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Summary:

After five years of working remotely, the one problem I’ve yet to solve is the conference call. Or more accurately, the conference call where I’m the only one on the phone. If you telecommute, you’re savvy to this problem, and even if you don’t, you can probably relate.

By Jake Kuramoto

Back in 2003, I worked in a cube farm at Oracle’s corporate headquarters in Redwood Shores. I had been commuting an hour and a half each way, five days a week, since 2001, and I really wanted to work out a telecommuting arrangement with my manager. I started out working from home a couple days a week, and eventually, I grew into a permanent web worker.

After five years of working remotely, the one problem I’ve yet to solve is the conference call. Or more accurately, the conference call where I’m the only one on the phone. If you telecommute, you’re savvy to this problem, and even if you don’t, you can probably relate.

Here’s the scenario: it’s a handful of people sitting in a conference room and one person on the phone. The more people in the room and on the phone, the bigger the problem.

All typical meeting problems become amplified when you’re on the phone.

(Photo credit: Flickr user morecoffeeplease)

The Problem

Suddenly, you no longer are privy to the visual cues or the side conversations. You may not even be able to hear everyone clearly. In most conference rooms, there’s a phone sitting in the middle of the table, allowing you hear maybe one or two people distinctly. If the acoustics are bad, you may not hear anyone clearly.

If you’re the only person calling into the meeting, you may find yourself listening to hold music on the call bridge for several minutes. You begin to wonder: Did they forget to dial in to the call? Are there issues with the room? Do I have the cell number of someone attending in person?

Once the calls starts, you’re not out of the woods. Let’s say they’re projecting some slides in the conference room. Inevitably, the phone ends up right by the projector, so all you can hear is the humming of its fan. Sometimes, it’s loud enough to drown you out too, so you’re stuck listening to white noise for the duration.

My favorite is a meeting where they jump on the whiteboard and neglect to tell you. The only way you know is people keep referring to “this” or “that” like they’re pointing.

When I started working from home, telecommuting wasn’t common among my peers. After a slew of acquisitions, we have a lot more people dialing in to calls now. But at the time, I was in a spot. On the one hand, I was expected to participate and contribute equally to these meetings. On the other, I had unique, self-imposed restrictions by attending on the phone. Complaining about the sound quality, asking people to repeat themselves, asking for a narrative of what’s on the whiteboard, these are all meeting flow killers. So, I generally just made do and muddled through the operational issues, contributing when I could.

…and How I’m Trying to Solve It.

After so many years, I have a few tips that might help if you’re that lone voice. Frankly, these apply to any conference call.

Before a call, request an agenda and any supporting materials, e.g. if the meeting is a design review, make sure you can get soft copy of the design in advance. If your colleagues are reviewing a hard copy in the conference room, ask them to cite page numbers or section titles so you can follow along on the phone. Even if there are no materials, an agenda will give you an idea of the content and an early chance to ask questions.

Getting questions asked before the meeting can help in a couple ways: first, it may help target meeting content more appropriately and second, it gives you a chance to ask the question before any of the distractions I listed above start.

When the meeting starts, make sure to announce yourself when you dial into the call bridge. Our conference system asks who you are before putting you into the call and then announces your arrival. While this is somewhat embarrassing if you’re late and can be disruptive to whomever is speaking, it lets everyone know that you’re on the phone. I sometimes also greet the virtual room to make sure everyone can hear me.

Since the conference room has to be on speaker phone, hearing will be tough. This is why I avoid listening with my phone on speaker mode. Since holding the phone to my head for an hour or more isn’t a picnic either, I frequently use a headset.

Sometimes the headset makes it tough to hear me on the other end, so I try to speak more loudly than I would normally. This can be a little jarring, since you may feel like you’re yelling. But that’s alright, unless you’re in a public place.

When a meeting is flowing, it’s common to have people interrupt each other as ideas come to them. If you’re on the phone, this makes for chaos. So, I will politely ask people to repeat themselves if this happens, and if I’m speaking, I’ll generally keep talking, even if someone breaks in with a thought. My goal isn’t to shout the other people down, just to make sure I finish my thought before listening. This may seem rude, but in the middle of a call, it helps to keep everyone’s thoughts and ideas organized. I’ve been in the conference room and on the phone, and this approach makes for more productive meetings.

This is a unique challenge for the web worker. Are you that lone voice on the phone? Do you feel like you have to stand out more because you’re not in the room? Are you in the room, and if so, what do you think about people on the phone? Sound off in comments.

