How to cure the common conference call

Viewed as a necessary evil by managers, conference calls are often loathed by employees. Take ZDNet’s Jason Perlow, who recently penned a long post entitled “The Conference Call: Scourge of IT,” for example. In it, Perlow decries how much time he, as a web worker, spends on conference calls:

I’ve been having conference calls that end up resulting in additional conference calls to discuss the findings of the previous conference call, and then having more conference calls that are required with another group of people because some folks got left out of the loop either purposely or accidentally and then we have to entirely or partially re-cap them… with another conference call.

It doesn’t matter if 20 email chains go back and forth that summarize the calls, the conferences never seem to end. Effectively, each successive conference call turns into a partial repeat of the one before it, resulting in a vicious cycle of “Groundhog Day” all week long.

Do you know how I realize that conference calls are becoming a serious problem? I have three VOIP handsets that I have dedicated to my business line. It’s not unusual for me to completely chain-smoke the charging on all three handsets for a 10 or 12 hour workday, of which 70 to 80 percent of that day is dedicated to conference calls.

And it’s not just Perlow who is experiencing conference call issues. As director of business development at the Acumen Fund, Sacha Dichter is pretty far removed from the world of IT, but he has a similar complaint to Perlow — conference calls can really suck. Dichter diagnosis many of his calls as suffering from “telephonitis,” which he described as “the process whereby otherwise conversant, engaged, active people become silent in the face of a group conference call.” To fight the dread condition, Dichter offers a number of tips including:

When silence starts to set in, start cold calling people. This has two effects: making sure you’re hearing from people, and creating an incentive (for those who don’t like being called on) for people to speak up when they have something to say.

Never equate silence with agreement. It’s bad enough to do this in person. Worse still on the phone.

Marketing guru and author Seth Godin has experienced the telephonitis phenomenon as well, but he offers a different solution –- using chat in parallel with voice calls (he recommends Campfire), which he says offers three advantages:

When you put text chat in parallel with a voice conference call, magical things happen. The first is that everyone participates. If you don’t, it’s noticeable and you won’t be invited back.

Second, the voice part of the call acts as a narrative for the chat part, allowing people to highlight or respond to what’s being said.

Most of all, it creates organized, trackable chaos, which was the reason for the meeting in the first place.

In a previous WebWorkerDaily Tales from the Trenches posts, Orange Business Services’ Mark Fitzpatrick said his team had great success with Godin’s parallel chat technique. Keeping a chat log of calls and reactions to what’s been said is also one possible solution to Perlow’s complaint about time-wasting “catch-up” conference calls, allowing those that missed earlier information to read up on what they missed rather than being told over yet another call.

How does your team battle telephonitis and conference call overload?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Editor B, CC 2.0.