Following the global economic and social impact of COVID-19, the teleconference has gone from a curiosity to an organisational staple. Here's how to get it right.
At a glance
- Teleconferences were once viewed with wariness, but more sophisticated technology has made them a valuable tool in the remote working environment.
- Teleconferencing success requires sound planning, while ensuring that all participants have had a chance to contribute.
By Sally Fisher
Teleconferences are too often approached with dread. Will the technology work for the entire meeting? Will those dialling in feel they have a chance to participate? How does the chair prevent people speaking over each other? With planning and attention to detail, a teleconference can be efficient, truly beneficial, and more pain-free than the traditional face-to-face meeting.
Professionals in the US spend an average of 38 minutes in a teleconference, with 13 of those minutes wasted on unnecessary interruptions and distractions, according to research by London-based meeting software provider LoopUp Group.
If a third of each teleconference meeting is wasted, that is a significant hidden cost. However, this can be avoided.
Shelley Dunstone, founder of consulting practice Legal Circles, and International Bar Association (IBA) committee senior co-chair, recalls chairing her first trans-national teleconference. She had participated in many, but had not run one herself.
Dunstone needed to discuss her session at the recent IBA conference in Seoul – “The Managing Partner’s Career” – with participants in different time zones.
“Teleconferences are challenging and this conference, where 5000 to 6000 lawyers meet, is a big deal,” Dunstone says. She was conscious of getting the most out of the telephone discussions by being well prepared.
Top tips for teleconferences
Find a time that suits everyone. A time that suits you may be 2am for someone else. Perhaps two meetings are necessary. You can use an online scheduling tool such as Doodle.
Send out a clear, detailed agenda. The agenda should include the aim of the meeting, a guide for participants and what is expected of them, and other key outcomes being sought.
Welcome each person as they come online, introduce yourself and state who else is already online. This will also serve to bring everyone’s attention to the meeting.
While waiting for everyone to arrive, some small talk helps build rapport before getting into the substance of the meeting. You may have heard news from someone’s country – ask them about it. Or you can talk about the weather. Just warm up the discussion.
Ask each person to give their name when they start to speak, and remind participants not to jump in when someone is speaking – this seems even more rude when you can’t see the person you are interrupting.
If someone has been quiet, invite them specifically to present their opinion. Do not assume that silence indicates agreement.
A key element of a successful meeting is ensuring everyone has had a chance to contribute.
At the end of the discussion, thank everyone for participating, and try to end on a positive note. People are busy and like to feel that their contribution has been appreciated.
Dunstone says her first chairing of a teleconference went well. It was very important for her to know, as chair of a panel discussion, what the participants would say and what the no-go areas were. The teleconference was a vital part of her session’s success.
Ruth MacKay, author of The 21st Century Workforce and managing director of OURTEL Fundraising Solutions, is an advocate of teleconferencing in preference to a video conference, which she says adds a layer of technical risk.
“Teleconferencing is a marvellous tool. You don’t have to be looking at people to have an effective meeting. A video conference can drop out, and that’s embarrassing if you are having an important discussion with a client,” she says.
MacKay has 55 agents in her Australia-based fundraising business who all work from home, mainly in New South Wales and Queensland.
“It saves [the agents] so much time in commuting. It’s not uncommon for people to have to commute for two hours going to and from the Sydney CBD to work in an office, it’s ridiculous,” she says.
She agrees with Dunstone that teleconferencing meetings need to be well planned. She also prefers to use the free software Zoom.
Dunstone likes using Zoom as only one person can speak at a time and everyone else is on mute. The chair can take questions one at a time by using an automated flag, which makes the session much more efficient.
MacKay says her staff are engaged and happy with her business model, and 67 per cent of them have been working at OURTEL Fundraising Solutions for seven years or more.
“Many companies are stuck in this model of having face-to-face meetings, but I have a colleague I talk to every day and we have never met in person. For us, teleconferencing works and our high staff retention rate shows that,” MacKay says.
Common problems to avoid
- Participants who come late
- Participants who haven’t read the agenda
- Chairs not sending a clear agenda early enough
- Chairs not managing the meeting well, allowing participants to talk over each other
- A lack of follow-up afterwards
- Technology malfunctioning