May 28, 2013

Effective Phone Conferences

Staying Connected during Phone Conferences

What are phone conferences:

Having someone listen-in to the audio part of a conversation. Hopefully have the ability to participate in the conversation verbally or through chat software or video-conferencing mechanisms.
There are two main types of conferences that I'm covering today. One-to-many where there is perhaps only one or two joining a meeting that is happening in one location with many being face-to-face (f2f). The other type is where there a quite a number of physically separated members of the meeting and perhaps only two meeting f2f. In the situation where everyone is in a singular location but hooked up via phone, there are less issues.

What is the problem:

"Remote communication is difficult to do well"... 
(c) Change Masters 2008
The majority of our communication (up to 60%) in meeting another person is done visually. This is what is missed in phone conferencing. It's eye contact, sub-conversations, body language, messages passed around etc. The ability to switch off and become disengaged when your only communication is verbally, is quick and sometimes hard to drag back again.

Lack of visual clues are also a large problem in phone conferencing. Unless there are pre-arranged signals, then the members on the remote end of the phone need to interrupt the meeting verbally to add value. This includes clues on who is going to speak next and if the conversation is finished. It is much easier to stay quiet and let the conversation flow around the people in the face-to-face situation.

Things that could make it a better experience:

I'll pick four favourites from the 10 rules outlined by
1. Frequent feedback: - it ensures that the person on the phone end hasn't fallen asleep. No, seriously it is about engaging with others. You can't have the eye contact so you need other ways to engage.
2. Send out an agenda and stick to it: - It is incredibly frustrating to have new agenda items introduced in the middle of the meeting that you have had no time to think about and do not have access to random supporting documentation that might be introduced at the time.
3. Use video: - This needs to be setup effectively as well. I have been on the receiving end of a 'token' video setup. Poor camera range and focus and it was stationed on only one participant in the meeting. This does not help when there are multiple people at one end. Only use video if it can be effective and can enhance the meeting otherwise you might do more damage to the concentration and buy-in of the other parties. Always test this option before the meeting. You can lose valuable time in mucking around with settings at the start of the meeting when this could have been setup beforehand.
4. Start on time: - If this is not possible, then have some other pre-agreed way of communicating with the parties (email) to let them know that the meeting will still happen. You have already lost the attention of the party that has to wait 5 minutes by the phone...or given up and gone onto another task.

One of the best suggestions in the Change Masters document listed below is:
Use Parallel Communications: - There is such a wide choice of software and platforms to use now, no excuses! Using a chat system is one way of engaging the members of the phone conference without disrupting the main flow. For this to work effectively you need a 'host' or someone allocated this task. This allows for questions to be posed and comments to be made that can then be fed to the chair of the meeting. It also keeps the meeting participants engaged and focused on the topic of conversation. It allows for frustrations to be made without disrupting the whole meeting. For example: "this is just a talk-fest, I can't follow what is going on...".
Having multiple conversations in a meeting works when everyone can have eye contact and it is controlled. But when you are hearing only the audio part of the conversations it just turns into babble.

Software to consider in parallel communications are: Skype, Blackboard Instant Messenger, iOS or Android chat apps or Microsoft Office Communicator.

Defined Entry and Exit is also really important. In a meeting where everybody is physically present it is easy to see that somebody is coming in the door. But this is a silent activity and if nobody introduces that person then the person on the other end of the phone is non the wiser. I have participated in one phone conference where they forgot to say goodbye or tell me that the meeting was over and I had to guess from the sounds of scraping chairs and various background noise that the meeting was concluded and I could exit from the conference. Physically people often stand around and chat informally after a meeting and there needs to be a defined exit for the phone caller to be recognised.

There also needs to be some method to showing disapproval or annoyance.  The phone conference equivalent of a walk-out is just to hang-up! But this does not assist in resolving issues or what prompted the phone conference caller to do that. It is easy for the f2f people to say that this is not necessary but experience has shown me that adequate handling of all issues in the meeting shows good management and encourages growth and effective leadership in the meeting and team building.

image taken from Blackboard Collaborate Instant Messenger ver4.1