Another Boring Conference Call? Here’s How to Stay Engaged

It can be very tempting to multitask during conference calls and virtual meetings when you’re a remote worker. After all, no one can see you. Seems like a perfect time to catch up on email, update a few files or outline that report that’s due this week. Why not make the time as productive as possible, right? That is, until your boss or client asks you a question, and you realize that you have completely lost the thread of the discussion.

Besides appearing unprofessional, it takes just one instance of having to admit that you were not listening to make your company’s management rethink your stance as a remote worker or to make a client wonder about your commitment.

The truth is, it can be more difficult for remote workers to stay focused during conference calls than their in-office colleagues. When you’re in a meeting room with other eyes on you, you have no choice but to pay attention. But in the home office, it doesn’t take much for distractions in your environment to draw your attention away from the conversation — especially during long meetings. What can you do?

10 Tips to Stay Alert and Engaged During Conference Calls

Routine meetings don’t have to feel like a waste of time. When approached with the right frame of mind, you can use them to identify opportunities for learning and professional growth.

The following are a few techniques that will help you to engage and participate in virtual meetings.

1. Come prepared. A few days before the meeting, ask the meeting organizer for an agenda. Collect any background information that you may need prior to the call, such as project notes, email messages, progress reports, etc. Think about what information the participants may expect from you and what you have to contribute to the discussion. Write down possible questions to ask, as well as what you expect to learn from the meeting. When fully prepared, you’ll be more motivated to engage with the meeting’s participants and outcome, and it’s less likely that your attention will wander.

2. Dial in a few minutes early. There is no worse way to begin a virtual meeting than dialing in on time — only to discover that the conference phone number doesn’t work, you have an incorrect PIN code or that the connection is so bad that you need to disconnect and rejoin. Resolving the situation may only take a couple of minutes if you have to hang up and dial back in, or it can take much longer if you have to search for the correct information or try to reach out to someone else for those details. If your presence is critical to the meeting, your tardiness will hold up the other participants. If it proceeds without you, you may miss important information discussed at the start of the call. It’s a stressful situation that’s tough to recover from, and it will require more effort on your part to catch up and get in step with the other participants.

3. Stand up during meetings. if you’re feeling sleepy or tired, standing can help you to stay more alert. A pilot study of high school students, conducted by researchers at Texas A&M, found that the use of standing desks were associated with significant improvements in the students’ cognitive ability: Students who used standing desks were more engaged and able to stay on task. If you don’t have a standing desk and you need your computer for the meeting, find an alternate space that will work, such as a a tall table, kitchen counter or bookshelf at the appropriate height.

4. Take notes with pen and paper, instead of a keyboard. Taking handwritten notes not only forces you to focus on what the speaker is saying, it will increase your ability to retain that information. Research by Princeton University and UCLA Los Angeles found that that students who write out their notes by hand actually learn more than those to type their notes on laptops. When students’ memories were tested for factual detail, conceptual comprehension and synthesizing capabilities, researchers found that those who took notes by hand had a a stronger conceptual understanding of the information across the board.

Tip: Listen for key themes and ideas, possible follow-up tasks and action items. Write down any questions that arise so that you can ask them later in the call or in a follow-up email to the speaker. The meeting agenda will provide you with the purpose of the meeting and let you know whether it’s appropriate to bring up your questions during or after the call. For instance, if the meeting was organized by a company leader to deliver a status report to a large number of participants, he or she may not be open to fielding questions at that time. If the meeting is a brainstorming session, then the organizer may prefer that participants chime in as questions arise. If you’re not sure, you can check with the organizer ahead of time, or send them a quick message via the conference dashboard or IM.

5. Turn off notifications and alarms — basically, shut off anything that might pop up or send an alert to distract you from the meeting. Put away any gadgets that are not being used for the call. If you’re using your smartphone to dial in, use Bluetooth headset and put the device on a shelf or out of sight (without losing the connection) so that you’re not tempted to check it. If you receive a lot of calls, disable call waiting.

6. Make sure your environment is distraction-free. If the desk in your home office faces a window, and there is a lot of interesting stuff going on outside, close the shades or curtains, or set up for the call facing a wall or area that won’t draw your attention away from the meeting. If you need to use your computer for the meeting — for instance, to access information, PowerPoint presentations, or screen share with other meeting participants — use the full-screen option so that other apps and screens are not visible during the call.

7. Make sure that you’re physically prepared. How you approach meetings is influenced by your physical fitness as much as mental awareness. Eat a light meal beforehand — make sure that you don’t attend hungry or sleepy from a heavy meal. If you need to, put the meal on your schedule so you don’t feel the need to eat during the call. Besides the distraction of focusing on the food or drink, headset microphones tend to amplify the sounds of food wrapper rustling, clinking, slurping, crunching and chewing. Also, get plenty of rest. Try to get six to eight hours of quality sleep the night before an important meeting.

Tip: Boost your energy level immediately before an afternoon meeting by doing a few pushups or jumping jacks, or taking a quick walk around the block to get your blood pumping.

8. Employ active listening techniques. Make an effort to keep pulling your attention back to the speaker’s words and message. Don’t jump to conclusions about what the speaker is saying. We often assume that we know what someone is going to say, and then start to form opinions about the message before the other person has finished talking. We start to think about our response or next action instead of listening to the speaker. If you find that your attention has wandered for a few seconds, politely ask the speaker to repeat what he or she just said. You can say something like, “I’m sorry, can you please repeat that? I’m writing this down and I don’t want to miss anything.”

9. Plan enough buffer time before and after your meeting so that you don’t feel rushed. You need reflection time in between activities to absorb information, think about follow-up tasks, write up your notes and prepare your mind for the next activity. When you schedule back-to-back activities, your attention will be split among what’s happening now and what your previous activity was or the next thing on your calendar.

10. Start with the right mindset. Try to shift your thinking from dread (“Oh, great, another pointless waste of time”) to a positive attitude — one in which you’re seeking growth opportunities and information that you previous didn’t have (“What can I learn?”). Be open to other participants’ opinions, listen closely to the points they make and the questions that they ask. Think of each meeting as a valuable opportunity to exchange information and ideas, rather than a mandatory event to endure. Set a personal goal to take away from every meeting one new idea about your team, company or client, or for improving your project or work.