Brandt On Leadership -- The Manager's Guide To Conference Call Etiquette

Sept. 21, 2006
As always, what you do is less important than what the home office thinks you are doing.

With more and more employees working outside the walls of a traditional office (a recent study says that one in five American employees works remotely at least part of the time), the conference call -- bane of executive life -- has assumed even greater importance. Yet even as its usage has increased, little attention has been paid to conference call etiquette, especially for those "working" at home (wink wink). As a public service, then, we offer a guide to manners in the telecon age:

Preparation: A good at-home conference call begins with good equipment. Get yourself a cordless phone with a pricy headset and expense the company for it, because, well, it's not like they're paying rent on your office any more, and who needs a crick in her neck? (If some envious nerd in the Accounting Department questions this, just incant the magic words: Workers' Comp). You'll need snacks, too, but choose carefully; you need food that is easy to consume in small bites, just in case you get asked your opinion of the Sacramento deal. Pop Tarts, nachos, pre-sliced salami or those mini pigs-in-a-blanket are all good options. You'll also need a beverage, preferably something with enormous amounts of caffeine, so that when Patty from the Decatur office goes off about the new sales call report forms, you don't startle your colleagues with the sound of your head hitting the desk.

Attire: Hey, you're at home, wear whatever you like, including but not limited to jeans, t-shirts, pink sweat pants or lederhosen. Note: It's considered bad form (and career-threatening) to say to your colleagues, "Guess what? I'm at an afternoon meeting in my pajamas!" This is doubly true of telling them that you are naked.

Concurrent Activities: Nobody in his right mind ever fully concentrates on a conference call, even if he's sitting in the office next to his boss. At home, with no one watching, it's even more important to plan ahead for the excruciating boredom about to engulf you. This requires discretion; for example, although filing or setting up a desktop battle with paper clip soldiers are both OK, using a gasoline-powered leaf blower is not. Try to put yourself in your colleagues' shoes; while no one will begrudge you surfing the Web, shopping on eBay, or even practicing your putting (as long as you have carpet), they will have a reasonable expectation that certain other activities -- dishwashing, disciplining children, toilet-flushing -- will occur only after you've pressed the mute button.

In-Call Dos and Don'ts: Don't put the call on HOLD, regardless of how boring or mindlessly useless it seems; many corporate phone systems automatically play Muzak as soon you do, leaving your colleagues in a endless meeting with uptempo synthesizer music as a theme. If they figure out who did it, you're dead meat.

Do make sure to call up any relevant memos on your computer screen prior to the call. This is less for background than for the fun of randomly asking a rival, "Bob, how does what you just said relate to the point made on page three of the February Risk Analysis Memo?" Nobody will have any more idea of what this means than you do, but everyone will be afraid to respond -- except for Bob, who will sputter as if possessed while he searches frantically through his desk, e-mail and hard drive.

Don't use the speakerphone and the headset at the same time, as the resulting feedback will make everyone feel as if their brains are being microwaved.

Do offer repeatedly to stay on the call as long as necessary, using vacuous but managerial-sounding phrases such as, "We need to productize this strategic initiative." After all, even though your colleagues are sitting in cubicles staring at rush hour traffic, you're already home, washing down pigs-in-a-blanket with a cold beer while you paint your toenails. It's OK to think (but not say): If this is work, baby, then bring it on.

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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