How to Run an Effective Conference Call
By Jess Powers
The social distancing recommendations we’re now under to tame the spread of COVID-19 are challenging many workers and workplaces to embrace teleworking for the first time. When the need inevitably arises to speak with team members or larger groups, conference calls can be a useful tool. Most people in the creative economy are familiar with conference calls, but what does it take for you to run an effective call?
These days, it’s easy to take conference calls for granted. We can communicate with colleagues in other parts of the city or world and in real time. But conference calls are also ridiculed for technological challenges, poor facilitation, or being an inefficient use of time. Here are some tips to run an effective conference call from seasoned remote workers.
Set an Agenda
Take the time to determine what it is you’re trying to accomplish and why a conference call is necessary to meet your objectives. If you can discuss something by email or in a phone call, do that instead. But there are times, especially when managing a team or working collaboratively, that conference calls are necessary.
Christina Schiavoni, an independent researcher and remote worker based in Bangkok, spends a significant amount of time on conference calls. She suggests creating an agenda with set times for each agenda item. Facilitators should “be realistic,” she adds, about how long each discussion will take and what can be accomplished in a single conference call.
Cyrus Zulkarnaïan Kazi, CEO and co-founder of Quantibly.com, a global SaaS solution for the social sector, limits conference calls to 15 people and 30 minutes. He gives participants a grace period of two minutes to join the call, and then the meeting begins. Working from New York with staff in multiple time zones and countries, he’s mindful that calls are productive, especially if someone has to get out of bed to participate.
Joann Lo is a longtime labor organizer based in Los Angeles who has mostly worked remotely for more than a decade. She prefers to dig into critical updates or priorities “at the beginning, when we’re all fresh, and we have everyone before anyone jumps off.” Then, each program area gives an update. Her advice is to keep calls to less than an hour and a half; after that, it’s hard to concentrate. Without a tight agenda, people can easily lose focus during a conference call, scanning emails or distracted by kids or pets at home (which is all the more relevant these days).
Allow Time for Personal Check-ins
Schiavoni suggests that facilitators build in time for hellos and personal check-ins at the start of a call. “It’s going to happen anyway,” she notes, “so let people connect on a human level.” This is perhaps even more critical now, with anxiety running high and people feeling isolated in light of COVID-19.
Lo also starts conference calls with time and space for interpersonal connection. Intended to both celebrate good things or express difficulties, this kind of team building and emotional support sets the tone for the rest of the call.
Get it in Writing
Have a designated notetaker — who is not the facilitator — during the call. Be sure to capture any action items and recap them at the end of the call. Share meeting notes with participants in a timely manner.
Lo prefers to take shared notes in Google docs, in real time, which helps “if you get distracted and need to catch up.” It also assists those with different learning styles and makes notetaking a shared responsibility.
Most conference call applications have the option to record a meeting and send a link to participants and folks who were unable to join the call. But not everyone will make the time to listen to a recorded version, so written notes are also useful.
Find Ways to Include People
Video conferencing options are also effective at including people in discussions. Participants can raise their hands and the moderator can create a stack for comments. Or they can mute participants and put questions in the comments.
On large calls, small group discussions with separate video chats are an option. Then, they can return and report back to the larger group, similar to group work during an in-person meeting. Lo points out that people who are not comfortable speaking to the larger group can be included in this way.
On large voice calls with fewer technology options, remind people to set their phones on mute at the start of the call and explain how to mute and unmute the line before speaking. You can give people an opportunity to speak according to their physical location or alphabetically by name or department to prevent crosstalk.
Remember to Pause
There is a learning curve for people unaccustomed to new conference call technology or in organizations without a standard way of operating on these calls. As a moderator, don’t forget to take a pause. Not everyone will arrive on time, things may not go smoothly every time, but overall, people will have an opportunity to communicate and collaborate.
Participants can practice pausing before speaking and consider whether a question or comment is necessary at this moment. Moderators can agree to respond to unaddressed questions by email after the call.
COVID-19 and social distancing are challenging many of us to work in unfamiliar ways. But hosting an effective conference call can be easy if you follow these guidelines.
About the author.
Jess Powers writes about marketing, food, and wellness. She has experience in nonprofit communications and emergency management. Follow her @foodandfury.