Here's what actually happens during conference calls, when your line is muted and no one can see you: 

  • 82% of participants are working on something unrelated to the call. 
  • 65% are doing other work at their job.
  • 55% eat or make food.
  • 47% go to the restroom.

These numbers come courtesy of recent research from InterCall, a provider of conference and communications services. The bottom line here isn't hard to see: Conference call participants aren't paying total attention. Which you already knew, if you've ever been one of those participants. "We were surprised by how brutally honest people can be about what they can do during calls," says Dennis Collins, InterCall's director of marketing. 

For its research, InterCall analyzed its mobile traffic data (based on more than 20 billion conference call minutes) and surveyed more than 500 full-time employees. Their overall finding was that growth in mobile conferencing has been steady, rather than spectacular: About 21.2% of total conference call minutes came through mobile devices in 2013. That number is up from 19.4% in 2011. Here are some other interesting findings: 

  • 27% of those surveyed say they have fallen asleep during a conference call.
  • 39% of employees admitted to dropping off a call without announcing it so that they could pretend to have participated the whole time.

Then there was this question: What is the strangest place you've taken a conference call? Responses included a truck stop bathroom; a McDonald's Playplace; the beach; behind a church during a wedding rehearsal; the racetrack; a fitting room while trying on clothes; and Disney World. 

All of which raises another, more important question: In a world of remote workers and virtual employees, in which conference calls are a necessary evil for communicating, what can leaders do to create a better conference call experience? The chief hindrance to better calls is "bad management, not bad technology," says Collins. "Tools don't make for better meetings. You have to engage people."

From Collins' perspective, the solution is to rip a page from the rolodex of old-school management practices. "In the old days, the value add of the manager was that he was the only one who attended the meeting. He went to the meeting, and then he told you what you needed to know. Now everyone is invited."

In other words: Resist the temptation to send a blanket invite to large groups. Discern which employees truly need and want to be there. Be selective. 

Collins' advice is consistent with what Elliot S. Weissbluth, founder and CEO of HighTower, a 300-employee financial services company based in Chicago, suggests in a fantastic post on LinkedIn about improving the conference call experience. Specifically, Weissbluth laid out three tips:

1. Manage expectations. "Don't assume that conversation will flow naturally," he writes. The leader of the call needs to provide a structure and act as a faciliator.

2. Set a clear agenda and reiterate it at the beginning of the call. "It may sound like managing the minutiae, but the alternative is awkward silences, unprepared participants and a giant waste of time." 

3. Go around the horn. Weissbluth says that he uses this tactic on almost every call. It's a simple way of keeping everyone awake. It's just a matter of taking the time, during the call, to invite each person--by name--to offer his or her thoughts.

I reached out to Weissbluth to ask him some more questions about how to improve the conference call process. His best piece of advice was refreshingly simple: Allow people who do not want to participate to opt out. "A manager needs to empower you to say, 'Hey, folks, this is not a good use of my time. I'm dropping out,'" he told me. He added that this was a common occurrence at HighTower. The result? Often it meant fewer participants. But those on the line were fully engaged. 

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