unmuting their mic. This is very important. It is unbearable to have people who pollute your meeting with airport noises, for example. Do not laugh! I regularly experienced this on international conference calls.
In preparation, ensure that everyone is in a noise-free environment so that they can be 100% focused on the meeting in progress. If not, exclude them from the meeting – they will understand the message by the next time.
Step 3: After the meeting, that is where you will achieve your goal
The meeting itself is nothing without its conclusions. Over the years, I have become a real czar of meeting minutes. For me, a meeting that does not have a meeting report or a specific action should never have existed.
In a virtual meeting, that is even more important. It is therefore up to you to make sure that each meeting has its minutes and a list of associated action items. What should your meeting report look like? In my opinion, its shape does not really matter much.
The bottom line is that notes are taken and everything is recorded both accurately and quickly. I have become expert in sending out minutes on the spot, because I type them on my tablet in real time. The effectiveness of this method is incredible. In general, I take notes as I go and as soon as an action is required I highlight it (electronically of course), adding the name of the person and the deadline date.
Depending on the importance of the project, a tracking sheet will be provided to give an overview of current actions, responsibilities and dates.
Such is the obsession of the serious project manager: A deliverable, a person, a deadline. I have known and practiced much more complex methods such as the RACI responsibility assignment matrix. A staple of project management in IT services. But if you stick to these three simple steps and my simple recommendations, you will never say that your conference calls took place in hell!
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