When was the last time you looked forward to a conference call? 

You sit there, on mute, getting your own work done, hoping that your name is not called, angry about how the entire meeting is distracting you from your daily deadlines. The audio is patchy, the voices distant and unclear. Is this really an exercise in productivity?

It all boils down to a universal business problem: 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?  

In a fantastic post on LinkedIn, Elliot S. Weissbluth, founder and CEO of HighTower, a 300-employee financial services company based in Chicago, laid out three tips for improving the conference call process:

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.

After reading his article, I reached out to Weissbluth to ask him some more questions about how to improve the conference call process. 

The article mentions the importance of setting a clear agenda before the conference call. What is the best way to decide that a particular topic is "worthy" of being the agenda of a conference call?

You have to decide, is the call for informative purposes--largely broadcasting a topic--or do you expect to have some conversation or dialogue. If it's the former, then just articulate what you are going to address. If it's the latter, then you need to prepare everyone, advise them of expectations for their engagement, and then be prepared to make sure the people who need to speak are given the time to speak. And [make sure] that there is a moderated process of "going around the horn" to make sure there is some semblance of a conversation.

During a dialog/conversation type of call, what is the best way, as a leader, to draw people out, and to make sure they participate?

First and foremost, if the person who's called the call doesn't hvae a reason for you to be engaged--and you're participating just because you're a name on a list--that's disrespectful and stupid and a waste of your time and energy. If you're not engaged, why are you on the call?

A manager needs to empower you to say, "Hey, folks, this is not a good use of my time. I'm dropping out." At HighTower, that's a common occurence. The other thing is, if you're going to add value to a dialog or conversation, usually the leader has already had a one-on-one with you and knows your point of view and wants it to be broadcasted to a larger group. So it's just a matter of going around the horn, and asking someone by name to explain their thinking to the group, to "tell us why." 

What is an effective method for communicating an agenda in advance of the call? Should it be shared only one day in advance, or should participants have more time to prepare?

The more time the better. The idea of springing agendas on people is completely counter-productive. I sometimes put the agenda for a call out weeks and months ahead, and by the time the call rolls around, we have a 10-minute chat. "Are we all good here?" "Yep, Yerp, Ya man...we're good to go." And the purpose of the call is obviated. Often, using a call provides a focal point of accountability. And then you experience the feeling of "Do we really need this call? I think we're aligned and ready to execute."

So in other words, the call acts as a deadline.

Yes. One of my favorite quotes, from Duke Ellington, is, "I don't need time, I need a deadline."