Global Conference Calls

Conference calls are a reality for anyone doing international business. Actually, they are a reality for anyone doing any business, but the calls generate more significance as people communicate across global language and cultural barriers. These international calls can be productive by cutting the need for people to travel, but the calls can also cause confusion and sometimes even some resentment. I’ve been collecting some thoughts based on my experiences in recent years working with global software development teams. Each bullet below can be flushed out more, but I wanted to get an initial cut out for discussion.

The Goal: Mutual Understanding

  • It’s important to understand that a conference call is just one tool among many to facilitate communication. Please don’t underestimate the significance of that seemly simple statement. Here’s why: even under the best of circumstances, effective communication is painfully difficult to achieve for most people even on a one-to-one basis. Then you layer on top of that the many-to-many communications that come with conference calls and things can get complex. Then add the international aspect and complexity grows significantly because you have some especially obvious challenges: language, culture, distance, and time. Also, while people navigate these barriers they are generally doing so with relatively poor telecommunications technology. Not everyone has access to sophisticated high-speed video conferencing systems (many of which aren’t so reliable). Most people just connect via phone. Because of these challenges, everyone on the team needs to remain flexible so you all have a shot at achieving the final goal: understanding.
  • The successful flow of your project’s operations around the world is not possible without pervasive communications using email, voice, and face-to-face interactions. You need a mix of all three. And as communication via these channels takes place throughout any given day, many mistakes and misunderstandings will occur. So, to help increase understanding, everyone needs to feel comfortable asking for clarifications frequently as necessary. Does your team encourage this behavior? The only way to improve communication is to ask questions and iterate on answers until understanding is achieved. Go back and forth — and keep going back and forth — until everyone gets it. This is the most important point people miss: communication that leads to understanding is an iterative process. If you are not iterating then you are not communicating and your messages will not resonate.
  • Embrace the politics. You may as well get used to politics since there’s no way around it. All human interactions are political. There are always background or non-verbal conversations going on. There are hierarchies. Power structures. Agendas. Here’s why this is important: sometimes communicating to the point of understanding is simply not possible with some people due to circumstances beyond your control. Recognize the situation. Give it your best shot. Document everything. Assess the situation as hopeless. Move on. If you think this contradicts the idea above about iterating to the point of understanding you are correct. Sometimes this is just the reality. Use your best judgement.

Dates and Times

  • Be mindful of the time for your meeting in all regions before booking an international call. Check some sites that track global times zones and ask people beforehand if the time and date are convenient for them. Don’t assume everyone lives in your city. You have colleagues working one hour away and others working eighteen hours away. In a very real sense, if you are doing international business everyone should be considered remote. The notion that this is the home office here where the main team does the core work and those guys out there in the provinces represent the remote team providing ancillary support will only thwart communication. Even if the team’s actual geographical mix represents that “core-here, remote-there” model the attitude itself may ensure poor communication.
  • Send a date/time reminder via email if you are not using an automated calendar system. Be aware of when you send your reminder, though. What time is it in China? In Boston? In Singapore? This is important because you’ll want to have an idea of when your colleagues are receiving your email in their time zone, not when you’re sending it from within your own time zone — especially when you book calls on short notice. Your reminder may show up at three in the morning for your colleagues and they may show up to the meeting late as a result. This is just an exercise in shifting your own thinking to consider your colleague’s situation.
  • If the meeting is scheduled during regular working hours for you, it’s likely the call will occur during the middle of the night for some of your colleagues. So, don’t be rude by being late. It’s important to consider that it may be midnight on the other side of the planet and your colleagues are waiting for you. Also, end the call early if possible. Why take a full hour when 40 minutes will do? No sense in wasting those 20 minutes with small talk. You may be able to spare the time but those 20 minutes may be more expensive for someone else.
  • Rotate call times if possible so everyone occasionally shares the pain of doing calls at 3:00 A.M. This idea may shock the core team that works 9-5 their time since they rarely — if ever — experience late calls. But the exercise will go a long way to improving communication if everyone knows first-hand what it’s like. Plus, over time if only certain team members are expected to always sacrifice than communication will suffer and resentment will grow — especially if those who never sacrifice are unaware of how difficult it is to work around an inflexible schedule. Doing business via a thin pipe is challenging. Try it. Now, doing this trade-off in call times may not be advisable for weekly calls since schedules and sleep cycles for everyone would be disrupted too frequently. But doing it once a quarter? Everyone should be able to manage that.

Agendas and Notes

  • Whoever initiates or manages the call should send an agenda before the call, take notes during the call, and send notes after the call. Or this person can certainly assign these tasks as needed, but the point is that agendas and notes should not be considered optional.
  • Agendas and notes are critical to document meetings because they help keep people on the team focused on the tasks at hand under difficult communication circumstances. Some people will always miss some important items during a conference call, so they should be able to check the notes and ask questions afterward. Do you document your meetings? Do you follow up on actions?
  • Notes shouldn’t be word-for-word recordings of the meeting. They should be written as a simple outline of bullets and lists highlighting the conversations, decisions, and actions. Send notes within 24 hours of the call. Ask for corrections and/or additions. If the notes spark conversations via email among the team so much the better. Post the notes to a shared wiki for long term archiving, which is especially important to help new people educate themselves as they join the team.

