There is such a thing as too many cooks in the kitchen, and the same can be said for too many cooks on the conference call. While there's technically no maximum number of attendees (unless the technology you use says so), you know that too many people angling for speaking space is going to lead to a mess. There's a lot you can do to make the process more manageable. Consider these options:

  • Have only one conference call manager (who is moonlighting as a cat herder).
  • Set up a routine for every call. This will depend on the reason for the call, who's involved in the project, how big it is, and who really needs to know what's going on.
  • Have only core members on the call -- as well as a record keeper of some kind. That person can email a summary of decisions made and next tasks to everyone the meeting impacted.

The odds of over ten people actually being decision makers on a project are slim to none. In many cases, most attendees will be on mute, multitasking and probably working on other projects anyway.

Still, you want technology that allows for a large number of attendees. There will be instances when you'll need a full team on call, and each member will need to give an update. For example, while working as a news reporter or social media manager, I've participated in weekly editorial conference calls. This is when the news editors at all the publications owned by the same company meet to go over things like traffic, top news stories of the week, or future news ideas for the coming weeks. Twenty or more people might be on such calls. Make sure the technology you are using is equipped to handle meetings like this one, as well as smaller groups.

Put a cap on it.

No matter how large the project, there should generally still just be a handful of decision makers on any one call. These decision makers, often department leads or managers, can then pass the information necessary onto the workers. There's usually no need to have an entire department on a conference call. If a meeting is that important (like if there's a company merger happening), it's better to do it in person anyway . Know that the majority of people on conference calls are doing other things at the same time, often not related to work -- at least according to The Atlantic. It's a time waster for them, or an excuse to kick back and get paid for tuning out.

Only have people on the call who will truly benefit and/or contribute. Conference calls can be a great way to make quick decisions and touch base on important projects, but they shouldn't be scheduled "just because." You don't have to loop in everyone who might possibly care about an item being discussed -- people can always check out the meeting minutes if need be. It's kind of like hitting "reply all" for an email and getting unnecessary employees caught up in the discussion.

Treat it Like a cocktail party.

Besides the actual number of attendees, make sure you invite the right mix of people on the call. Are there attendees who tend to dominate the conversation or veer off into territories that don't need to be covered? Are there attendees who don't speak the entire time, and the only way you know they're there is because they're logged in? You have two options: Talk to these two extremes to see if there's a way to better integrate them into a conference call, or stop inviting them. It's quality, not quantity (in attendees or minutes on the phone) that count.

Bear in mind that the more chatterboxes there are, the more time you'll be on the phone. Also watch out for people who show up late for a call, then don't contribute once they arrive. These are reasons why many corporate workers say routine conference calls can be a time suck. Therefore, be vigilant about how often you have these calls, who can attend them, and what can occur during them.

Published on: Aug 12, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.