While face-to-face (F2F) collaborative work is often preferred, many of us now find ourselves in a situation where that may not be an option for the foreseeable future. Recently many organizations have asked their staff to work from home whenever possible. For those of us who have been working remotely for years this is business as usual, but for many of our colleagues this is a new situation. We all need to get better at working remotely, and an important aspect of that is making teleconferencing calls effective. So I thought I would share some tips that I've found to work well.
I've organized these tips into four sections:
- Joining a call
- During a call
- Organizing your environment
- Planning and facilitating a call
Joining A Call
The best calls are the ones that start well, and an important aspect of this is people joining the call well. Here's what you can do:
- Join on time. When you are late for a call either making everyone else on that call wait for you or you interrupt the conversation when you do join.
- Announce yourself to a small group. When your call is with a handful of people, and when you're on time to the call, then it's polite to join with a simple "Hi, Scott's here" or something similar.
- Don't announce yourself to a large group. If the number of people on a call is large, and the limit for "large" in this case is likely 7 or 8 people, then announcing yourself as you join becomes an annoyance.
- Join on mute. We all hate it when someone is on a call and their background noise drowns out the conversation. An important aspect of avoiding this is to join a call on mute so that you don't disrupt what is currently in progress. Once you're on the call, verify that you're muted. We've all seen people mistakenly think they're muted when they're not, so let's learn from that and start building habits to avoid these embarrassments.
- Join with video turned on. We'd really like to see you! A lot of information during a conversation is communicated visually, so bandwidth permitting it's preferable to have everyone turn their video on. You'll find that doing so will make your calls more interesting and valuable.
During a Call
It's the responsibility of everyone on a call, not just the person facilitating, to ensure that the call runs smoothly. Here are a few ways you can do that:
- Remain in the moment. I know it's hard, particularly if you spend a lot of time on calls, to remain focused on the current conversation. We're all tempted to check email or multi-task in some other way to alleviate the boredom. Then suddenly we realize we missed something important and either need to let it go or ask to have the information repeated to us.
- Remain muted if you're not speaking. Sound quality is a critical success factor for calls. Although it takes a bit of effort to turn the microphone on and off it can make a huge difference for the overall sound quality. A nice side effect of this habit is that it helps all of us to remain in the moment.
- Dress like you're at work, because you are. We dress differently at home than we do when we go into the office. Although we're working from home and want to dress down we need to remember we're still working so should dress accordingly. Yes, it's ok to loosen up a bit on your personal dress code when doing so, but recognize that there are limits. My advice is to dress as if it's a "casual clothes" day at your office.
- Go on mute. I really can't say this enough.
- Introduce yourself when you talk. When you're on a call with people whom you infrequently work it can be useful to start with "It's Scott, I was thinking..." so that people can learn who you are. Although most video conference software will indicate who's talking at any given moment you may have some people on the call who don't have a video feed, perhaps because they dialled in with a phone.
- Look into the camera when you speak. If this was a face-to-face (F2F) conversation you would very likely look people in the eyes when you're speaking. The teleconferencing equivalent of this is to look into the camera. This is harder than it sounds because it can be very tempting to look at yourself in the window showing your camera feed.
- Speak up. We would really like to hear you. An interesting side effect of looking into the camera when you're speaking is that you're very likely aligned so that your microphone can pick up what you're saying.
- Speak slowly. We often find ourselves on calls with people who have different accents and who may not be fully proficient with English yet. If you find yourself in this situation people will appreciate you making the effort to be understood by them.
- Did you remember to go on mute after speaking? I keep repeating this point because it's an important habit to adopt.
- Remember that others want to collaborate too. We want everyone on the call to participate where they can, which means we all need to recognize that we need to share the air time with others.
- Be flexible. Many of us have kids, pets, and other family members who may choose to barge in during the middle of a call. It happens, and frankly can lighten up the mood in many cases. On that same note, none of us are perfect. Sometimes we're late, sometimes we forget to go on mute (have I mentioned how important sound quality is?), sometimes we may not be perfectly groomed, and so on.
Organizing Your Environment
Think about the last time you were on a call, and you were looking at other people over the video feed. You were probably assessing how they were groomed, how they were dressed, and what the state was of their work area is.
- Be aware of what's in the background. This can be hard to control, but do your best to tidy things up.
- Point your camera directly towards you. This will make it easy for you to look directly into the camera when you're speaking and very likely present you in the most flattering light possible.
- Consider getting a headset. Although they can be uncomfortable at first, headsets can both improve the quality of the sound that you transmit and if you have noise-cancelling headphones easier for you to hear.
- Be in a well-lit space. We've all seen people who look like they're working in a dungeon and that's mostly because of poor lighting. Natural lighting is best if you can do it, and the easiest way to achieve that is to set up either near or better yet facing a window. Otherwise you may need to arrange light sources so that they project towards you.
- Test your equipment before the call. If you're new to teleconferencing, or you've changed your setup, you might want to consider doing a quick one-on-one call with someone to test if everything is configured correctly. We don't want to force people to wait while we adjust our setup to get it working.
- Familiarize yourself with the software. There are many teleconferencing packages available to us and they all work differently. If the software is new to you, or if you haven't used it lately, watching a quick training video is likely a good idea.
- Be aware of the ambient noise. We've all been on calls where someone is dialing in from their car, from the airport, or from their local coffee shop. The ambient noise is often worse than they think and it can be very distracting. So you if you can't avoid calling in from a noisy environment then, you guessed it, go on mute as often as you can.
Planning and Facilitating a Call
Nobody likes wasting their time on a call where nothing is accomplished. Effective planning and good facilitation can go a long way to making a videoconferencing call successful.
- Have an agenda. People need to know why you are having the call so that they know what is expected of them. Perhaps more importantly, they also want to determine whether they need to be on the call at all.
- Keep the attendee list short. Although this can be hard, I always try to identify who is required to attend, likely because they are actively involved in the topic of the call, and who is optional because they may need to listen in to be aware of what we're doing.
- Prompt people to participate. Some people are shy, particularly when they are new to videoconferencing. So keep an eye out for this and occasionally ask someone who hasn't spoken lately if they have anything to add.
- Schedule time between calls. A courteous practice is to have a 5 minute "bio break" between calls. The easiest way to do that is to adopt the practice of ending calls at :25 or :55 rather than at the bottom or top of the hour respectively.
- Start on time. When I'm hosting a call I will typically start the software a couple of minutes before the call is scheduled to begin so that we can start immediately on time.
- End on time. Many of the people on the current call may have something else scheduled, perhaps another call, immediately after this one.
One last bonus tip: You are welcome to copy the image at the top of this article and use it as a quick reminder list of the key tips in this article. Print it and tape it to the side of your monitor if you like!
Please feel free to share this article with others or print it out so that you can keep it handy. We’ve also put together a short tip sheet that you can tape to your monitor.
I would love to hear about any other tips you would have so that I can update this blog and share them with others. Thanks in advance!