Are You That Lone Voice on the Telephone?

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.