Conference Calls – I think I heard this one before (or how to conduct a conference call)


Teleconferencing, either audio or video, has become a mainstream activity for keeping connected with geographically dispersed project teams. As technology has matured, conferencing over phone lines or the internet (VOIP) has replaced many cross-continent flights. And, as frequent air travelers know, that is a good thing because commercial flying is not fun anymore.

My weekly schedule always contains dozens of teleconferences – some of which are extremely productive and others almost comical in their inefficiency.  I want to make sure that you understand how badly a conference call can be and I was introduced to one of the funniest videos on this recently.  Please take a moment to watch Dave Grady on You Tube do an impersonation of “how not to conduct a conference call

I first began participating in video conferences in the early 1990’s when the connections were direct and the meetings were held in special video conferencing rooms manned by technicians and costing $1,000 per hour. We even “dressed up” for our TV appearances. Today, well let us just say some folks take informal to an entirely new level. If you are interested, here is a link on the history of video conferencing.

However, history is not the motivating thought behind this post. Rather, I want to talk about etiquette and efficiency in making teleconferencing as useful as possible for projects and project managers. See the end of post for two links on what-not-to-do in teleconferencing. I am going to say some things that are so obvious you may want to give me a Homer Simpson DUH! Award. However, I have experienced a violation of every listed “Do” or “Don’t” more than once.

Do’s of Teleconferencing

  • Use good equipment. For example, cell phones pick up more ambient noise than landlines. Place microphones in the center of the table when many people are participating.
  • Make sure everyone has the phone number or conference link and passcode.
  • Be on time. Teleconference productivity really slows down and looses continuity when new people are entering the conversation every couple of minutes. Do not reward poor behavior by waiting – unless it is the boss (remember the acceptable wait time rules you learned in college based on academic rank).
  • Schedule teleconference time with due consideration of different time zones.
  • Use the mute button on multipoint conferences when not talking.
  • Select a quiet place away from office or home noises (including dogs barking, cat’s meowing, or children crying)
  • Introduce yourself and acknowledge others before beginning. Unless you know for sure that all participants recognize your voice (or face), use your name before asking or answering questions.
  • Have an agenda and follow it.
  • Direct questions to an individual or location by name.
  • Act interested.
  • Designate someone to take notes.

Don’ts of Teleconferencing

  • Interrupt
  • Shout – speak in a normal voice
  • Have side conversations or engage in obvious non-conference activities. People can hear phones ring, keyboard clicks and pretzel chewing unless the microphone is muted.
  • Get off into the weeds. If participants need to talk about subjects not on the agenda, move that conversation to another place and time.
  • Do not put the call on hold – especially if your office phone system defaults to Musak

Additional tips for Videoconferences

  • Make sure everyone is visible on camera. Moving the camera during the videoconference is distracting to viewers.
  • Do not wear very bright clothes or clothes with busy patterns – they come out looking really weird. Use the self-view on your camera to see how you will appear to remote participants.
  • Close drapes or blinds to remove sources of glare.
  • Adjust the camera before the conference begins (no one wants to watch you fiddle with the equipment).
  • Audio has a slight delay on many connections, so pause briefly before talking or during long comments or presentations.
  • Use small movements and gestures and expect a small lag.
  • If using slides or other visual materials make sure that you have the right software on your machine and that the projector displays are clear.
  • Remember that other can see you – chewing, making paperclip toys, scratching, rolling your eyes, and texting (All those bad habits you developed on conference calls will haunt you).


University of Washington provides examples of bad videoconference behavior

You Tube video on frustrating teleconference

Vacations for Project Managers

Project managers – myself included – find it difficult to break away from the office, if not physically then mentally.  So many times at events, out to dinners, driving or walking around I see folks who look like they might be Project Managers on the phone, texting, checking their PDS (iPhone, Droid, Blackberries). Even in spaces that are supposed to be places to get-away – are not.  OK- for those of you that are colleagues, I know this is the pot calling the kettle black, but PMs you really do need periodic relief from the stress of managing a project – it is called a vacation.

