Reading the comments on my recent post, “Open Thread: Can Technology Ever Bridge the Gap for Remote Teams?” one thing leaps out at me: The issues that distributed teams face are not really shortfalls in technology so much as how we use that technology. One “old school” collaboration tool that remote teams use frequently is the teleconference, and it’s a tool that can fail miserably if not used well.
Here are some tips to help ensure that your teleconferences are as effective as in-person meetings:
- If you’re using a conference call service, test the service beforehand and make sure that the details are distributed to everyone expected to attend. There’s nothing worse for an attendee than trying to dial in for a teleconference only to find that the number is unreachable. Check that the service works ahead of time. If you have international participants, it’s also worth checking that toll-free numbers can be accessed by people outside your country. Good web conferencing options to try include GoToMeeting, WebEx, Dimdim and Microsoft Live Meeting. For smaller meetings, Skype can work well.
- Distribute an agenda ahead of the meeting. Unless the meeting is to be very short and only discuss one topic, an agenda is vital to ensure that everyone knows what will be discussed. It will also help you to keep everyone on track during the meeting — if the meeting starts to drift, you can direct people back to the agenda. It’s worth outlining the agenda at the start of the meeting.
- Schedule the conference call at a time that suits everyone. Meeting planning services like Tungle and ScheduleOnce can help you to determine a time that suits all of the participants. This is particularly important if you have people dialing in from all over the world — you don’t want to be dragging people out of bed if you can help it. You could also use a service like Timeanddate.com or Every Time Zone to see get an idea of global time zones and suggest times that might suit everyone.
- Make sure that the meeting starts on time. Don’t waste people’s time by having them dial in on time only to have to wait around for the meeting to start. Unless you must wait for an absolutely crucial attendee, don’t delay the start of the meeting for stragglers.
- Have people not actively participating in the discussion mute their phones. Background noise can be very distracting and can make it hard to follow the conversation, particularly on calls with large numbers of participants. Having people mute their phones minimizes extraneous background noise. Skype and many of the conference call services have muting functions, too.
- Let everyone know that interrupting is OK. When you can’t see all of the participants, it’s hard to know when someone wants to interject. That can make it much harder for more passive individuals to contribute to the conversation — important questions or points can me missed. Let people know that it’s OK to interrupt with an “excuse me,” and then have them introduce themselves so that everyone knows who is speaking. Some web conferencing software allows attendees to virtually “raise their hand” to indicate that they would like to speak, which can be useful in larger meetings.
- Equipment counts. It goes without saying that sound quality is vitally important if everyone is to understand and follow the conversation. Headsets can help to eliminate the echoing and feedback problems that speakerphones can introduce, and can be also be useful if background noise is an issue. If you’re on a budget, cheap headsets will produce better results than cheap speakerphones.
- Allow time for breaks. For longer meetings, remember to schedule time for comfort breaks. However, if your meeting is going to be long enough to require scheduled breaks, it might be worth considering splitting it up into two more focused meetings.
- When holding larger meetings, consider either having everyone call in or having everyone present in the office. If half the team is present in the room during the meeting while everyone else is on the phone, inevitably things will get missed as those on the phone struggle to follow the conversation happening in the meeting room. Having everyone dial in will gives a level playing field to all attendees and encourage everyone to contribute equally. (Thanks to AD for this tip.)
- Have someone take notes and distribute them after the meeting. At the very least, you should distribute action points after the meeting. If you have someone taking notes and typing during the call, have them mute their phone — the clicking can be distracting. If you don’t want to take notes during the meeting, consider recording the call to take notes later.
Share your teleconferencing tips in the comments.
Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Report: The Real-Time Enterprise