What People Are Really Doing When They’re on a Conference Call

8.20.14 Conference Call

Story provided by Harvard Business Review – 

If you’re reading this while on a conference call — perhaps even in the loo — you’re not alone. It turns out many U.S. employees would rather do just about anything rather than listen intently to their coworkers from a remote location.

According to InterCall, the world’s largest conference call company — it’s used by 85% of Fortune 100 firms — the percentage of people using mobile phones to dial into conference calls has been rising steadily over the past three years, from 19.4% of all calls in 2011 to 21.2% in 2013.

While this may not be especially surprising — most of your colleagues probably have an iPhone or other such device — the things people do while on conference calls are, well, illuminating. InterCall surveyed 530 Americans to identify some of these activities, 64% of whom said they prefer using a cell phone over a regular old ringer.

And it’s no wonder why. Aside from the convenience, people often find conference calls to be an opportune time to do many, many other things:

What People Do on Conference Calls chart

And aside from these relatively banal activities (though I might put “go to the restroom” in its own unpleasant category), there are some other, slightly more egregious ones. For example, almost 40% of respondents said they’ve dropped off a call without announcing they’ve done so in order to pretend they stayed on; 27% reported having fallen asleep on at least one occasion; and 13% say they’ve been “outed” for taking a call in a place other than where they claimed.

This segues nicely into the obligatory “some of the stranger places respondents admitted to being while also on the line with their coworkers” section of the survey’s findings:

  • “In the middle of the woods during a hiking trip”
  • “Outside while grilling and getting a tan”
  • “The tunnel leading to NYC”
  • “A truck stop bathroom”
  • “McDonald’s Playplace”
  • “Behind a church during a wedding rehearsal”
  • “The racetrack”
  • “DisneyWorld”
  • “At a pool in Las Vegas”
  • “Fitting room while trying on clothes”
  • “The closet of a friend’s house during a party”
  • “The beach…it was a video call so I kept my tablet up so that my bikini didn’t show”
  • “Hospital ER”
  • “Chasing my dog down the street because she got out of the house”

Part of the reason all of this is possible, aside from mobile technology, is the magical mute function — InterCall found that 80% of people surveyed are more likely to mute themselves when using a mobile device rather than landline:

Conference call muting chart

The issue underlying all of this data is that the way we conduct conference calls may not be working particularly well.

For Rob Bellmar, InterCall’s Executive Vice President of Conferencing and Collaboration, the problem is largely about how technology has changed the way we communicate, and thus, the values we attach to it. “Part of the problem comes from too many meetings,” he says. “This leads people to confuse activity with productivity.”

Boredom is not the only reason why we’re so eager to be on email while on a conference call/ “For example,” Bellmar says, “[there’s] the decreasing rate of response time that has occurred due to technology making everything more immediate. The new mindset is ‘the first one with the story wins.’ … This immediacy is manifested even more when people work in isolation. They feel compelled to reply when they receive an email or text — whether at their desk or even driving their car. A behavior that didn’t even exist 15 years ago is now pervasive. So it’s no wonder that people multitask while in virtual meetings, whether web-based or audio only.”  There are perceived benefits in answering emails as fast as possible.

Tuck Business School Professor Paul Argenti told me that location isn’t really the issue, either. While it’s easy to place blame or poke fun at your colleague who’s taking calls on the beach, “that’s a mistake,” he says. “You can be completely engaged on the beach, in your car, on an airplane. That’s not the variable that matters. If people are distracted, that’s a problem either with the channel choice to begin with, why this person on the call, or the facilitation skills.”

As for the channel question, both Bellmar and Aregenti recommended using video instead of audio.

“Using multi-sensory conferencing tools like web and audio or video creates more engagement and interaction,” says Bellmar. “Video forces people to be more attentive since it is more visible.”

But if you work at one of those organizations that’s still devoted to the speakerphone, there are some practical things you can do to improve meetings, whether you’re the organizer or a participant.

For the organizer, it’s all about the little things. “Make sure all the details are confirmed,” emphasizes Argenti, things like setting up a bridge and making sure every participant has the correct number.

Keith Ferrazzi, the CEO of the consulting firm Ferrazzi Greenlight, suggests that organizers implement a “take 5″ moment at the beginning of each call where, for the first five minutes of the meeting, “everyone should take turns and talk a little about what’s going on in their lives, either personally or professionally.” This, he says, will help break the ice and get people in the mood to actually listen to one another.

He also suggests assigning tasks to different participants tasks — like a minutes recorder and a Q&A manager — to keep everyone tuned in. And, unless there’s excess noise, he advocates for an outright ban of the mute function: “A surefire way to kill the mood of any virtual meeting is with the dead silence that follows a joke because people have their audio on mute,” he writes. “Perhaps more important, mute discourages spontaneous discussion.”

Then there are basic meeting best practices: “What is the goal? Do you have an agenda? What materials do you send? All these things are so poorly done,” Argenti laments. “I had a meeting on the phone recently, and they knew I would be traveling. They then sent me something to read while I was driving. That’s just bad planning”

Nick Morgan, the author of , suggests planning virtual meetings in 10-minute segments because of evidence of shrinking attention spans. He also says that facilitators should pause regularly for group input.

Also, know who to invite and who not to. “Being a participant in an unnecessary meeting is not productive and it might not even be active, but it looks good on a time sheet,” Bellmar points out .”People continue to get ‘real work’ done while passively attending a meeting and think they are effectively performing their tasks.”

Argenti agrees. “It’s just like cc’ing people on email,” he says. “The facilitator needs to think hard about who needs to be there.”

As for remote meeting participants, Paul Argenti recommends using a headset as opposed to a cell or even office phone on speaker.  “If the phone is further away, and the computer is closer, it’s easier to focus on the latter,” he says.

He’s also a proponent of reminding people you’re there. “Twenty to 25 minutes into a meeting, ask a question or make a comment to remind people you’re part of the discussion.

Nick Morgan also points out the importance of getting emotion across, something that’s more difficult to do on the phone since we lack visual cues. So be deliberate about your words: “Say, ‘I’m excited about this next bit of news, because it means that…” Or ‘Jim, I’m really surprised to hear that third quarter’s numbers aren’t improving. Surprised and worried, actually. How are you feeling about them?’

“You’ve got to put back in what the phone lines are removing.” Even if you’re at the beach.

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