It's the mute button. And it's both a blessing and a curse.

On a conference call, mute is essential when you need to heat up a cup of coffee -- or run to the bathroom when meetings are scheduled back to back to back. However, it's become a default setting. When it's always on, mute makes it easy to multitask and get distracted.

Sensing it's not your turn to talk, do you hit mute and dive into email and Facebook? I do. And when you push that little button, your focus shifts to your computer screen while the voices on the phone become background "musak." Disengaged participation in conference calls is a pervasive problem.

Many of us work all or most of our time alone or physically separated from the people we interact with most. That means we're on the phone a lot, and that can be an utterly miserable existence. To cope, we mute.

For remote workers whose primary real-time interaction with colleagues and clients happens over the phone, the mute button creates a special challenge.

If you're not fully present in most of your real-time interactions with colleagues, you're sapping your power and impact. You miss opportunities daily to demonstrate your expertise and problem-solving abilities while the conversation and project move forward without your input. It's like cooking with one arm tied behind your back. The job might get done, but not with nearly the precision, taste, and art that could have been.

Just how common is multitasking while on mute? I'd venture to say it happens everywhere, every day, and on every call. Do any of these occurrences sound familiar?

  • "Sorry, you were breaking up. Can you repeat the question?" What's really happening? I was on mute and not paying attention. I didn't hear the question because I wasn't listening. Thanks.
  • "Sorry, I was talking on mute. What I was saying was..." What's really happening? I wasn't talking. I was actually doing something noisy (flushing the toilet, loading the dishwasher, hitting the drive-thru, etc.) that I had to stop before coming off mute. This call isn't my priority. Thanks.
  • "So, we need to make sure Susan has a chance to look at this before it goes out." What's really happening? I don't listen when it's not my turn to talk and didn't hear my coworker saying that exact same point less than two minutes ago. The only value I can add is stating the obvious. Thanks.

What can you do instead?

Ban the mute button on team calls.

How? Propose the idea to your team through email in advance of your next call. Then wait and listen to the reactions. I have a theory that the most vocal opposition comes from the worst offenders. After some initial joking and pushback, you'll probably get agreement to try it on one call. You can increase chances of "yes" by promising to cut the duration of the meeting in half. Then, do it.

Recognize that it's like nuclear disarmament. You have to trust each other to take action that's in everyone's best interest since there's no way to really tell if people are complying. If your staff and workers are making a sincere effort, you'll probably have a bit more distracting background noise, but it should be normal home office or work space sounds -- not the lady taking an order at the drive-thru.

If no one will bite, that's okay. You can certainly still ban it for yourself. Your increased focus and presence will immediately increase your participation, which in turn increases your power, impact, and effectiveness at the office. Don't be surprised if they call and offer you a promotion after a couple of calls without mute. (If this happens, please contact me right after you call your mom to share the fantastic news.)

What else can you do to make conference calls more effective?

  1. Make them short. Schedule calls for 15 minutes or less and use the rest of the time for completing your action items.
  2. Make them video calls. Acknowledge upfront that everyone hates the way they look on video and get over it.
  3. Cancel the calls altogether and move the conversation to Slack (or other team collaboration tools) and use the same meeting "rules." Have an agenda and a set start and end time. Get in, chat, make decisions, and get out and on with your day.

Multitasking crushes your productivity and effectiveness. When your head is in two places (or more) at once during a conversation, it's impossible to listen and contribute your best ideas. You can change this with one simple click. Going off mute takes commitment and discipline, but you can do it. Your career might just depend on it.

Published on: Aug 15, 2017
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