A New Formula for Conference Calls

Despite their challenges, conference calls are an absolute must in the coronavirus era.

Published: Mar 23, 2020

Conference calls have been a staple of workplace life for quite some time. But as millions of people find themselves working from home while the coronavirus upends daily life, the frequency of these calls—and the need for them to be productive—is growing.

Of course, getting people’s attention on a conference call has always been a challenge. About 60% of people admit that they work on other things while dialed in, according to a survey by conference-call company InterCall. More than half say they’ve eaten on a call, while nearly half confess to having taken a call from the bathroom.

The more people there are on the call, the less likely any of them are going to feel comfortable sharing how things are going or how they’re feeling about the current crisis.

While it’s easy to blame attendees, it’s also up to the host to engage and interact with participants. Here are ways you can ensure that your next call is as effective as possible.

Send an agenda beforehand and action items after.
“You’re most in control when planning the meeting,” says Korn Ferry Advance career coach Joshua Daniel. The agenda sets the tone for the meeting you want to have. Where you place opportunities for conversation, how often you have those openings, and how many people are present will determine how much chatter you can expect, he adds.

It’s in the agenda where people determine their level of engagement. If it’s a solo presentation without insight into how they will benefit from paying attention, then there’s a good chance they will work on other things. Make sure to set expectations that the participants will walk away with certain tasks—which you will send as action items afterward—in order to heighten their focus.

Skip the filler.
As the host, it’s natural to want to start with some small talk. That’s OK if there are only a few people on the line (about six or fewer), but it’s advisable to keep the conversation short and not force people to speak—especially during these collectively stressful times. If you’re hosting a larger call, skip the small talk, thank everyone for joining, and get right into your agenda. The more people there are on the call, the less likely any of them are going to feel comfortable sharing how things are going or how they’re feeling about the current crisis.

Create pauses for people to speak.
When you set the agenda, let everyone know when they will have an opportunity to participate. If it’s a presentation, inform them of the Q&A section at the end. But also incorporate chances for questions within the presentation. Lean on your conference-call tool, which likely has features that people can use to inform you when they have a question. Be sure to remind them of those features at the beginning of the conversation. If it’s a planning session, direct discussions to specific people if needed. And if two people are dominating, then make sure to ask to hear from someone you haven’t heard from yet, adds Daniel.

Don’t take the awkwardness personally.
With families stuck in the home, you’re bound to overhear someone’s child on an unmuted line or the clanging of pots and pans in the background. Don’t let these interruptions derail the purpose of the call; if it happens more than once, politely remind everyone to mute their phones (don’t call anyone out by name). And if you only hear crickets toward the end of the agenda—but you’ve built in enough time for conversation throughout—then that’s probably just a sign that it’s time to wrap it up.

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