Jake Kuramoto is a sometime product manager, software architect and technologist working for Oracle, currently on a small, disruptive team called the AppsLab. Jake serves as a community evangelist and product manager for AppsLab and its internal and external communities. The AppsLab runs like a startup within the giant entity that is Oracle, and pretty much anything that is not writing code makes Jake‘s list of to-dos.

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  1. Marshall Kirkpatrick Tuesday, April 8, 2008

    Good post Jake, one that warrants a close read for sure.

  2. Thanks Marshall. I need to print up a mini cheat sheet reference to stay on my conference call game now.

  3. I’m that guy on the phone and I learned a few things from this post.

    This is great with hints for that person on the phone as well as the group in the conference room.

  4. Puneet Thapliyal Tuesday, April 8, 2008

    And when the meeting ends, no one in the meeting room says goodbye to the folks on the phone conference. Hell, they even forget to hang up the phone in the end. I have sometimes walked into meeting rooms to find the phone still on.

    For telephone carriers:

    – Enable phone conference support
    – People won’t hang up
    – Profit!

  5. @Beau: I’m glad you found some value. Let me know if you have anything to add on either end of the phone.

    @Puneet: I can’t recall that happening to me, even years ago when I was the lone phone ranger. Too funny.

  6. I’ve been the guy on the phone for a little over three years now. Fortunately my employer’s clients are also mostly made up of globally dispersed professionals, so my team is fairly sensitive to the issues.

    Bigger meetings with four or more people in the room (plus you) are the real challenge. I’ve found a little bit of humor goes a long way towards helping them understand the problems with phoning it in. If I need somebody to repeat something, I’ll joke that I was mixing daquiris or that the hot tub was on while they were talking. It acknowledges that I’m the problem that needs to be accommodated — without being pissy about it.

    It also helps if you can designate someone on the call as your advocate, someone who is able to tell you who is in attendance, clarifying points, asking you if you heard clearly etc.

    But sometimes you just have to give up. I was on a weekly team call that turned into a gabfest as we said goodbye to a team member. I finally I asked for everyone’s attention and said, “I feel like I’m attending a hot tub party via binoculars. I’m sure its really fun there but I’m not seeing it.”
    I guess I’m just saying direct communication with a bit a humor goes a long way.

  7. @JK: Solid tips, I especially like the humor angle. Speaking of which, do you have a thing for hot tubs :) Sounds like taking a call from your place is pretty fun.

  8. Craig Wilson Friday, April 11, 2008

    I’m now in my second job where I work remotely. The first one was quite a few years ago, and coming back to telework after a five year hiatus I find that the situation is much improved. Between modern technology (especially high-speed internet) and the increased use of telecommuting, many of the old problems have been resolved. Here’s a couple thoughts:
    -Requesting agendas and supporting documentation before the meeting is still an issue, although the increasing use of remote software (like Lotus Sametime or PCAnywhere) solves a lot of them. If I can connect to the computer that is being used to show the PowerPoint slides, the meeting goes much faster.
    -Use instant messaging. Set up an IM chat with the meeting moderator before the meeting. If the discussion gets heated the voice on the phone will get drowned out. IM the moderator and have him/her act as your champion to carve out airspace for your voice. They can also IM immediate feedback on some of the visual clues that you’re missing (i.e., “BT rolling eyes, JT ROFL”).
    -JK is right about using humor. Being the voice on the phone means that you’re the stranger in the room, so you need to make an effort to break the ice every time. It could be a running comment about working in bunny slippers, that your administrative cat is sitting on the piece of paper you need, or simply commenting about what’s going on outside your window. I just got off of a teleconference a few minutes ago where I had forgotten to silence an antique mantel clock in my home office. Partway through the meeting it started to gong the hours (9:00). After I apologized about my great-grandmother’s clock interrupting the meeting and a brief digression about how they imagined my office looked like (they were way off!), the meeting continued, and ran smoother than before the interruption.

  9. @Craig: Nice collections of tips. Since most of my meetings are internal, I try to stay away from any references to my home-office or working situation, just to make it as vanilla as possible.

    I don’t want anyone to think I have either a better or worse situation than I would in a cube to avoid jealousy/favoritism or questions about my focus/work habits.

    This is just my take, and it might be different if I didn’t have so many internal meetings with cube/office dwellers.

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