I just finished listening to part two of the effective teleconference podcasts. Wow! This was a pretty massive ‘cast, in terms of content (and steps)!

Teleconferences are a huge part of professional life, as a project manager in an organization responsible for providing technical leadership and support to local IT teams across North America. I have some comments, concerns, and questions.

[b]The Good:[/b] There’s lots of good stuff in the ‘cast that [u]should be[/u] common sense, but often isn’t. Probably the most important message to me is to create an environment that minimizes distractions. Email, IM, Blackberry, people walking into offices, etc. are all distractions. The suggestions provided are great, specific steps towards that.


[b]The Bad:[/b] “No Speakerphones”, “No Groups”, “No Roll Call”

It seems that the “No Speakerphones” rule is there to keep attendees focused on the meeting and not doing other things. If so, then it’s not speakerphones causing the problem, it’s the “doing other things.” In our organization, people with offices use speakerphones on conference calls and those without offices use headsets. [u]Both[/u] make it easier for folks to do other things. It takes individual discipline and accountability to focus on the meeting…not the prohibition of these technologies.

“No Groups” rule: Sometimes I run meetings with mostly local people and a few remote people. Because I want to get people to focus on the meeting instead of whatever is at their desk [u]and[/u] because of the value of face-to-face communication, I set up those meetings so that local attendees group together. I certainly understand and agree with the point about how using “Mute” for sidebar conversations detracts, but that can be managed. The risk/cost of sidebars does not seem to outweigh the value of improving focus and communication having as many people as possible together.

“No Roll Call”: I posted on [url=]another thread[/url] about this. To summarize, I don’t think it was clear in the podcast if this meant that capturing this information as people join the call before (or after) the meeting is appropriate. It doesn’t take much effort and could save confusion or time later.

[b]The Ugly:[/b] It’s really scary how many of these practices we do not follow. I expect it’s true in many places, but I come to despise teleconferences because I’m constantly repeating myself when someone says like, “What was that? I didn’t hear you.”

These tips are sound actionable items for improving individual behavior; however, this is significantly different than changing a culture. While I understand that culture change occurs through changes to individual behavior, it seems like trying to stop a tornado with a window fan. How are others doing this, especially with cross-functional group meetings?


jhack's picture

This cast had lots of unconventional wisdom. Try this: assume that M&M are right about everything on the cast. You don't have to believe it, just take it as a starting point, and try to put yourself into that frame of mind.

I don't control all the teleconferences I attend. One in particular has about 60% of us in the main office as a group, on a speakerphone, and the rest of the team is scattered around the globe. I'm going to pay close attention to the dynamics over the coming weeks (since I'm not in a position to change the format).

I'll report back on what I observe...

LouFlorence's picture
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Two scenarios -- both about the controversial "no speakerphones" recommendation

One -- I want my speakerphone! -- 6-10 people in one room with 1-3 at their desks in other locations. The meeting is happening in the one location and the other few are "dialing in". It's hard for me to see that the advantage gained by sending everyone back to their offices and cubes is greater than the loss of the energy that comes from having most of the group in person at one location.

Two -- Speakerphones are the worst! -- Two groups of 5-10 people each. The meeting rooms are connected together by speakerphones. This creates kind of an "us and them" feeling which can make the group interaction less effective (for example, one person tends to be the chief speaker at each location, usually the senior person). Each group engages in all kinds of live meeting dynamics (rolling eyes, pointing at the presentation, passing notes, crude sign language) that effectively turns it into two simultaneous meetings.

I can see that the speakerphone degrades the effectiveness of the second meeting, and I think that not having it would degrade the first meeting. That said, I'm still chewing this over. There was a lot in this 'cast series and I spend a lot of time (like many of you) in speakerphone meetings.


jeremykelly's picture
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One key point that M&M failed to make is use of a land line for conference calls. If the call is a standing meeting or well planned ahead, attendees should plan to attend from a land line, free from distractions.

People attending via cell phone, typically multitasking in the background, change both the dynamics and cause technical issues on the call (e.g. poor voice quality, background noise, echo effects, etc.)

sholden's picture
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Great cast! One piece of input from Lou's comment:

[quote="Lou Florence"]
One -- I want my speakerphone! -- 6-10 people in one room with 1-3 at their desks in other locations. The meeting is happening in the one location and the other few are "dialing in". It's hard for me to see that the advantage gained by sending everyone back to their offices and cubes is greater than the loss of the energy that comes from having most of the group in person at one location.[/quote]

I personally think this scenario is acceptable and is something I'll be continuing to use within my organization.

