• Chris Barbin

Why Conference Calls Can Suck the Life Out of Your Company Culture

I abhor conference calls. This might seem like a fairly dramatic statement, but as a former founder and CEO, an entrepreneur, and the current head of culture at a large international company, I believe conference calls can suck the life out of a company.

Don’t get me wrong, meetings are critical to running a successful business. They’re a means to share information, to brainstorm and collaborate on problems, or to make decisions. But when meetings and formal discussions aren’t done well, or there are too many of them, or they have too many or the wrong people, they can have the opposite effect - tanking productivity, hurting team performance and causing an undue amount of friction and frustration in the worker experience.

We’ve all sat on those 40-person conference calls where the first 5 minutes is spent waiting in silence for people to dial in and announce themselves. The next 5-10 minutes is spent dealing with technical issues, echoes and reminding people to put themselves on mute because we can hear the baristas and blaring horns in the background. Then once the call actually starts, one person drones on while everyone else on the phone checks email or multi-tasks waiting for their name to be called. Little debate or discussion actually happens on these calls because people are either distracted or afraid to voice a concern into a vacuum of silence. One of my favorite videos is this one re-enacting the painfulness of a conference call in real life.

The purpose of this blog is not to whine about meetings or lead a rallying cry to ban conference calls. It’s to convince leaders and managers to rethink how they approach these calls -- using them to connect with their teams and build culture and not break it down.

Here are 3 simple things companies can do today.

1.Turn on your camera - faces still matter!

Twenty years ago employees built connections with co-workers and managers face-to-face. They came into an office every day, sat with their teams surrounded by desks full of kid and pet pictures. If co-workers needed something they picked up a phone or walked down the hall. That physical, human connection doesn’t happen as much today.

Research states more than two-thirds of people work away from the office at least once every week, and some never come into the office at all. As CEO of Appirio, I worked from the road 80% of the time and more than half of our U.S.-based employees worked full time out of their home office. This flexibility helped us in the long run, allowing us to hire based on talent, not location and allowing employees to spend more time with their families than on the road commuting. It worked for our company because we invested in tools to recreate that personal connection which might have been lost otherwise.

Our most effective tool was video conferencing. It was built into our collaboration system and we armed every employee with a webcam, headset and laptop powerful enough to make video calling just as easy as picking up the phone. More importantly, we had a culture where “cameras on” was our default setting. Even if it was 6am and you were wearing a baseball hat with kids slipping in and out of the background, you turned on your camera. In fact, we loved watching what was going on in the background because it made people human again - not faceless names on a conference call. Below is a photo from one of those early morning calls.

There’s an element of empathy and psychological safety that comes with talking to another person face-to-face, even if it’s over video. The Culture Code author Daniel Coyle describes research from the MIT Human Dynamics Lab on how “belonging cues” like contact, energy, mimicry, turn taking, attention, body language and vocal pitch create more connected teams. The absence of these cues leads to distrust and isolation.

2. Decide if a call is even the right tool.

Too often, people jump immediately to “we need a call.” However, there are plenty of communication tools that might be better suited for a given task. Email, text messaging, instant messaging, Skype, Yammer, Chatter, Google Hangouts, Slack — the list goes on. Companies already invest in many of these tools, but they typically do a terrible job of explaining when and how to use them. This results in employees jumping between tools, posting to all of them or defaulting to their standby (usually the dreaded conference call) even if it isn’t the best way to address a situation.

Take time to evaluate which tools your company might have today, consolidate where you can and teach and model the behavior you want to see. If you need to make a decision fast, don’t bother setting up a big conference call or sending a long email. Find the key people on IM or FaceTime, or open up a Zoom video to talk through the issue. If you want to share good news or an interesting article, don’t just talk about it on a company call. Instead, put it on the company’s portal, news feed or share it out on public social channels so people can spread the word. If you have difficult feedback to share with an employee, don’t be chicken shit and send it on email. Instead, hit FaceTime on your phone and talk it out.

3. Don’t be afraid to bring the fun.

As Jack Nicholson once said, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!” The repercussion of making everything about work might not be as intense in real life as it was in The Shining, but injecting some fun into your calls can have a big impact on connectedness and your culture. Plus, it’s free.

If you already use video for calls, start with little things to make these regular meetings seem less formal like asking employees to call in from their favorite location or to wear their most ridiculous hat on the call. This is something Ryan Westwood, the CEO of Simplus, does to mix it up on his weekly calls. One day he showed up wearing a NASA helmet. At Appirio, where so many of our employees work from home, we make it a point to ask about what's happening in the background of calls. My co-workers know my home office wallpaper is made from recycled newspapers so they'd recommend articles they'd recently read. On one call I might see snow drifts in one person's window and sun glinting off the pool of another. Calling that out while you're waiting for people to join a call makes weather small talk a lot more interesting.

Or you can think bigger and hold a virtual happy hour when things get a little tense or when celebrating a big milestone. Not everyone has the proximity, flexibility or interest in joining their colleagues at a bar for the standard team happy hour, but it’s easy (and sometimes more inclusive) to schedule a happy hour or topic club once a month where people can video in and feel more connected with their team.

Just remember that change starts at the top. If the executive team at a company refuses to turn on their cameras, always chooses the conference call, and shows up as a stiff talking head instead of a real human who people can connect and empathize with, then that behavior filters down through an organization.


© 2019 by Chris Barbin. All right reserved.