Workplace Doctor: conference calls – make them count

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It sometimes feels as though I am in a never-ending conference call with staff spread across the globe, it appears to be the preferred method of communication, but I loathe them. There is a lag between each person speaking and, to be honest, most of the time I am never sure who is speaking, particularly when there are more than three of us on the call. What other modes of communication would you suggest for an international team? MN, Dubai 

Virtual meetings and virtual teams are increasingly becoming the lifeblood of most companies. Although you may dread the never-ending conference call with staff spread across the globe, virtual meetings don’t have to be a waste of time. In fact they can be more valuable than traditional face-to-face meetings. Managing an international team, I think you are likely to be stuck with the conference call, but there are ways you can make it a much more pleasurable and productive experience.

Conference calls can be an inexpensive and flexible way to get people together, and an opportunity to build engagement and trust between people across the globe. Equally they have the strong advantage of gathering the key people “in the room” for a specific task or conversation independent of their location. Not being in the room in front of someone can often allow you to be more honest with them, although this can be a good or bad thing.

At the moment it seems you are simply experiencing some of the teething pains of moving from the traditional approach of face-to-face management into what could be called virtual leadership. Often leaders just “end up” managing virtual teams without having necessarily learnt to do so. It is a whole different art form …

For an international team such as yours, I would suggest some ground rules for virtual meetings. Teleconferences have been a popular form of communication for more than a decade and the general rules of communication have inherited some bad habits.

Simple planning before the call will help prevent your team from falling into these traps. Traditional conference calls can be useful if everyone is comfortable with them, but using technology such as Skype or WebEx could facilitate more engaging discussions.

Both these and other platforms include chat functions, whiteboards, and slide sharing, all while pinpointing who is speaking – solving several of your problems. Train your team to use the full range of options, rather than just picking up the phone every time they need to communicate.

One area where I particularly have sympathy for your dislike is in feeling stuck on a telephone loop. We’ve all experienced the “never-ending conference call” which though it strictly follows the agenda, always runs over the allotted time, without any real conversations having taken place. While it is important to reliably cover key topics, this should not be at the expense of real and honest conversations.

Take a hard look at your conference calling habits. Is your team relaying information that you could ask to be passed on in more effective ways? Are they coming prepared, or are they dragging it out needlessly? Make it clear that group time is valuable, and that meetings should be about sharing ideas rather than relaying old news.

That being said, you still need to allow time for conversations to emerge, and it is your job as the meeting “facilitator” to encourage spontaneity alongside productivity in this virtual environment. People need to feel connected to be at their best, and they may never have met before. Allow space in the introductions to help people get to know each other, or use video to help improve engagement, giving team members the chance to see each other’s emotions. Try to bring the informal in, but maintain presence by encouraging each team member to keep focus.

Doctor’s prescription:

Virtual meetings require real leadership skills that develop by embracing the technology. A necessary part of an international team, you need to be comfortable balancing your role as virtual “meeting facilitator”, without forgetting that people need to connect and grow from these interactions. Coach your team into this way of thinking and the drudgery of a weekly chore could become a satisfying part of the day.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at business@thenational.ae for advice on any work