How To Take A Conference Call Without Driving Everyone Else Crazy

You would think that with so many video conferences and conference calls happening in offices around the world every day we’d all have this down pat by now. Oh no, we don’t. Conference calls are some of the most annoying and stressful things your job may make you do. Here’s how you can make them a little better, both for yourself and for everyone else on the line.

Title photo by mast3r.

If you’re lucky and get to telecommute from time to time, you really know this pain. You have to sit on endless conference calls, or deal with colleagues in conference rooms on speakerphones, just to keep up with what’s going on. Video calls aren’t much better — they can drag on too and then you have to be presentable when you join them — or deal with other people who really aren’t. Here are some ways you can be the change you want to see and make those virtual meetings more tolerable for everyone involved.

Preparation Is Key: Get Ready Before Dialling In

It pays to be prepared, and conference calls are no exception. Make sure you have all of the information you need to participate in the meeting beforehand. If you’re dialling into a conference bridge, make sure you have the dial in number and the passcode handy so you don’t have to pester the meeting organiser right before the meeting is supposed to start (they’re likely setting up for the meeting and will hate you for it). Photo by Andres Rodriguez.

The same applies for video calls. If you’re using an application you’ve never used before, install it in advance and try it out before it’s time to join the meeting. No one wants to delay the meeting because the presenter is offering you tech support because you can’t get Skype to recognise your camera, or you’re having trouble with Google Hangouts. Most services have test numbers or tools so you can check your connection, microphone, and even camera before joining a meeting. Use them.

A few other handy tips that should be common knowledge but really aren’t:

  • Go to the bathroom. Seriously. Everyone’s been on at least one conference call where someone tries to mask a flush in the background, or someone speaking is oddly echo-y. We all know why. Go before the call, or at least mute the phone.
  • Get comfortable beforehand. If you want a cup of coffee or tea, or need to refill your water bottle, do it before the meeting starts. If you’re on a video call, getting up to go get a cup of coffee is the same thing as getting up while someone is speaking in a conference room and just walking out. You don’t need permission, but it is a little rude.
  • Get a real headset (or at least earphones) and a wired connection. This tip comes from Lifehacker alumni (and occasional contributor) Kevin Purdy, in this Fast Company article. Nothing is worse than using your computer’s built-in microphone and speakers for a virtual meeting. Everyone on the other end will be treated to an endless echo of their own voices. At least plug in some headphones, and use a solid internet connection that won’t stutter or drop out — which means avoid Wi-Fi unless you’re sitting next to the router.
  • Get yourself together. This applies to video chats, but remember, people can see you. That means put on a shirt that doesn’t have stains, and put on some pants. If you’re working from home, try to look like you’re actually working, which means turning off the TV in the background and telling anyone at home with you to give you some privacy. Now’s not the time to reveal to your coworkers that you use “working from home” as a synonym for “cheap child care”, and if you can, tidy up so the part of your home everyone sees is presentable.

Granted, a lot of these depend heavily on the type of environment you work in. Here at Lifehacker, we’re all pretty laid back, so it’s no big deal that we video chat with one another from our kitchens or living room couches — but if your office is business casual, you might want to put on a shirt for your video call, or at least move all of your kids’ toys out of the field of view of your webcam.

Join the Call, Then Mute

When it’s time to join the meeting, test your setup, connect, and once you’re connected, greet the other callers. Then, before you do anything else, mute your line. Unless the conversation is going to be animated and you know that you’ll be called on frequently, stay on mute. You don’t want background noise from your end muddling up the audio on the call, and no one needs to hear your dishwasher running in the background or the traffic outside your window. Photo by Jeremy Keith.

Once you’ve found that mute button though, make sure you remember where it is. You’ll need to unmute quickly if someone wants your input, or if you have something to say. The faster you can unmute and hop in, the better off you’ll be. Everyone will forgive you if you say “sorry, I was muted”, after a moment or two, but longer than that and it comes off like you’re not paying attention.

Avoid Changing Locations

If you’re on a video conference, moving around is pretty unlikely, but try to avoid it if you can. Granted, I’ve seen a Google+ Hangout handle someone moving between rooms on a laptop or joining a hangout from their phone in grand style, but try to stay put — you don’t want to be a distraction to everyone else on the call, and worse, you don’t want your internet access to drop out or lose frames because you decided to sit on the couch instead of at your desk.

The same applies to conference calls as well — if you’re on a cell phone, you don’t want the call to drop because you moved from the office to the kitchen, and you really don’t want everyone to hear you moving around. If you must, at least mute your line before you shuffle around. [clear]

Practise Basic A/V Etiquette

Video calls where everyone’s wearing headsets are particularly bad for this, but the same applies to speakerphones and mobile phones: be considerate of everyone’s ears. That means:

  • Avoid loud snacks, or just wait to eat (or at least mute your line if you’re going to).
  • Don’t shout, you’ll blow someone’s ears out.
  • Don’t put people on speaker without letting them know, and letting them know who’s there with you. The inverse applies as well: don’t assume everyone knows who’s on the line, and don’t use the speaker on your cell phone unless you’re the only one around. Taking conference calls on speaker in public is lame.
  • When you’re on a video call, try to behave like you would if you were actually in the room. Sure, no one can see, but if you’re distracted everyone will assume you’re doing something else. Don’t go picking your nose because you forgot there was a camera on, either. Treat it like a real meeting, because it is. Photo by Bit Boy.

Remember: You May Be Recorded

One thing that a lot of people often forget with virtual meetings is that nothing is off the record. Whether it’s a Skype call or a conference bridge, your conversation may be recorded by the meeting organiser or one of the other attendees. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want brought up again later. At my old job, I got into a habit of recording conference calls (our bridge system supported call recording, and would even email me the MP3 of the call when we all hung up) because there was so much dispute about what was said in a meeting. Always assume that others are, at the very least, taking notes, and at the most are recording the entire thing.

Conference calls and video chats are a necessary evil in the modern workplace, but done well they can be fast, effective, and give even remote teams a way to keep in touch and feel connected. Assuming, that is, you practise a little considerate etiquette when you’re on the line or sitting in front of your webcam. It’s not hard, and if we all do it (or at least send this off to our office’s worst offenders), those virtual meetings might even be fun.

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