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At my past few jobs, I’ve had to spend a lot of time on conference calls with developers and project managers. While I don’t profess to be a “conference call expert” (or, for that matter, an etiquette expert), I think there are some general ground rules for conference calls, and I’m going to deviate a bit from my usual Hibernate/JEE topics to itemize the ones that I think are important.

At my current job, I’m actually pretty lucky. Almost all of us work remotely, so we’re pretty accustomed to how to behave in the ubiquitous con-call. At a previous engagement, I wasn’t so lucky – I’ll omit their names to protect the guilty.

So here’s an arbitrary list from me, a random guy on the internet of questionable credentials, of what you should and shouldn’t do on a conference call. Some of these probably seem really obvious, but I’m listing even the obvious ones because some people still break them:

1.) Use the Mute Button, especially on a speakerphone. The most important reason for using Mute is to prevent echo-y feedback, particularly on speaker phones. If you aren’t talking, please put your speaker phone on mute for the sake of everyone else listening. Note that following this rule will invariably lead to the embarrassing situation where you start talking and don’t realize that you’ve left your phone on mute. Don’t worry, we’ve all done it and we’ll all forgive you!
2.) Introduce yourself when you enter the conference. Some conference systems will force you to state your name when you log in, and then the robo-operator will announce you when you join. I actually find this to be quite jarring, especially when robo-operator interrupts what everyone is saying. Better systems will play a quiet tone when people enter or leave the call. Some, like one that a client had at my previous job, will do nothing at all. This would allow people to lurk on the line unbeknownst to the participants, which is terribly rude. Likewise, if you enter a conference room while a conference call is already underway, announce yourself at the next free moment. Ideally, the moderator of the conference will also take a moment to introduce everybody at the beginning of the call if there is a chance that everyone doesn’t know each other. This is a great idea.
3.) Close the Door. It’s best to go to a closed room to join a conference call to eliminate background noise. If you can go to such a place, do it. Don’t join a conference call from, e.g., a street cafe or airport gate. In doing so you risk a passing ambulance, street parade, or TSA threats to destroy unattended luggage interrupting the call.
4.) Don’t use a mobile phone if you can help it. Occasionally you can get away with using a mobile for a con-call in a pinch. But if it’s a super-important meeting where you are trying to make an impression or do something complicated, nothing will be more frustrating than a garbled, broken up, or dropped call. Try to use a land-line if you can.
5.) Don’t eat on the phone. I guess this is just a personal pet peeve of mine. I can’t even listen to NPR if the announcer’s voice is all moist and saliva-sounding. This is more important if you’re wearing a headset.
6.) Have an agenda that everyone receives beforehand. This goes for all meetings, but it’s just as critical for a conference call. This helps you set expectations and stay on-topic during the call.
7.) Get some screen-sharing software. Better yet, get some screen sharing software and test it out before the meeting. With it, you can use something as simple as Notepad or TextMate as a virtual whiteboard. For some reason, we never did this at my previous jobs. We’ve done it at my current job and it works great.
8.) Pick a good time for all participants. This is particularly important if you’re working in different time zones. Generally you can depend on developers being available between 10am and 4pm in their respective time zones – you can argue that programmers need to grow up and work regular business hours like everyone else. But until the voodoo of deadline creation becomes a perfected science, software people will need to occasionally work late into the night or early in the morning to meet schedules. Or (like anyone else) we may have daycare responsibilities and have to leave a little early. So we stay flexible. This means that if you’re working on, e.g., both coasts of the United States, your best bet is between 1pm and 3pm, eastern time. If you’re working in the U.S. and the far east, you’re usually stuck with getting the U.S. participants to work early, and the others late in their workday. Similarly between Europe and the U.S., the U.S. participants will probably need to be available late in the day, and the Europeans earlier.

What do you think? Have I missed any conference call ground rules?

Photo Credit: Stephen Cummings