7 Tips for Effective Conference Calls

March 2, 2014

Today’s workplace means people are more geographically dispersed and this greatly compromises our ability to communicate well. There’s also an increased need to collaborate and this can be especially challenging when working in different locations.

The ubiquitous conference call has quickly become the norm when it comes to meetings and makes for unique challenges in for them to be effective. So much of our communication is non-verbal (eye contact, body language, etc.), and we need to take this into account when speaking and listening in conference calls.

In the same ways that emails can be easily misinterpreted, so too can the things that are said and unsaid in conference calls. You can’t simply speak and listen the way you would in face-to-face meetings.

Even with the popularity of videoconferencing tools such as NetMeeting, GoToMeeting, Google+ hangouts and others, the voice-only conference call is still used in most cases.

Determining first whether or not to hold a conference call should take a few things into consideration: 1) What is the purpose of the call? 2) Who needs to be on the call? 3) Will a voice-only call be effective and appropriate given the purpose or should a face-to-face meeting or videoconferencing be employed instead?

Like any meeting, certain ground rules should be considered: 1) start on time (don’t wait for stragglers as it only encourages them), 2) have an agenda and stick to it, 3) keep minutes of the meeting and follow up with action items, 4) end on time or earlier if you’re finished.

Conference calls require additional rules to make them most effective. These include:

  1. Lead the call effectively. Take charge by explaining who you are and the purpose for the meeting within the first two minutes. Establishing leadership with your voice only means you often need to over communicate and be more careful with your word choice.
  2. Get everyone involved. Engage everyone from the start by giving them a chance to speak up by introducing themselves. Call on those who are not speaking up during the call to keep everyone engaged.
  3. Share the floor. Unless you are presenting something, as the leader you should ensure you don’t hog the floor. Give everyone an equal opportunity to share their perspective. If there are many people on the call or new people, have everyone identify themselves when they begin to speak.
  4. Avoid distractions. Ensure that everyone finds a quiet space for the call and uses a landline if at all possible. Use the mute button strategically. Be careful not to shuffle papers, tap pens, and turn off other electronic devices. Anything that could be considered rude in face-to-face meetings should be avoided during a conference call.
  5. Don’t multitask. Close email so you’re not tempted to play catch up on other things. If you find yourself doing something other than focusing on who is speaking and the meeting at hand, perhaps you should not be on the call. As a leader, ensure that the meeting remains focused so no one’s time is wasted.
  6. Provide time for questions. Give a five-minute warning before the end of the call so everyone has an opportunity to question or ask for clarification on anything.
  7. End the call effectively. Thank them for their participation. Indicate when minutes will be coming as well as any follow up that needs to happen. Provide the time and date for the next meeting as necessary.

Another thing you might consider: some people can be perceived as negative or disagreeable and may want or need to improve this perception among coworkers. To do this during a conference call, consider the use of a mirror during the call. This can greatly help regulate your tone of voice as you will be influenced by how you look when you’re speaking. Most of us will not deliberately look negative or disagreeable when looking into a mirror and this will be reflected in our tone.

Like any meeting, conference calls need to be run well so people stay engaged and the meeting remains an effective use of everyone’s time. Leading a conference call means you need to be hypersensitive because you have so few ways to monitor meeting attendees beyond what you hear them say.

Keep in mind these seven tips for conference calls and you’ll find them to be more effective and a useful method for meeting with others.

Telecommuting: When Does it Make Sense?

March 15, 2013

Yahoo’s chief executive Marissa Mayer recently declared that her company’s employees may no longer work from home and this has created quite a stir—both inside and outside of the company.

Telecommuting offers many benefits as it removes wasted time travelling back and forth to the job; it provides employees the flexibility to balance work and family around the individual’s schedule; and because there may be fewer interruptions than in the workplace, it allows for more focused attention that can lead to increased productivity.

Telecommuting also raises employee engagement. The more flexibility workers have, the higher their job satisfaction and the less likely they are to leave the company.

Research has found that they also work harder. A 2010 Brigham Young University study found that office employees work only 38 hours a week before they feel as if they’re neglecting their home lives. People who work from home put in up to 57 hours before they feel stretched too thin.

Nearly 15,000 Yahoos currently enjoy the freedom to do their jobs from home. And according to the independent employment research firm Telework Research Network, 20 million to 30 million Americans currently work from home at least once a week.

So what do we know about these telecommuters? According to the above study updated in 2011, the typical telecommuter is 49 years old, college educated, a salaried non-union employee in a management or professional role, earns $58,000 a year, and works for a company with more than 100 employees.

If all the potential telecommuters worked from home just half the time, the national savings would total over $700 billion a year including:

  • The typical business would save $11,000 per person per year
  • Telecommuters would save between $2,000 and $7,000 a year
  • The oil savings would equate to over 37% of our Persian Gulf imports
  • Greenhouse gas reduction would be the equivalent of taking the entire New York State workforce permanently off the road

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the entire five-year cost of implementing telework throughout government ($30 million) would be less than a third of the cost of lost productivity from a single day shutdown of federal offices in Washington DC due to snow ($100 million).

So why can’t telecommuting continue at Yahoo? The answer could be manifold and surely includes Mayer’s need to reboot the company culture, cut deadwood and discipline the slackers who have taken advantage of the work at home policy.