Slides Used to Guide Conversations

  • Using slides is a dumb way to communicate. They just wreck understanding. Sure, a good graph displaying quality data can be valuable, and I’m also not talking about professionally written sides used for stage keynote presentations either. I’m talking about slides used for regular team meetings or briefings to your director on the project’s status. They are almost always just piles of poorly written text because you can’t fit this or that bit on the face of a slide. Or worse — you have to fill a slide because you feel a few bullets aren’t enough. No matter. Everyone hates slides. Yet everyone uses them. Do your best to tolerate them if you can’t control the content delivery mechanism. If you can dump the slides, though, a simple text email works wonders.
  • If you do plan to use slides or any document during a call, send the content to everyone before the call via email or post everything to a common wiki or repository. So many meetings still start with a dozen people messing around trying to get slides open or get logged into some posh conference system that only allows connections from a single operating system that only half the team uses.
  • When talking through sides, remind people what slide you’re on. Communication can decrease jet quick as people hunt around a deck of 50 slides to find where the hell the speaker is. Also, stop occasionally throughout the presentation to make sure people are on the right slide or give them time to catch up — especially if you are skipping around all over the place. People will get lost occasionally on the call because many times there will be network issues, people will lose access to shared web spaces, their call will drop entirely, or the quality of the call will suck so bad it will force people to drop off and dial back in.
  • If you are listening to a speaker talking through slides and you get lost, stop and ask where they are. Interrupt! Chances are there are others on the call who are also lost if the speaker is not prompting people frequently.

Call Quality

  • Remember that some conference call systems deliver poor quality pretty consistently. Also, some people may have to access the call via their computers or old home lines, which may further reduce quality. And then there is always a natural delay over long distance telecommunication systems that everyone has to deal with.
  • Always mute your phone when you are not speaking because background noise on your end always disrupts the call for your colleagues around the world. We don’t need to hear you flush your toilet or boil water for your tea. However, please also recognize that your mute can disrupt the call when you don’t know how to unmute when you need to talk. Everyone’s waiting.
  • Use a good quality headset so you are always talking directly into a microphone. Alternatively, pick up the phone handset and hold it directly over your mouth. And please don’t use your office speaker phone because the quality on the other end for everyone else is bad. You’re in your office. You can pick up the phone.

Conference Rooms

  • Conference rooms kill communication for distributed teams. Remote team members are at a significant disadvantage due to cross-talk, background noise, poor quality calling systems, and the fact that the people in conference rooms generally talk to each other and not directly into to the crappy speaker phones. It’s perfectly normal for remote people to dial into to conference room meetings and hear pretty much nothing but garbage. Those meetings are useless. And if they take place at 2:00 in the morning they are infuriating. Instead, it’s best for everyone to be in individual offices using phones (the wired kind are best) with high-quality headsets (again, use wires if you have them).
  • If one person is remote and everyone else is local then using a conference room may obviously be convenient for the local team. However, realize that your remote colleague on the phone rarely has a good experience. In some cases, if the call structure is such that everyone is listening to a single speaker deliver a presentation, a conference room call with a few remote people also listening may work just fine. However, if the remote people are expected to actually participate in complex discussions along with the people in the conference room, communication will suffer because the venue is inferior.
  • Try phone-only conference calls for your distributed team even if the majority of the team is co-located in the core office. You’ll discover that communication across the team increases dramatically.

Language & Culture Issues

  • Because your organization is globally distributed, all participants should slow down the rate of their speech. This means both native English speakers and their non-native English speaking colleagues. It goes both ways. This is rarely recognized.
  • Slowing down may feel uncomfortable for native English speakers initially, but with practice it’s achievable. A simple technique is to just pause longer between sentences or pause longer between entire thoughts. In other words, breathe! Remember, some of your non-native English speaking colleagues listening over that poor quality conference call are probably doing some translating in their heads since English is their second language. Slow down to help increase understanding.
  • Also, native English speakers should try to not use local idioms and other specialized cultural and historical expressions since they generally don’t translate well across language and cultural barriers.
  • Non-Native English speakers should also slow down their rate of speech. Remember that your English-speaking colleagues listening over that very same poor quality conference call may not be used to hearing their language spoken in your accent and with your alternative pronunciations. Slow down to increase understanding.
  • And finally, recognize that there may be an additional issue to deal with: language equality. Native English speakers should understand that although their non-native English colleagues are speaking English the depth of their English can sometimes be pretty thin. So, the communications relationship can be inherently unequal. This affects not only comprehension but also the rate at which communication can take place. There is no way around this in the short term. One thing native English speakers can do is to take some classes in the native language used by their remote colleagues and experience first hand how different life looks living in the other guy’s language. Or just try doing business in your own second language to realize the difficulties when talking with fluent speakers. Just realizing that the situation is not necessarily equal may help both sides be more flexible.

There’s more to say here, I’m sure, but that’s it for now.