Conference Call Less, Smile More

How to keep engaged with your team when you can’t stomach another #$@!ing conference call

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Photo by Siavash Ghanbari on Unsplash

It’s 2021. The offices are closed, and you’re working from home. It’s 8:59 am, and in 1 minute, your next day of conference calls begins. And you just don’t want to do it. <expletive>.

It’s okay. We’ve all been there, so much so that the idea of “no meeting days/weeks” is gaining in popularity. If you can get your team and boss to buy-in, that’s probably the best way to give everyone a much-needed break. That’s not always an option, though, and even if it is, it’s something that needs to be scheduled and coordinated with the team. What if you need relief today?

The bad news is that you can’t ditch your team entirely; you need them, and they need you. However, take it from me — a grizzled work-from-home vet — there are ways to isolate yourself and fight call fatigue without completely ghosting your coworkers.

That last point’s worth repeating: don’t just disappear. When you go dark, your boss and teammates start to question your contributions and effort, and the more you do it, the worse it gets. Before you know it, you’re on the downward spiral of broken trust and poor performance. It’s much better to wrestle this beast out in the open, where everybody can see, and leave no question about your commitment and dedication — but, just, for the love of god, not on a video call.

Know thy tools

The first thing you need to do is assess what’s available in your toolkit. How does your team communicate? Most teams have a few different ways. Mine, for example, uses Slack and Teams in addition to everyone’s good friend, email.

In addition to those pure communication tools, you’ve probably got some collaborative tools, too, like Jira or SharePoint or Miro or Asana. You know, the apps you use to actually get things done? Yea, those. The reason these apps are so popular is because they make sharing & collaboration easy.

Here’s the secret with these tools, though. If you’re going to use them in lieu of actually talking to the people you work with, you need to use ‘em, like, extra. Catching up on email? Post a message. Writing a report? Share it. Taking a bathroom break? Okay, keep that one to yourself… But, updating those revenue projections? Shout it out! It doesn’t need to be every 5 minutes, but it should be enough so that there’s no question about whether or not you’re there or what you’re working on.

Maintaining this level of visibility isn’t just so people know you’re working — it also lets the team know you’re available for them. That’s half of what makes all these calls and meetings necessary. You know things! And people need to suck those things that you know out of your brain in order to do their jobs. You might be loving life and having the most productive solo day you’ve ever had, but if three people are stuck on a call trying to figure out what they know you know because they think you’re unavailable, it’s not going to reflect well on you.

Honor your commitments

We were on a break.

— Ross Geller

Just because you’re on a break doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want. Making all that noise about the things you’re doing won’t mean much to your team if you don’t deliver. You’re exhausted. You don’t want to talk. That’s okay, but it’s going to take a little extra work on your part to get the same results.

A critical part of honoring commitments is having some commitments. This goes hand-in-hand with my previous point of over-communicating and keeping visibility high, but it requires a little planning and forethought. Lay out the next few things you plan on doing so the team can coordinate and avoid duplicate effort.

Don’t be afraid to be a little ambitious with your goals, too. You’re on a team that’s trying to accomplish important things. Don’t phone it in while you’re… not phoning in — sign up for something meaningful.

With a few commitments in hand, it’s time to demonstrate your worth. I’ve got no problem with anybody on my team working whatever hours they want when they get their work done — so get your work done. And you better double and triple check it, too, because you lose some some quality safety nets when you fly solo. The goal is to make sure nobody has anything to complain about, so you need to make sure you catch the problems that would’ve been caught by doing the same work collaboratively with the folks you don’t want to talk to.

The key word here is “dependability.” You want the team to know that when you take an assignment into your bunker, they don’t need to worry. They can check it off the list. They’ve called in the closer, and you’ll find a way to get it done.

End of day wrap-up

Before you sign off for the day, send a status update to the team. You’ve been keeping your visibility high, so everybody knows what you’ve been up to, and you’ve put a little extra elbow grease on your deliverables to make sure quality is top-notch. Now it’s time to wrap-up all that ass you’ve kicked with a big, beautiful bow on top.

The end-of-day update is important and valuable for several reasons. The team knows you’ve been active but stating what you’ve completed shows them that you actually achieved things, too. It’s a chance for you to punctuate your effort and commitment. Those meaningful things you signed up for earlier? Yea, they’re done.

The status update sends the message that you worked hard to accomplish things for the team. It took you a little longer, but you got it done — and then you cared enough to summarize the journey. This is a great chance to showcase some leadership skills and sense of urgency, too. What needs to happen next? Who’s responsible? Make some callouts to help ensure that none of the momentum you’ve created will be lost.