Mayer was one of Google’s first 20 employees where data is used to measure just about everything, including people analytics. Now that Mayer is running Yahoo, she may be trying to instill this data-driven methodology to increase productivity, even if it means upsetting the company culture to do so.

While Google generates a whopping $931,657 in revenue per worker, Yahoo generates just $344,758. And Google actually encourages their employees to work in the office because, among other things, they say it generates a more collaborative atmosphere.

High technology companies have long been on the leading edge not only in products and services, but also in flexible work hours and employee benefits. Instilling the Results Only Work Ethic or ROWE model, for example, makes it easy to justify employees working whenever and from wherever they choose.

But there is something to be said for people working in the same physical space where serendipitous interactions can help stir creativity and innovation like nothing else. Bell Labs long ago designed their campuses around the management philosophy that innovation happens when you force smart people to collaborate in person where they can constantly bounce creative ideas off each other.

So how do you enable the benefits of telecommuting while retaining those of working in the office?

A Rational Telecommuting Policy would include:

  • Identify which jobs lend themselves to telecommuting. Those who work in the fast food industry certainly can’t telecommute. However, those who work in certain types of sales and customer service who need only a computer with a telephone certainly could.
  • Determine how to track and measure performance. Like any job, we should measure employee effectiveness in ways beyond how often they sit in an office cubicle and stare at a computer screen. Data can’t measure everything, but it can certainly contribute to overall accountability. This should be monitored regularly to avoid problems.
  • Hold telecommuters responsible. Anyone who regularly works away from the office like outside sales people need to check in frequently to make themselves visible. Telecommuters need to do this as well and keep up with virtual communication so they remain top of mind to coworkers and supervisors.
  • Demand that telecommuters be in the office on a regular basis. This is important because of the necessity of building rapport and fostering trust that is so vital to effective team building as well as increase the opportunities for collaboration and serendipitous creativity to spur innovation. Maybe it’s two days a week or maybe one day every two weeks, but consistency is key so others can plan around it.

Telecommuting offers many benefits to individuals, their families, the organization, and the environment. It’s not going to go away and I suspect Yahoo’s Mayer will find a way to bring it back to certain employees.

In the end I believe companies need to give employees the flexibility to work away from the office, yet measure and hold them accountable for the work they need to do. At the same time, they should demand that these employees work in the office at least part of the time, because this strengthens teamwork and encourages collaboration. And that’s good for the organization.

Collaborative Culture of the Coworking Contingent

March 30, 2012

The American workforce is going through a sea change with regard to how and where we work. The workplace of the future may no longer include nearly as many fulltime workers in cubicles, but instead provide only a gathering place for many contingent workers to collaborate on specific projects.

Contingent workers—including freelancers, temps, part-time workers, contractors and other specialists—today make up 25 to 30 percent of the U.S. workforce. By the end of the decade, they will make up more than 40 percent, according to the Intuit 2020 Report.

The report also states that “more than 80 percent of large corporations plan to substantially increase their use of a flexible workforce in the coming years.”

Our knowledge-driven economy contributes to this rise in contingent workers because organizations rely more on specific knowledge and expertise.As demand increases for highly-skilled and knowledgeable people, the expertise of contract workers becomes more attractive.

This can save the organization money as there is no longer the need to pay the fully burdened costs of fulltime employees as well as the real estate to accommodate them.

So what does this mean to the contingent worker? Greater freedom? Yes. Less job security? Maybe. Greater work/life balance? Possibly. Less compensation? Perhaps, but not necessarily.

One thing is for certain: the contingent worker will need to be a lot more intentional and active in finding opportunities, and also in collaborating from outside the organization.

A lot of contingent workers want to get out of Starbucks and other coffee shops, but they don’t want to be at home alone says Ryan Coonerty, co-founder and chief strategist of NextSpace in Santa Cruz, California.

“People like being around other people,” he says. “While they don’t miss some of the traditional office culture—like cubicles and set work schedules—holiday parties matter.”

NextSpace is one of a growing number of coworking spaces with locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose and Santa Cruz. Coonerty says he plans to open another four to six locations by the end of the year.

Contingent workers are moving to these coworking spaces because they can find more quiet, fewer distractions, shared office resources, and collaboration opportunities. These coworking spaces can also be a lot cheaper than renting a traditional office.

According to Deskmag’s Second Global Coworking Survey completed last fall by more than 1500 people from 52 countries, “individuals increase their productivity and networks by joining a coworking space.”

The survey found there are now more than 1,100 coworking facilities worldwide, and that number is likely to increase dramatically.

It’s not entirely clear how an increase in these independent workers will change an organization’s culture. Contingent workers could help make companies more responsive to customers and market trends by bringing in a fresh perspective.

And just as outside consultants can often ask the hard or sensitive questions internal employees may not, contingent workers can focus on the objective at hand rather than let the internal politics get in the way of meeting those objectives.

My concern is how well these contingent workers will be able to effectively collaborate with fulltime employees. How quickly can rapport be established if the interaction is primarily via email and phone calls? How can trust be developed when there isn’t the time to regularly work side by side?

These contingent coworking professionals will definitely change the culture of organizations. And how organizations adapt to this less tangential and potentially more collaborative culture will determine whether this transition is successful or not.