Conference-call annoyances and how to avoid them

Conference calls are part of many organisations’ business routines. And, sometimes, part of conference calls are routine annoyances: interrupting co-workers, background noise, or the awkward silence that comes from waiting on a caller to speak, only to learn the caller was talking but had been on mute.

Establishing a few essential rules at the start of each telephone- or web-based meeting can eliminate many of the issues faced by workers, said Wayne Turmel, a meetings expert and author. Setting expectations involves leadership and follow-through.

“There’s a difference between running a meeting and leading a meeting,” said Turmel, author of Meet Like You Mean It: A Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings.

Some difficulties in telephone meetings were highlighted in a recent survey by administrative staffing service Office Team. It found that 37% of US office workers said multiple people talking at the same time was the most distracting behaviour on a conference call. Next was excessive background noise (24%); attendees not paying attention (9%); and attendees putting the call on hold and prompting hold music or attendees talking when on mute (7% each).

Up to two-thirds of the time in virtual meetings is wasted, Turmel said. He recommends a few simple steps to have more productive meetings by phone or other virtual method:

Know the tools. The meeting leader should be familiar with the teleconferencing platform’s features in advance. For instance, knowing how to mute callers who are especially background-noisy can be critical to having an efficient phone meeting. “Most people don’t know their conference call platform,” he said. “Learn the commands and relay those commands.”

Set ground rules. The meeting leader should, in communication before the meeting or at the start of it, pass on rules such as reminding people to mute their line when not speaking. “Most of the problems with conference calls occur because nobody is setting ground rules and holding people accountable,” Turmel said.

Direct traffic. The call leader should be more than just a facilitator. The person should listen closely, asking callers to repeat words that might have been unclear because of bad reception or background noise. Also, if the call leader hears multiple voices trying to respond at the same time, the leader should ask one person to talk and then get back to the other person so that all participants are heard.

Mark Biersmith, CPA, CGMA, recommends using a landline instead of a mobile phone for conference calls. Biersmith, the president and COO of Aerial Investment Inc. in Nashville, Tennessee, said it is difficult to be persuasive, and irritating for other callers, if you are talking on a mobile phone and not coming through clearly.

Another option is setting up a virtual meeting on platforms such as Skype, WebEx, or GoToMeeting. Turmel pointed out that web platforms have more features, such as a chat function, that can be helpful in making sure voices are heard.

Another tip from Biersmith: Introduce everyone on the call. That introduction helps to set the agenda for the call and give others an idea of the stakeholders who are taking part.

Related CGMA Magazine content:

Four Tips for Managing Remote Workers”: Good communication with employees in other buildings or other continents is the biggest difficulty CIOs face in managing those workers. A survey of US CIOs also lists four tips to better manage remote workers.

How to Make Flexible Working Work”: Whilst some employers see flexible working policies as an essential talent retention tool, others raise concerns about the impact on organisational culture and relationships with colleagues.

Neil Amato ( is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.