Conclusion

Being on conference calls all day, every day is just plain exhausting. We all need a break, but the collaboration that pushes us to keep having them is important and valuable — it can’t be ignored. The answer to call fatigue is not less communication but different communication.

These “tips” are great advice for anybody that wants to be more effective, whether you’re dodging your co-workers in meetings and conference calls or not. Similarly, if you don’t do these things, it will ruin your team. People won’t trust you to complete your work. They won’t try to collaborate because it’s easier not to. They’ll resent you for not pulling your weight.

The stakes are a little higher when you’re working asynchronously, though, because you’re not “in the room” to defend yourself against misperception. You can’t explain why something took 3x longer than everyone thought it would or that you didn’t get to one thing because another, more important task cropped up.

None of this is hard, though; it just requires thoughtfulness and awareness. Communication and collaboration. Visibility and transparency. You can follow the same basic formula that’s often prescribed for presentations and writing: say what you’re going to do, do it, then say what you did. This keeps you highly-visible and transparent while also being present and available for the team. Commitment and accountability ensure that you produce results, and the end-of-day report is the cherry on top, helping everyone to build on your success.


This article was originally published in ILLUMINATION on November 25, 2020.

Speaking Skills in Engineering Careers

I recently visited a local high school to speak with a teacher friend’s speech class. She’s trying to show her students that the skills they’re learning in her speech class are valuable in most careers. She gets a lot of pushback from her future engineers who believe they’ll be relying predominantly on their technical skills, not giving speeches.

I’m entering my tenth year of developing software. I use the presentation skills and techniques learned from my high school speech class almost every day. To an extent, I agree with my friend’s students: you can get by without these skills, but not having them will surely prove to be a significant career growth inhibitor. You might be an incredible [insert engineering career here], but in order to be fully effective, you must be able to communicate your ideas to others, compare and contrast options, and convince your audience–whether it’s your peers, boss(es), or customers–what’s best. This is where those skills come into play.

When I talked to the class, I gave several examples of how I use speaking skills everyday. I gave examples, starting with the most formal, speech-like events and moving to more common, everyday things.

The biggest and best example I have is presenting at my company’s annual customer conference. Customers pay to come to the conference and spend three days attending sessions presented by all sorts of different people, including developers like myself. This is a formal presentation and a direct application of skills taught in a speech class. Preparation is key. We’re required to submit outlines of our presentations months ahead of the event that are refined and built out as the conference draws nearer. At the conference, I’ll be behind a podium at the front of a room, possibly on a stage, giving a presentation or demo to an audience of 20 to 100+ attendees. I’m letting them know what’s new or how they can use my company’s products better. If I do a good job, customer’s get value from the conference. Their opinion of the company and it’s products improve, and maybe they purchase more software. If I do a poor job, the worst case is that a customer begins to question their decisions.

The conference is a wonderful example, but it only happens once a year. A more common scenario occurs when I have a good idea. I need to socialize that idea with my boss and peers, and that requires lots of small communication. I need to make them understand the value of my idea. If I do a good job, they might talk to others. At some point, I might get a call. “Hey, Adam. Remember that idea you were telling me about? I’ve got some people with me that want to hear more. Can you come talk to us?” That’s all the notice I get. I need to walk into a room with an audience that I don’t know and sell them on my idea. If I can talk about the idea enthusiastically and confidently, I might convince people that it’s worth doing and get it onto a project plan. If I don’t have good energy, or the audience doesn’t believe that I have what it takes to see it to fruition, the idea might die there.

A more common (and less dramatic) situation involves my peers. There could be a team working on a problem, and they need my input. Once I understand what they’re trying to accomplish, I use my technical skills to determine options and decide which will be best. From there, it becomes an ad-hoc presentation. I need to present options with their advantages and disadvantages to help my teammates understand what I’m suggesting and get them to buy into my recommendation. If my message isn’t clear, it could result in a bad solution or the need for rework.

And let’s not forget customers. When we create new products, it’s not uncommon to demo them to customers to get feedback. Good presentation skills help the customer understand the value that you’re delivering, and it gets them excited. Bad presentation skills destroy their confidence in you and the company. The same applies to training and conference calls. When you’re able to “speak their language,” customers will like you more and believe in you. I’ve been on calls with other software vendors that aren’t able to articulate their plans and ideas, and it can be really frustrating for all sides.

I certainly couldn’t do my job without the technical skills that I have, but a large percentage of every day is spent communicating with others. I couldn’t be as effective as I am without strong speaking and presentation skills. Those skills have given me growth and leadership opportunities that I wouldn’t have had without them. Standing in front of your classmates, telling them how to care for your dog may not seem like it’s going to be applicable to your career, but being able to explain a complex process to a group of your technical peers is an invaluable ability!