A nerdRider’s guide to teleconferencing

I suspect the IT industry is an early adopter of the “remote office worker”.  It is an industry that is reasonably well suited to it.  In time, I suspect more and more roles will diversify into roles that can be conducted remotely.  One component to office life when working with remote co-workers is the teleconference.
From my perspective a teleconference typically takes the form of a “traditional” meeting held around a table, and dialing me in via a speakerphone sitting in the middle of the table. There was a stage in my career where I used to conduct teleconference meetings for the stakeholders of the software project.  So, it is fair to say that I have sat on both sides of the fence (phone?) when it comes to teleconferencing.
There are some fairly obvious rules that should be followed when participating in a teleconference meeting.  For the benefit of my reader(s) I am going to state them here, just in case my definition of obvious does not match someone else’s…

For the local participants:

Project your voice
Yes, this is obvious.   Even people who speak quietly know this rule, but still manage to avoid doing this in a meeting.  Pretend the speakerphone is in fact a little old lady with a cone held up to her ear! If you have something that is important enough to say in the meeting, then I want to hear it!  Say it loud enough to be heard!

Talk towards the phone
Try and avoid addressing an individual in the meeting room in what could be considered a “traditional manner”.  Western culture dictates eye-contact of varying degrees to indicate the intended target.  Instead, phrase your question or statement, by starting with the person’s name.  Until real-time video-conferencing becomes a flawless implementation used universally, this rule is important.  It may help to imagine that your intended target will only hear you, if you are facing the speakerphone.  The volume of a person’s voice changes markedly depending on how directly they are facing the speakerphone, so try not to move your head from side to side as you speak.

Do not gesticulate to describe issues
Some people just naturally love to use their hands to describe things.  Meetings with many people are rarely technical, so you get some people who insist on using hand gestures (not necessarily rude ones) to describe things.  Such as “I have this much difficulty when I use feature x of your software”.  If you are on the other end of the phone, you are left wondering whether they were indicating a small distance between thumb and forefinger, or something more akin to how big the fish that got away was…

Stop people from tapping on the desk
Not so obvious, but it can be a real show-stopper for the person on the other end of the phone.  The large flat area of the desk amplifies any sound made on it.  When the speakerphone rests on the desk, all it picks up is the tapping – often at a deafening volume.

Soliciting feedback from the remote parties should be done explicitly.
A question such as “Does everybody understand?” is not something that should be asked in a teleconference.  In a traditional meeting, a quick scan of faces will give a good idea as to whether everyone is following along.  From personal experience, I can tell you the “Does everybody understand?” question is meant with a stony silence.  If you have multiple remote participants, single them out individually. “Did you follow that, Jack?”  –  “Yes thanks”.  “How about you, Jill” and so on…

Rules for the remote participants:

Pay attention!
I have found that being a remote attendant in a meeting means you quite often take more of a passive role.  Avoid the temptation to try and do other things whilst “in” the meeting.  It is too easy to let the meeting “get away from you” and it will cease to be of any value.  The people on the other end of the phone are doing their best to communicate solely through voice, the least you can do is give them your full attention.
Don’t be afraid to ask people to speak up.
Yes, you shouldn’t have to, but I bet you will need to!

Have an ergonomic phone
I cannot recommend hands free headsets highly enough.  Holding a phone to your ear for long periods of time is remarkably difficult and off-putting.  Just remember the first rule that you should obey.

Have a phone that is easily volume adjustable
Despite ranting about vocal projection, the unmistakable truth is that everyone will come across at different volumes.  Having a phone that is quickly adjustable and does not require you to take the speaker away from your ear is essential.

Understand half-duplex communication
A lot of speakerphones are “half-duplex” to avoid echo and feedback.  In a nutshell, if you speak, the microphone on the other end will cut out.  Effectively, you stop hearing what anyone else is saying.  Even polite people tend to “interrupt” a person’s conversation from time to time.  If you do so from the other end of a half-duplex speakerphone, there is a very good chance you will miss something being said.

Be an active participant
I do not mean that you should talk endlessly.  Understand that your lack of physical presence in the meeting space will mean that people can tend to “forget” you are there.  If the meeting “drifts” away from the intended subject, being remote can mean you “lose interest”.  Respectfully requesting that the meeting participants keep focused on the aim of the meeting quickly can avoid the communication breakdown that will otherwise occur.

I think that’s about it!  If you have got any tips, feel free to leave a comment.