Managing by telephone? 10 ideas for a better conference call

How can I manage people I cannot see?

That’s a question I get from a good number of managers who work with remote staff and freelancers and communicate with them via Skype, Google Hangouts, email, online chats and, yes, the telephone.

It’s clear from what the managers ask that despite the innovations in communication technology, it remains challenging to communicate effectively with people who work in another location.

I remember the challenge well. In my first assigning desk job at The Philadelphia Inquirer, I coordinated the paper’s coverage of New Jersey, and learned a lot about casino gambling, cranberry bogs, Superfund toxic waste sites and corrupt politicians. Because I was in Philadelphia and most of my staff worked in bureaus located in Trenton and points south, I also learned a lot about managing by telephone.

In the years since (and there have been quite a few), my use of the telephone often has  involved gathering groups of people for conference calls. Some were called to make announcements or share information. Others provided a way to brainstorm ideas or discuss approaches to a problem. Some were held monthly, weekly or even daily so that members of my decentralized staff could brief each other and plan together. And some were called to deal with specific, one-time issues.

Recently I heard from a manager who asked for tips on facilitating an effective conference call. Acknowledging that this is an art, not a science, and that you should tailor your individual approach to the unique needs and qualities of your group, I offer these ideas. I hope they’re helpful.

1. Know the participants. The first step in making a successful conference call takes place long before anyone dials in. You need to know the participants — and they need to know you. So visit your remote locations as often as possible. Be able to put faces with the voices. (I worked with two freelance stringers in Jersey for four years and never met them in person.) You may not be able to visit your bureau staff and freelancers every week, or even every month, so when you can, make the visit count — address work issues that let each of you see the other in action.

2. Set a goal. Even if the call is held every week to discuss issues like the upcoming Sunday edition, your website’s metrics or a long-term project’s progress, establish a clear goal for each call. If all you want to do is make sure everyone knows what their colleagues are working on, you can tell everyone to submit something in writing and dump a meeting. But if you want to identify the week’s best story and share ideas for its presentation, make sure everyone on the call knows that in advance — and helps make it happen. Remember that if you invite me to a call, I need to understand why I’m there and what I am expected to contribute to its success. That begins when I understand your goal. (And be realistic. You can’t create a social media strategy in one 60-minute call. But you might agree upon a process and assign tasks to those involved in the project. That’s progress.)

3. Prepare an agenda. And share it. Before the call, send an email to the participants  that includes the goal for the call and any specific discussion points. Telling me beforehand what we’re going to discuss gives me a chance to think about the issue and what I might contribute. If I’m introverted, you’ve just helped me a lot. Also, include in the email the names of those who will be on the call. It will help me picture who’s sitting around this virtual conference table.

4. Start (and end) on time. If it’s difficult to run an in-person meeting when folks are arriving at all times, it’s even more difficult when they are entering a conference call after it’s begun. If the call is to start at 2 p.m., start it at 2 p.m. and follow up with those who chronically arrive late. And for your part, make sure to end the call when you said it would end.

5. Take roll. At the beginning of a call, I like the participants on the call to announce their presence. This accomplishes two things: it helps the participants picture who’s sitting around the virtual conference table; and it gives me a chance to make a checklist of who’s on the call — so I can make sure everyone’s voice is heard.

6. Set expectations for participation. Call on people. Conference calls, like all meetings, allow you to send a variety of messages, like: “We need the ideas of everyone in this organization.” “The loudest voices will not have an advantage.” “We will treat everyone’s ideas with respect.”

Too many conference calls, like too many in-person meetings, violate these principles, and the organization is poorer for it. As facilitator, keep track of who’s doing the talking and ask those who are quiet what they’re thinking. If someone is about to talk for the 26th time, politely say, “Before you speak, William, why don’t we hear from Susan?” Don’t forget, this is your call.

And be careful about discouraging participation with your opinions — your words carry a lot of weight. Again, remember that the meeting is yours. You can speak whenever you want. So let others go first.

7. Stay on track. Keep your eye on your goal and the conversation on point. When a discussion designed to surface ideas for improving deadline performance wanders into an argument about who did what on one night in October, reign things in. Repeat the goal and summarize the group’s progress so far. Then let the discussion resume.

8. Don’t be afraid of silence. Interpreting the silence on a conference call is something of an art. Many facilitators assume that silence means the discussion has stalled and it’s their responsibility to kick start the conversation. But remember the good reporter’s response to silence: let it hang. The person being interviewed often fills it — and sometimes takes the conversation to a deeper place. Or, respond to the silence by reframing the issue under discussion; ask a question that helps the group look at the issue from a different perspective. Bottom line: Don’t let silence cause you to abandon a discussion too quickly. It still might have good places to go.

9. Agree on next steps. As you’re nearing the end of a call, summarize what the group has accomplished, relate it to the meeting’s stated goal and propose next steps. What will you do with the meeting’s output? What do you need the others on the call to do? Who will report back during the next call? When will it be? Leave everyone with a clear sense of why the call was a productive use of their time.

10. Follow up with email. Some managers like someone on the call to take detailed minutes and distribute them to the participants afterward. I usually lean toward a shorter follow-up email in which I sum up what we accomplished and what we agreed would be next steps. But let the situation guide your follow-up. If your goal was to brainstorm ideas for the upcoming election campaign and the call generated 57 ideas, an email that lists all of them tells the group it has a lot of good ideas. If your goal was to mark the progress of an ongoing staff training program, a succinct paragraph might suffice.

Most importantly, remember that managing staff via telephone relies on the same fundamentals as managing in person. Your success will rise and fall on the quality of the relationships you build with that staff. And every interaction you have with them — whether it’s one-on-one or in a group — contributes to the quality of those relationships.

Dial away. (Just kidding.)

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