The joy of conference calls is that you can do them from anywhere with a phone line or an internet connection--no more being chained to boardrooms or flying across the country to attend meetings.

The location independence is a dream come true... and also a total nightmare.

As any conference call veteran will tell you, not being physically together has a pretty significant dark side--the temptation to be less than 100 percent mentally present during a conversation. With no one across the table to gape at your bad manners, little or nothing in the way of visual stimulation to keep you engaged, and the possibility of just a little multitasking always beckoning, getting everyone on the line is the least of a manager's worries. Getting everyone to actually focus is the hard part.

Conference Call Bad Behavior

Exactly how bad is this issue of employees being technically on a call but mentally elsewhere? A recent survey from InterCall won't reassure worried bosses. When the company asked 500 employees about their behind-the-scenes conference call behavior, respondents admitted to caving in to a whole host of distractions, such as:

  • Doing other work (65 percent)
  • Sending email (63 percent)
  • Eating (55 percent)
  • Texting (44 percent)
  • Checking social media (43 percent)
  • Playing video games (25 percent)
  • Shopping online (21 percent)

All this conference call multitasking is worrying given the scientifically validated truth that over 95 percent of us can't multitask, but it's actually not the worst of the conference call bad behavior the survey turned up. A hefty 39 percent of those polled admitted to dropping off a call without announcing they were leaving and pretending to have participated to the end, while another 27 percent confessed to falling asleep during a call. Five percent even had a friend take a conference call in their place.

Tips for a Better Conference Call

If these numbers have you scared that large portions of your conference calls are going in one ear and out the other, then a HBR Blog Network write-up of the findings is for you. It suggests several ways to keep employees tuned in, including kicking the call off with a little personal chat, assigning tasks to each participant to drive engagement, planning virtual meetings in ten minute segments, and even the somewhat radical solution of a ban on mute. And perhaps most fundamental of all--don't schedule unnecessary meetings!

Need more ideas? We've also covered plenty of tips for better, less annoyingconference calls previously here on

What's your top tip for keeping everyone engaged on a conference call?