Why do PMs have trouble taking a vacation?
Now let’s play a game – can you name all of the reasons NOT to take vacation:

  1. Everything is your responsibility
  2. It is so easy to stay in touch.
  3. You worry about what might happen if you do not respond immediately to a message. It is not that you do not trust the second in command… see reason 1
  4. Work is key to your identity (Your work IS your life)
  5. No one else is taking time off

Ron Ashkenas writing for Harvard Business Review blogs says, “Expedia’s annual Vacation Deprivation survey found that, in 2009, 34% of employed U.S. adults did not take their full allotment of vacation days. What’s worse is that workers in the United States receive fewer vacation days on average than those in any other major country.” (see work life balance calculator to see how you are doing.)

Health Reasons to Take Vacations
“Vacations Are Good for You, Medically Speaking” reports the NY Times (June 7, 2008) offering three medical studies demonstrating value of REAL vacations.

  • The Framingham Heart Study, which started in 1948, looked at questionnaires women in the study had filled out over 20 years about how often they took vacations. Those women who took a vacation once every six years or less were almost eight times more likely to develop coronary heart disease or have a heart attack than those who took at least two vacations a year.
  • Another study, published in 2000, looked at 12,000 men over nine years who were at high risk for coronary heart disease. Those who failed to take annual vacations had a 21 percent higher risk of death from all causes and were 32 percent more likely to die of a heart attack.
  • A study in 2006 asked a group of 15 people who were flying from the West Coast of the United States to New Zealand for vacations lasting a week to 12 days to wear a wrist device that monitored quantity and quality of sleep — for three days before the trip, during the vacation and three days afterward.  They kept a sleep diary and took a vigilance test to determine how good their reactions were before, during and after the holiday. Here’s what he found. After a few days on vacation — and it usually took two to three — people were averaging an hour more of good quality sleep. And, there was an 80 percent improvement in their reaction times.

Some Other Good Reasons to Take Vacations
When you push everyday at 110% for extended periods of time, your psyche – spirit – motivation – whatever you want to call your work-committed spark dims. We call this burnout and it can happen to anyone no matter the importance of his or her job or what satisfaction they derived from it. Believe it is real and I have seen it!  Vacations provide stress relief that defers or eliminates burnout.  Tyr these reasons to take a vacation:

  1. Better problem solving and greater tolerance for normal, but irritating events, can result from the decompression of a vacation.
  2. Your staff may extend their skills by picking up occasional slack when you are unavailable. (They may appreciate what you do more, too!)
  3. Your brain gets a chance to unwind from the situations at work and perhaps actually “play”.
  4. You will realize that your project and team can exist without you around every minute of the day.
  5. You will get to spend quality time with people you love and know without the daily stress of work.

Comment from Tim Berry writing for about people who do not take vacations, “It’s bad for your life". Business is to serve life, not life to serve business. Make no mistake about it; if you choose to “work all day, every day” do it purposely and knowingly, recognizing that you’re sacrificing your life for a business. Stay single and alone. Don’t ever have kids.”

What to do
If you are persuaded of the benefits to your health and your performance achieved by taking a serious vacation, what’s next? Look at your project schedule. Do your best to select a time when there are no critical deliverables and no customer visits. To the extent possible, pick two weeks that do not coincide with major company events. Stick to your plan even when complications arise.

Provide notice in advance to your management, team, and stakeholders.  And do not let someone say “we can’t get along without you”.

Appoint a proxy and inform key personnel that that person has the authority to act in your absence. Meet with that person the day before your vacation begins to review any pending activities, issues, or expectations. And, ok, leave that person a contact number just in case (If you trust them enough to allow then to act on your behalf, trust them enough not to abuse the contact information).

Relax, have a good time, and drink one for me – then return ready to take up the PM mantle again.


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