Suggestions for Facilitating Conference Calls, Especially for Semi-Remote Teams

Summary: I’ve written several suggestions for facilitating addressing pain points in conference calls, after reading and experimenting for six months.

I’ve been mulling facilitating addressing pain points in conference calls since mid-June, when I first read this blog post, as well as this, on using Robert’s Rules of Order. Several colleagues graciously participated in an experiment with me in December about applying some distilled ideas from especially that first link.

Following that experiment and thinking more, I’ve written several suggestions. My goal with the outline below is to present a set of suggestions that are simultaneously:

  1. Brief
  2. Easy to understand after one reading
  3. Simple to implement after practicing once or twice, and
  4. Not contrived or annoying to the point of being immediately dismissed, as many “Here’s an engineering approach to solving a people problem” solutions end up being.

With that in mind, my questions for the readers to whom I’ve sent this outline are as follows:

  1. Does the document meet those goals?
  2. Having read the document, would you be willing to use its suggestions?
  3. Having read the document, what concerns would you have about using its suggestions?

I’d be grateful to hear thoughts related to the above on this culture-based side project!

Suggestions for facilitating conference calls

The text below is bolded to facilitate quick reading.

Introductory suggestions

  1. Include video if possible.

    Video introduces body language, which can help to prevent speakers “colliding” (i.e., talking over one another), by allowing literally raising one’s hand, answering questions with body language (nodding/shaking one’s head, etc.).

  2. As is useful (e.g., in calls of more than a few people, or if anyone in the meeting has trouble distinguishing between participants' voices), as a speaker, consider introducing yourself each time you speak (“This is [name]. What’s the status of…").

  3. Each meeting should have a facilitator, whose identity is known to everyone in the meeting at the outset.

    The facilitator has two jobs:

    1. As in an in-person meeting: Guiding the meeting through any agenda items, keeping track of time, and starting and ending the meeting on time.

    2. More unique to conference calls: Being a single point of immediate resolution for speaker “collisions”.

Suggestions for navigating collisions:

If one wants to interrupt someone who is currently speaking

  • On a video call: Literally raise your hand / wave (with a primary goal of attracting the attention of the facilitator, rather than the speaker), and/or:
  • On an audio call: Verbally “raise your hand” by saying, “This is [your name]”.
    • The person who’s currently speaking could choose to stop and say “Go ahead, [your name]." In this scenario, the facilitator has the job of keeping track of the fact that the speaker stopped, and to ideally loop back later to ask that speaker whether there was more to their thought.
    • The current speaker, alternatively, could continue their thought. In this scenario, the facilitator has the job of keeping track of who’s indicated that they would like to interrupt, and, at an appropriate time, saying “Go ahead, [name]."

If two people start speaking at the same time

The facilitator has the job of saying “Go ahead, [name of one of the speakers],” keeping track of the other speaker(s) to loop back to, and, at an appropriate time, asking each of those other speakers to go ahead (“Jacob, would you still like to say something?").

Relying on the facilitator to guide the conversation in this scenario avoids two pain points: (a) speakers getting into a “No, you go” dance, and (b) the loudest / most forceful speaker always getting to speak first.

Encouraging participation

Especially on audio-only calls, where body language such as nodding or shaking one’s head are not visible, the facilitator ideally could keep track of meeting participants who have not spoken, and ask them explicitly for input (“Jacob, did you have any additional thoughts about this?").

Expectations of the facilitator role

The idea here is that the facilitator is a single source for quickly addressing pain points that often arise in (especially audio-only) conference calls. To accomplish this, the facilitator needs to be able to do two things:

  1. Keep track of the “tree” of discussion, to be able to loop back on speakers who yielded to others, have indicated that they would like to speak, or have not yet spoken but might want to if prompted.

  2. Keep a background awareness of unconscious bias (see, e.g., this overview article from HR Magazine), and be careful not to consistently preference some speakers over others in the case of a collision.