Conquering the Conference Call

Conference calls. Ugh. They’ve become a staple of our increasingly virtual work life, but for many of us they’re just plain torture. (Research suggests we cope mostly by tuning out.)

All those voices—often with the added noise of scratchy phone feedback and background noise—competing with one another to get their point across? It’s a quiet-lover’s Kryptonite.

But while many of us will probably never stop wishing they’d just go away, conference calls are likely to be a fact of our work lives for the foreseeable future. Here are some tips for making them more effective, engaging, and even enjoyable—whether you’re in the position of planning the calls or just a helpless victim…err…participant:

If you’re planning conference calls:

Consider a visual component. What’s one of the hardest parts about a conference call? You can’t see anyone else, so it’s easy to zone out. Digital publisher Whitney Moss recommends using Google Hangouts to help everyone stay engaged. “The visual creates accountability—if you are snuggling your cat, everyone will know.”

But maybe en-meeting cat-snuggling isn’t such a bad thing, suggests writer Darcy Lewis.

“I have a client who has recently switched from regular conference calls to WebEx webinars, and we turn on our video feeds. It makes things very productive because there’s no zoning out and we all like seeing each other. Invariably, one of my cats climbs into my arms at some point, and another team member’s dog often comes on camera too. We all enjoy it.”

Keep it short and focused. When editor Michelle Rafter plans phone meetings, she’s firm about keeping them on-point and brief. “The key is to pass out an agenda before, stick to it, only talk about what’s absolutely necessary, and have a pre-designated hard stop at 15 or 30 minutes depending on what is needed.”

Rafter also recommends drawing a firm line about who needs to be at the meeting and including only those people on the call. Moss agrees: “Too cross-functional a meeting is boring for too many people.”

If you’re listening in on a conference call:

Don’t just sit there. I once worked for a healthcare organization, and part of my job was being present—but silent—on 2-3 hour-long conference calls each week. Sitting at my desk, listening to faceless voices talk over each other, I would start to feel a restlessness that almost crossed the line into nausea. It was becoming unbearable until I realized that simply standing up and walking around the room helped. Now, the “mute” button and speakerphone are my conference-call saviors.

Keep your hands busy. “I make beds, fold laundry, and do other light house work while on conference calls that I’m not facilitating,” admits project manager Robyn Roark. “If I don’t keep my hands busy somehow, I end up on Facebook!”

Content strategist Jessica Ashley suggests this creative way to keep those idle hands from doing the devil’s work: “I keep a cup of markers on my desk and a few grown-up coloring books in my desk drawer. It helps me focus, eases my mind, and steadies my breathing through all the things that make me crazy on conference calls.”

If the idea of a grown-up coloring book sounds up your alley, Ashley suggests Coloring Animal Mandalas by Wendy Piersall.

Of course, if you’re on video, walking around, folding laundry, or coloring won’t work unless you can get the rest of your fellow attendees on board too. Who knows, maybe you’ll start a trend. Your colleagues might thank you, especially the introverts.

If you just can’t take it anymore

As more and more of us push back against the tyranny of conference calls, it’s possible that those planning these in-person-but-not-really-in-person meetings will begin considering other options.

If you’re in a position to suggest new strategies, here are some ideas:

Keep a shared Google document. Not all ideas, agenda items, and to-do lists need to be discussed in real time. In fact, for those of us who aren’t very good at thinking on our feet, the ability to weigh in after we’ve had a chance to think something over can make our feedback better, more creative, and more relevant. A shared doc won’t necessarily replace the need for real-time meetings, but it might let you stretch out the time between and help everyone to come to the next conference call better prepared and ready to make it brief.

Use project management software. I use Basecamp to manage client projects, even groups. It allows teams to share documents, to-do lists, and calendars as well as engage in forum discussions that can be read and responded to via email for those who prefer it.

Take the meeting to text. Who says live meetings have to include voices? For those of us who appreciate quiet and express ourselves better in writing, a text-based real-time meeting platform such as Slack could make meetings more tolerable and more effective. This approach also has the added benefit of feeling more relevant to Millennials, who were weaned on texting as a primary means of communication.