I have never been great on the phone. I’m an extrovert and have no trouble with conversation in person, but I dislike talking on the phone. Absent the social cues and body language you get in person, every conversation feels awkward and stilted. People start sentences at the same time and continue talking long after the other person is ready to end the call. If I feel this way about personal conversations with family, just imagine how I feel about business conference calls.
Conference calls are notorious for combining all the worst traits of meetings with the worst traits of slackers. In a face to face meeting, social pressure keeps people from openly shopping online or playing solitaire, but we’re free to surf the internet for new Grumpy Cat videos or cupcake recipes during conference calls.
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A 2014 survey from Intercall, an international conference call company, finds that more than 60 percent of respondents said they do other work or work on email while on a conference call. More than half the people on the line are eating, 20 percent are shopping, and 6 percent are taking another call. Over 70 percent of people cite a lack of participation by others as one of the biggest problems with virtual meetings.
Despite the distractions, it looks like conference calls are here to stay. The use of virtual technology soared after 9/11, when all business travel was canceled for months after the terrorist attacks. A 2014 Wall Street Journal article says that time spent in audio conferences in the U.S. is expected to grow 9.6% a year through 2017. About 65 percent of all conferencing is still done by audio calls.
Layering technology onto meeting dynamics sometimes slows a meeting down to a crawl as participants wait for Joe** (not his real name) to figure out how to access the webinar link, download the plugin or take himself off mute. People who join late still announce their names, so important discussions might be interrupted by a hearty “JOE” every time he accidentally drops the call and rings back in. We’re occasionally serenaded by on hold music for minutes at a time while Joe takes another call, not realizing that you can’t mute the hold music.
Background noise becomes maddening as people type, cough or breathe heavily into the phone receiver. Those on their cell phones in their cars treat us to the sound of traffic or passing sirens, while those at home offer dog noises as a backdrop. When several people have their phones on speaker, you can get a maddening echo. And that’s all before we get down to the agenda.
There are some ways to make the call more bearable for participants. Send out a clear agenda in advance and keep the meeting as short and organized as possible. If certain participants consistently have trouble speaking loud enough to be heard or sit too far from the phone, email or talk to them privately after the meeting to correct these issues.
And maybe you should ask Joe to just send an email report next time.
Click here for a hilarious short video on what a conference call would look like if it were held in a physical space.