When working with remote teams, you’re going to have conference calls to bridge the gap in distance. I’ve often been involved in conference calls where I was in a room with 5 or 6 people, including all of the project leaders, while others were attending remotely. It’s easy for the leadership group to forget about people on the phone. I didn’t realize how big a problem this is until I started attending conference calls remotely on a regular basis.

Conference Call Etiquette

I’ve found that the leadership team is frequently frustrated with the folks who attend the meetings remotely because it seems that they’re not listening. However, when I’ve attended conference calls remotely, I’ve been frustrated because I couldn’t hear what was going on, and I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Based on these experiences and discussions with others, I’ve come up with some recommendations that help everyone communicate more effectively in these situations.

Some of these recommendations might seem obvious; however, I have seen every one of them violated on a regular basis at a wide variety of companies. I assume that others have seen these problems as well.

Use a Good Quality Phone

I’ve been in quite a few situations where the conference room has a low quality speaker phone. Often, the speakerphone is half-duplex, which means that it can only allow sound to flow in one direction at a time. This type of phone makes it especially difficult for people on the other end of the line to get a word in.

Investing in a good quality, full-duplex phone with multiple microphones is well worth the cost if you plan to regularly have conference calls with multiple people in a single room

Introduce Yourself Before Each Comment

This is especially important during the first few times you speak. I’ve found that over the phone, I often can’t recognize the voices of people even if I know them well. It helps everyone on the call understand the context of a comment when they know who it’s coming from.

Introduce Everyone in the Room

On a related note, it’s important to introduce everyone in the room. Once you’re ready to start the meeting, mention everyone who is on the call including everyone in the conference room. If someone leave or enters the room, mention that when it happens. It’s important that everyone knows which stakeholders are hearing their message.

Project Your Voice and Avoid Side Conversations

I’ve found that the people in the conference room often talk in a soft voice so they don’t feel like they’re shouting. This often devolves into a set of side conversations that can’t be heard or understood by anyone who is remote. If you want to be heard, be sure to speak as if you were giving a presentation, project your voice towards the microphones, and make sure that your laptop screen isn’t in the direct path between your mouth and the microphone. I’ve found that the laptop screen can make a big difference in audibility over the phone.

Limit Use the Whiteboard

Many times, I’ve seen people start drawing concepts on the whiteboard during a conference call. I understand the importance of visuals, but this is a quick way to completely exclude anyone who is attending the meeting remotely. If the meeting requires the use of a whiteboard or other similar technique, make sure to include video as part of your conference call or use another collaboration tool to share a virtual whiteboard in real time.

Pretend there is no Mute Button

When I’ve attended meetings remotely, I thought it was very rude when the people in the conference room pressed the mute button to have private side conversations. It’s the equivalent of whispering something in the ear of your colleague during the meeting. If you have the need for a private conversation, save it until the meeting is over.

Besides, if you’re not careful, you could end up like the people in this classic Xerox ad.

Actively Involve Remote Participants

It’s easy for remote participants to feel left out. I’ve been in situations where I try to participate in the conversation, but without the visual cues, people don’t notice my disembodied voice coming through the speakerphone. It’s important for the group of people in the conference room to actively ask the people on the phone for their input on a regular basis throughout the meeting and wait for a few seconds for a response after asking for input. Even more importantly, if you hear anyone trying to speak, take a break and invite them into the conversation.

And for the Remote Participants…Be Engaged

I’ve focused heavily on what the people in the conference room can do to engage the folks who are remote. However, participation requires an effort on the part of everyone. Even if you’re remote, pretend that everyone can see you. Pay attention to the meeting, stay actively engaged, and speak up if you’re unable to follow the conversations and activities in the conference room. Even when people are aware of the above recommendations, it seems that they often fall into the trap of forgetting the people who aren’t in the room. As a remote participant, you likely need to have a higher level of engagement than feels natural.

I also encourage you to read Steve Chihos’ excellent series of posts on this topic at theBigRocks of Change. He has many more tips about how to make online meetings effective.

Your Experiences

I’m always interested in hearing about your experiences. Have you seen any of these problems in your teams? Do you have different problems? Have you identified any techniques for getting people to consistently practice good conference call etiquette?