The video below inspired me to write this article. If you haven’t already seen “A Conference Call in Real Life,” it’s worth a watch—but only if you enjoy laughing at yourself (and your boss and co-workers). You’ll probably get that slightly uncomfortable feeling you get while laughing at the idiotic things you’ve done a thousand times on a conference call.
This article isn’t about the silly little bloopers of conference calls. We’ve all forgotten to un-mute ourselves at some point. It’s annoying, but forgivable—and hardly a show-stopper.
This article is about the common ways people abuse conference calls, often rendering them useless—not to mention irritating. Are you a guilty party?
1. Inviting too many people
A conference call isn’t a kindergarten birthday party. You don’t have to invite everyone in the class so no one’s feelings get hurt.
A lot of people make the mistake of thinking a conference call will be more productive if every soul involved in a project is on it. The rationale is often that people don’t want to have to retrieve the information later when they could have just asked for it while on the call. People also don’t want to have to reiterate the decisions made during the call.
But that reasoning leads to cluttered, unproductive calls—and a lot of wasted time. Invite only essential parties, the people who must be present for things to move forward. Everyone should plan to walk away from the call with marching orders, and part of that will be assigning tasks to people who weren’t on the call. If people regularly leave your calls with no action items, too many people are on the calls.
If you are stuck with a boss or colleague who insists on inviting too many people to every call, try this: Come up with a gross estimate of the median salary of the people who are on any given call. Break that down to an hourly wage. Multiply that wage by the length of the conference call and the number of people on it. Show that figure to your boss or colleague, and note that it’s a rough estimate of what that call just cost in man hours. They might start thinking differently about meeting invites.
Another tip: If you’re worried you’ve invited too many people to a call, don’t hesitate to start the call by admitting so and giving people the option to bow out if it becomes apparent they’re not essential to the discussion.
2. Inviting the wrong people
In line with the sin of inviting too many people to a call is the sin of inviting the wrong people. It’s a delicate balance. People often invite too many people because they’re afraid of not inviting the right people. Conversely, when you try to pare down an invite list, you risk accidentally cutting out someone vital to moving a project forward.
And just inviting the head honchos isn’t a way to play it safe. Sometimes they’re the most clueless when it comes to certain projects.
The problem seems to stem from a lack of understanding the team members’ individual responsibilities. That’s nothing to be ashamed of; there are plenty of situations where it’s impossible to know the exact roles of everyone on a project, especially if you’re working with a client.
Do research in advance. Send around an email to gain clarity on everyone’s role and the chain of command. Then use those insights to refine your invite list. And if you’re deep into a project and still don’t know what everybody does, start paying attention.
3. Not sending an agenda
If you’ve ever set up a conference call and an invitee hops on the line without knowing why he or she is there, you’ve failed. Conference call invites shouldn’t just include a subject line, time and dial-in number. They should include a detailed description of the topics you’ll discuss and in what order. If the group must answer key questions before the call is over, include those questions.
Not everyone will read your description in advance, but some will. Those are the super-prepared people who tend to push things forward on conference calls. And even those who don’t read the description before the call will ideally have your notes in front of them when the call starts. This will allow them to skip ahead and gain a better understanding of where the call should go. Often, seeing how much ground you need to cover on a call will deter people from derailing the topic. After all, everyone wants calls to end on time. Which leads us to…
4. Not enforcing a time limit
All conference calls run too long. You must set time limits, but more important, you must respect them. For one, it’s rude to expect people to stay on the line longer than planned. Second, knowing a call has a hard stop time is the only way to ensure the conversation moves along.
This point ties closely to setting an agenda. It’s useful to assign time limits to each discussion topic so you can gauge whether you’re staying on schedule. Setting time limits enables the call leader to act like the music that comes on during an overly long Oscar speech—a polite but firm reminder that there are other people who still need to speak.
5. Setting up a call for something better resolved via email
This one is pretty simple. Before you set up a conference call, pause for a second. Does this topic need a conference call? Could you just as easily replace the call with an email chain or Google doc?
Granted, sometimes it’s nice—and even essential—that people connect in real time and hear each other’s voices. But remember that we live in a time-shifting world where people prefer to work and play according to their own schedules. Increasingly, asking people to be available at a precise moment is seen as an imposition. Only do it when it’s truly essential.
6. Establishing a regular mass conference call
I’m going to get some objections on this one. “But Drew,” you say, “it’s vital to have an all-hands check-in each week.”
Is it? Is it really?
Regular all-hands calls start with the best intentions. The idea is that if everyone goes around the virtual room and says what they’re working on, one big call will eliminate the need for many smaller calls throughout the week. That might be the case initially, but probably not.
Over time, the usefulness of these mass check-ins wanes because everyone starts to view them as a weekly burden, and stops preparing anything useful to say. Likewise, because everybody is on the call, people hesitate to ask necessary questions of specific individuals because they don’t want to waste everyone else’s time or put someone on the spot. People reserve all useful conversations as follow-up one-on-one talks.
7. Scheduling calls on Mondays or Fridays
Some people will really take issue with this one. After all, I’m suggesting that two-fifths of every work week be off-limits for conference calls. Hear me out.
Mondays and Fridays play unique and vital roles in the work week. Monday is when you line up your ducks for the week and hopefully kick things off right. Friday is when you scurry to complete tasks you might have dropped throughout the week so you can actually enjoy your weekend.
Conference calls, for the reasons discussed in this article and many others, tend to be windows of time in which no real work is accomplished. Thus, if you schedule them on Mondays, you’re likely to already be behind schedule by Tuesday. That’s a stressful way to kick off the week. If you schedule calls on Friday, everyone involved is missing out on vital hours required to wrap up their work.
Please, for the sake of everyone’s sanity and workflows, try to keep the conference calls on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
This article first appeared on Ragan.com in June 2014.