In the days before the pandemic, choosing how to organize meetings for most office-based businesses was simple. If you needed to get your team together, you could quickly book one of the on-site meeting rooms. And if you needed to involve decision-makers from multiple locations, you could then choose between a conference call meeting or a large in-person session. Now, however, with Gartner reporting that over half of organizations expect more than 50% of their workforce to be remote or hybrid-working this year and, as we’ve recently covered, the move to remote work showing no signs of slowing down, more and more meetings are being held virtually — with some teams never meeting in person at all.
Progress or post-pandemic tragedy? It’s hard to say, but as teams spread further apart geographically, gathering everyone into one room is only getting harder. So considering the logistical challenges, are face-to-face meetings still worth the extra effort, or are conference call meetings more than an adequate substitute?
What Is a Conference Call Meeting?
A conference call is an audio call that allows multiple people to join a virtual room at the same time by dialing a specific number and often inputting an access code or PIN for security. The amount of people that can join the virtual room depends on the conference bridge — that is, the software — being used for the call.
Conference calls are nothing new, considering that the first analog call was placed as far back as 1915. However, what has revolutionized virtual conferencing is VoIP (voice over internet protocol) and WebRTC technology. Now, instead of only being able to make calls through copper cabling, calls can be made through the internet and even directly through the browser without excluding numbers on the public switched telephone network (PSTN). This has spurred the rise of video and web conferencing, with the latter giving organizers the ability to share screens and virtual whiteboards, in addition to audio conference calls. But even just in its traditional audio form, conference calling has a lot to offer.
The main advantage of holding conference call meetings is that you are not tied to a specific location, which in turn means they:
- Save time
- Are cost-effective
- Promote a better work/life balance
Of course, it goes without saying that because conference calls require no travel time, they take less time out of an employee’s day. However, their virtual nature also means that they can be organized quickly, even at the drop of a hat. With many modern unified communications (UC) systems, you can quickly add callers to an existing call if you need additional input, or instantly email invitations on short notice. Combined with presence availability and calendar integrations, you can even see when people are available and plan your meeting accordingly, giving you the best chance of getting all the important decision-makers involved in a timely and efficient manner.
Naturally, with time-saving comes cost savings as well. Without the need to corral everyone to the same location, businesses can save money on travel expenses, room or office rental and the delay caused by holding off important decisions until a meeting can take place. Especially with how fast industries adapt and change, failing to keep up with technology and trends can translate into missed opportunities that can negatively impact your bottom line.
Finally, there is the impact on the employees. Assuming the rest of their tasks can also be done remotely, meeting predominantly through conference calls can allow employees to work around other commitments, such as childcare, leading to higher job satisfaction and retention. Fully remote offerings also give employers a chance to attract talent from around the world without being beholden to the local talent pool, as more and more workers prioritize finding their work/life balance.
Given all the advantages listed above, why do in-person meetings still hold so much sway?
Well, there are natural drawbacks to conversing solely over the phone:
- No visual cues
- Call quality can vary
It’s rare that we actively think about it, but when we are talking with someone we are hearing more than just their words. Their tone, facial expression and body language convey extra information that gives us more context to help us better understand what they actually mean to say. With audio-only conference call meetings, all that nuance is lost. And while most of the time this isn’t an especially dire issue, it can make meetings harder for nonnative speakers to follow and completely excludes sign language speakers.
So if you’re working with a diverse, multicultural team it may be best to choose video or web conferencing for your virtual meetings to give the participants the opportunity to see each other’s body language via their cameras if face-to-face meetings are not practical.
In the same vein, once you take people out of the physical boardroom, they are out in the world — and that leaves room for lots of unexpected distractions to sneak in. Whether it’s an unexpected knock at the door, the worker’s family members or even a barista in a coffee shop, there are a multitude of issues that can potentially disrupt a caller’s train of thought and require things to be repeated and the meeting to drag on a bit longer.
While frustrating, there are ways to mitigate this, through headsets that show when the user is busy to the caller choosing the right location to take the call. Still, a dedicated meeting room is much better equipped to cut out external distractions and, with everyone able to see everyone else, make sure that all participants are focused on the task at hand.
Finally, callers can struggle to understand each other if there is a degradation in call quality which can happen on any end. To avoid this, especially with VoIP phones, make sure that your internet bandwidth is fast enough to handle your meeting in addition to the regular flow of calls. Remember, everything is dependent on the same connection, so if you know you are going to be holding regular conference call meetings ensure it can support this while simultaneously running your other office necessities.
To be fair, poor sound quality is a problem that can occur in in-person meetings, depending on the size of the space, acoustics and individual speakers. It’s worthwhile checking physical locations to see if they need an additional sound system or visual support, depending on the number of people attending and the venue chosen.
The Value of Meeting in Person
When working with fully remote teams the choice is clear, conference call meetings are the only option you really have. But in a hybrid working pattern, this can be a more nuanced decision.
While you certainly can build camaraderie and team spirit through virtual meetings, in-person gatherings with scheduled breaks and downtime before and after the main event are conducive to small talk and informal interactions that lay the foundation for interpersonal relationships. Since a conference call cuts all of that time out in the name of convenience and efficiency, teams can feel a lack of connection with each other, which can hamper collaboration. The resulting isolation can also negatively impact employee mental health.
Company culture is also something that particularly shines in face-to-face meetings. IKEA, for example, takes great pride in its Swedish heritage and makes a point of not just scheduling breaks into the agenda but making time for fika, a coffee and cake ritual that is a Swedish national institution. If you’re new to the company and on a conference call, taking a quick coffee break will never give you the same effect even if you have kanelbulle hiding in your cupboard because you are missing out on the social interaction that is part and parcel of fika.
So Which Is Better?
Believe it or not, the answer is neither. Each type of meeting has its place in the modern business world, it just depends on what you want to get out of each meeting.
Need a quick decision? Just putting together a routine meeting? This is where conference call meetings shine.
Need to focus on team building or want to give a new client a VIP experience? Then your best option is an in-person meeting.
At Wildix, we recommend a hybrid mix of the two formats as it gives you the best of both worlds. Though to really embrace the full potential of your virtual meetings, make the jump to a fully unified communication solution, like one of Wildix’s 100% sales-focused platforms where you can move from audio conference calls to more feature-rich web conferencing software from your browser with just a click of a button.
Regardless of how you split the balance, having a powerful tool like UC in your toolbox means you’ll be ready to adapt to anything that international clients, regional offices, remote workers — or life — throws your way.
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