This secret is the way to stop conference calls from being a waste of time

Call-in meetings are primed for failure.

First, there are communication challenges. Without visual cues, participants are more likely to interrupt each other. Absent facial expression and other nonverbal signs, misunderstandings increase. Sarcasm and motives are harder to detect. Then poor phone connections just make it harder to truly hear what people are saying.

Meetings are also subject to something called social loafing. This is a human tendency to reduce effort and motivation when working in a group, akin to hiding in a crowd. Social loafing increases the more anonymous one feels. Clearly, calling in to a large meeting can engender lots of anonymity.

In fact, my data suggest that employees like to attend meetings via phone even though the majority also report that phone-in meeting are highly ineffective. The reason is that being invisible to others allows them to multitask extensively. A few well placed, “I agrees,” or “tell me mores” or “thank yous” are all that is needed to appear engaged, while in reality they are happily taking the opportunity to engage in other non-meeting work.

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Replacing call-in meetings with video conferencing is one way to fight social loafing and to counter some of the other communication problems. However, a video-based solution may still not be possible given attendees’ travel schedules, access to technology and the like.

If you must use a dial-in meeting, here are ways to make it run better and be more productive.

Before the meeting

• Ban the mute button. While not always possible, it is certainly reasonable to ask participants to find a quiet space where they can fully attend to the meeting, thus mitigating the need for a mute button. When someone is on mute, multitasking becomes almost a foregone conclusion.

• Have the phone conference line open early so participants can be sure everything is working properly. Create a norm where everyone checks in before the official start time. Lateness is particularly problematic for this kind of meeting.

• Choose agenda items carefully. Recognize that the ability to have meaningful discussion is hampered by those communication challenges. Favor topics that tend to be more about information, direction and coordination, especially when the meeting is large.

During the meeting

• Take attendance — call roll. Sensitize everyone to the voices of all attendees. Create accountability for being there on time.

• Have a rule that everyone identifies themselves prior to speaking (This is Gordon, my thoughts are…).

• Embrace the role of meeting “task-master,” which entails being firm about keeping the conversation on track and calling on different people where appropriate. Use people’s names as much as possible throughout the discussion. Actively manage the conversation flow. Direct questions and comments to specific individuals, especially when only some are dialing in to the meeting. Even keep a tally to be sure all are contributing.

• Use instant messenger or a similar technology — not for folks to engage in side conversations but for attendees to notify you during the meeting if they want to speak or indicate if you missed something.

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• Without visual cues, it is important that you and others speak at a slightly slower speed and with occasional pauses. This allows for greater comprehension.

• Use polling, clicker, and brainstorming software and apps to truly test consensus and generate ideas. These systems allow all voices to emerge and come forward.

After the meeting

• Ask attendees periodically for suggestions on how to improve the meeting (things to stop, start, or to continue doing). Learn, reflect and grow as a meeting leader.

• Look for other ways for attendees to spend time with each other as a way to build trust, foster connections, promote empathy, learn about others and understand humor styles. This pays dividends for future meetings, even if they’re still just on the phone.

Steven G. Rogelberg is a professor of organizational science, management and psychology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. This is adapted from his book “The Surprising Science of Meetings; How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance”.