I think if you do all the recommendations but this one you'll be doing just fine.


jhack's picture

I saw the results of an unscientific poll on the Captivate network (the video that streams into elevators in many buildings) that asked "when is it not appropriate to use your Blackberry?" Only 2% (yes, two percent) said "in a meeting" compared to 31% for "at a wedding" (the highest)

We have our work cut out for us.

alyurek's picture

Was anyone else on the GOOG conference call this afternoon? If you weren't, take a little time to count the number of muted answers that occurred; I counted at least 3. I think it illustrates Mark's reasons not to use speakerphone perfectly.

tcomeau's picture
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I use a speakerphone for the calls I participate in, and I use the mute button liberally. People can hear me typing, and the typing will suppress the speaker (feedback blanking) if I don't mute. I'm very tempted to get a bluetooth headphone for future calls. I watch people walking down the street talking to the air, though, and it makes me wonder about the cognitive effects of unwired communication.

I also would note that I don't hate email. I love email. I got introduced to VMS mail in college, used email in my first real job (while still in college) and learned to deal with email along the way. I hate spam, but if email didn't exist, I'd have to get one of my guys to invent it.

I email and IM documents and links to people during calls. I've IMed people to join calls when we needed particular expertise or a different perspective. I've had people IM me to join a call for a single agenda item. We use a couple of web-based collaboration tools, and people use IM and email to point participants at particular pages.

As was pointed out several times, the problems are not the technology, it is the lack of focus on the collaboration. Use whatever technology works, but do it in a way that improves your focus on the meeting.

Unless you're driving, in which case I'd rather that you focused on driving.


Mark's picture
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Great comments everyone!

A couple of follow up thoughts:

The speakerphone is clearly an invitation to other behaviors. I would say that 90% of those who use a speakerphone use it to engage in other behavior. When you get to that level of other behavior, I'm willing to eliminate its use, even when there are some who don't use it for those inefficient and ineffective reasons. All non-meeting focused behaviors are both inefficient and ineffective, because attendance means that your purpose is the MEETING.

But that also masks another issue around speakerphones. They routinely interfere with the core purpose of meetings - the ability to communicate with one another. When your speakerphone is muted, you can't interrupt. When you are talking on a speakerphone, others can't interrupt you. It's hard enough to have an effective meeting when we are face to face with one another. It's nearly impossible with speakerphones being used.

But I'll compromise with those who disagree: if you will personally swear that you will never use the convenience of the speakerphone to engage in behavior that is not meeting specific, or that takes your focus off the meeting, I'll allow it.



shirgall's picture
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I facilitate a meeting with 60 people once a week. The way I handle roll call (because we need to track the flow of information from the meeting to a wider group) is to have each attendee instant message me. Yes, this reduces distractions on the call, but it does lead to everyone on the call obviously being near their computer.

I sure wish I had a better way to keep everyone engaged and still get my roll call.

Cdavies-uk's picture

Mark & Mike, how do you guys (and everyone on this forum who cares to comment) feel about anonymous attendees at teleconferences?

I have noticed that it appears to be common practice for certain people to dial-in to a meeting but not announce themselves unless they had something to say. It has happened a lot in a meeting I run daily - more beeps than people announcing themselves.

However, when I listened in on a meeting without announcing myself and then mentioned to my boss some negative things I had heard, he did not hear the part about me not announcing myself; he just called up some people and it became obvious where he had got the information from, embarrassing us both.

So, my question is two-fold :
1) do you see anonymous attendance at teleconferences as bad behaviour?
2) is this not encouraged by the 'no roll-call' rule?

All comments appreciated.

hmcwheeler's picture

I personally believe that "lurking" is akin to putting your ear to the door of another meeting.

On another point, we recently began biweekly teleconferences with our affiliate command on the west coast. Although we use speakerphones and have about four attendees on each coast, the thing that has really made them effective goes back to another Podcast....Agendas!

jhack's picture

What value is created by "anonymous" listeners (aka, lurkers)?

In the situation described above, it did not work out well.