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Worker Productivity During Conference Calls

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Perhaps the most unproductive part of modern business is the conference call. They are almost always a complete waste of time.

It’s easy for most business consultants to empathize with the agony of a teleconference. Although they are scheduled to begin at a specific time, they seem to always take a good five minutes to get rolling. Although everyone is supposed to be paying attention, if you listen carefully you can hear everyone typing away or shuffling papers while the speaker is talking. The more people who are on the teleconference, the fewer that actually say anything. Many (if not most) conference calls seem completely pointless.

Why are conference calls so terrible, and what can we do about it? The reason most teleconferences stink is because they are made up of the worst parts of traditional meetings. And as you probably know, most businesses are already terrible at running meetings that actually increase organizational productivity. Here are some of the aspects of in-person meetings which are even worse on a conference call:

  • Lack of participant attention – People get distracted and bored in regular meetings, but at least you can see them and try to reengage. Teleconference participants might be completely zoned out!
  • No speaker balance – During an in-person meeting, it’s at least possible to raise your hand or your eyebrows to interject a new point of view. On most conference calls, you have to interrupt the person talking. Contributing ideas on a teleconference often feels rude.
  • Declining is Harder – If you’re out of the office, you can more easily pass on attending an irrelevant meeting. But it can be much harder to have an “excuse” for skipping a teleconference. We’ve even heard about people on vacation or home sick dialing in for a conference call! This will definitely negatively impact employee satisfaction.
  • Bigger is Easier (and Worse) – An in-person meeting is limited by the size of the conference room. But a teleconference can include dozens of people or even more. Large meetings only become a bigger waste of time due to “meeting math” – the number of people multiplied by the length of the meeting.
business consultant discuss productivity issues

© Flickr user hughepaul

What’s the answer to fixing boring teleconferences? Probably the best thing to do is not have conference calls at all. But if you can’t do that, here are some ideas that will help tremendously:

  • Require an advance agenda – That way, people know what to expect and the moderator can move the call forward. It’s also a reason to decline participating if nothing on the agenda pertains to you.
  • Assign a live note-taker – Free services such as Google Docs and board.net let everyone see the minutes of the meeting as they are being typed, and even let others make additions and corrections.
  • Setup a Side-Band – That’s a fancy word for another communication channel to let people have separate (but related) conversations. This is a good place to carry on brief discussions between individuals to resolve a point or make a quick decision while the mail meeting carries on. Instant messenger services are great for this.

With these tips in mind, you are likely to have much more productive conference calls. And if you can get off the phone altogether and meet in person, even better!

We’d love to hear your conference call horror stories and productivity tips. Share them in the comments below. Thanks!

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