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Banish the Conference Call, Part 2: Alternatives

Is anyone really listening to that conference call? (Art by Chris Hale)

Conference calls provide a mediocre solution to a legitimate dilemma on how best to connect multiple people simultaneously for a conversation. “Sometimes it’s the only way to coordinate between three people,” said Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation.  

“So many teams are virtual and it’s quite expensive to fly people,” agreed Laura Stack, also known as The Productivity Pro, an expert on office productivity and performance. “You all have to get together to coordinate and make a decision, and there doesn’t seem to be a more effective cost-efficient way to do that.”  

Many Capitol Hill offices rely on conference calls to communicate between their state and local sites. Political campaigns rely on conference calls to coordinate between messaging, data, polling and scheduling teams. Even the most responsive manager of K Street-client relationships may require conference calls for check-ins, rather than in-person meetings.  

There are more effective virtual ways to connect.  Here are several recommendations.  

— Videoconferencing. “One of the biggest management problems a congressional office faces is managing the relationship between district and D.C. offices,” Fitch said. “Videoconferencing will help a lot. It’s as simple as seeing someone’s face when you give tough news or ask for help, as opposed to hearing heavy breathing.” And good news: Capitol Hill offices have access to videoconferencing services. The Senate Sergeant-at-Arms has been supporting Senate-wide (including state offices) standards-based IP videoconferencing for more than 10 years. That includes both room and personal videoconferencing systems and systems that run on both Microsoft and Apple platforms. House offices can videoconference through Microsoft Lync (one-on-one), or VSee or Skype (for groups).  

Some organizations, such as Democracy for America, have gotten rid of conference calls altogether in favor of videoconferencing. They use Google Hangouts for small group conversations, and Zoom for the entire team. “It makes a bigger difference than I thought it would,” said Mia Moore, chief of staff for DFA, where two-thirds of the staff telecommutes to the Burlington, Vt., office. “It maintains a good connection between co-workers, especially new people. It really helps to see the faces of new co-workers rather than just hear our voices.”  

If videoconferencing is not an option, consider providing a visual for callers to follow, either through desktop sharing or with documents emailed ahead of time.  

— Cut the numbers.  Stack has never experienced a good conference call with more than 10 people. “Don’t worry about hurting someone’s feelings, only have those whose presence is truly required and can make a significant contribution to the discussion," she said. Stack recommended keeping only four or five on a call, then emailing a debrief afterward to anyone else who might be interested. Those calls with 50 people? “A recipe for a mess,” Stack said.  

— 30 minutes and out.  “For 30 minutes you can keep people’s attention. If you have more issues than time, then plan several different calls with different groups,” Stack said. Too-long calls are one of the leading reasons people stop paying attention. And when the call runs long, “Much of it won't apply to half the people who are on it,” Stack said.  

— Embrace the awkward silences. “If you ask a question and everyone is on mute, there is silence. Some people might just need a minute," Stack said. Hosts seeking to avoid such awkward moments are apt to rush to the next topic. "Give it a little longer," Stack said. "Just because people are silent doesn’t mean you won’t hear from anyone."  

— Make sure conference call is the medium you want to use:  For relaying information, email is better. Stack recommends conference calls for a small group of people who need to make a decision through voice-to-voice dialogue.  

That is, if one can assume all participants are listening, and not merely passing the time waiting for their chance to take a ride on Harry Potter and the Hidden Journey .  

For more information: For more information on videoconferencing, call the Sergeant-at-Arms CIO organization at 202-224-1113. The House CAO requires offices using the videoconferencing tools to download specialty software through Housenet — found under the communications tab under conferencing. For more information, call the Technology Services Desk at 202-225-6002.    

Related: Banish the Conference Call, Part 1: Why It's Awful The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.