Remote Communication: what works & what hurts

More and more meetings are held by telephone and video conference these days: less time away from work, less time and expense in travelling and more opportunities to work from home where appropriate.

However, even teleconferencing and videoconferencing have their problems. Here are a few.


  1. ‘I can hear you but you can’t hear me’, or vice-versa. This may be because systems are down or because of system incompatibility. Worth checking everyone is on the same wavelength.
  2. ‘You didn’t say it was CET (Central European time)!’ Missing the call because no-one specified the time zone is regrettably common.
  3. ‘Did I just hear a cow mooing?’ You didn’t say you were working from home on a hot day in the countryside with the windows open. Close the window.
  4. ‘Is anybody there?’ Yes, but out of respect they are listening quietly and not responding until specifically requested to.
  5. ‘Is that Darth Vader on the line? Kindly mute yourself.’ Heavy breathing doesn’t help reception.
  6. ‘Sorry, who’s talking?’ Lack of clarity in saying your name and identifying yourself when speaking is often a problem.


  1. ‘I can’t see you.’ You’re sitting behind another participant on the call or you’re on the edge of the screen and leaning back.
  2. ‘Sorry, who’s talking?’ I’m looking at a group of five people and have no idea which one has opened his or her mouth to speak.
  3. ‘Did you have a good lunch?’ Why is the tabled littered with empty sandwich wrappers, half eaten sandwiches and half full coffee cups?
  4. ’What ‘s that growing out of your head?’ Are you sitting directly in front of a tall potted plant?
  5. ’Are those the latest sales figures on the wall behind you?’ Your negative sales growth chart or that humorous but tasteless cartoon or calendar on the wall distracts attention.
  6. ‘Sorry, I’ve got to leave now.’ We’ve been here two hours and nothing’s agreed.


1.  PREPARE both teleconferences and videoconferences. Use this checklist: –

  • Check equipment compatibility. Has everybody got the right connections? Has everybody got mute buttons? Does the camera zoom in on the speaker or is it fixed focus?
  • Check time. Are we clear when we are meeting and which time zone it is?
  • Check length. Agree timing but remember that some business take longer to complete tele-meetings than others.
  • Check facilities. If you don’t have a specialised video conference suite make sure rooms are tidy with no compromising images or charts in vision.
  • Check clothes – on videoconferences is your dress or tie going to strobe on camera? Be careful of bright stripes.
  • Check possible distractions. Keep the windows and door closed. Advise colleagues (and family) you are on a conference call and mustn’t be disturbed.

2.  SAY WHO YOU ARE. Make sure you are clear and that you identify yourself when you speak.

  • Say your name clearly. If you don’t I’ll be too embarrassed to talk to you.
  • Identify yourself every time you speak. ‘Barry speaking’ really helps.
  • Make a gesture when speaking on camera so I can identify you in a group.
  • Watch your breathing and coughing when on microphone. Mute if necessary.


  • HAVE AN AGENDA – Really important organizing tool to help everyone know where they are in the meeting.
  • RE-INFORCE CONCLUSIONS – at end of each agenda item
  • CLARIFY ACTION POINTS and who is responsible for delivery
  • MINUTE and circulate conclusions and action points. In some markets this may be specially important for organizational and legal reasons.

4.  USE ‘WARM’ Conference calls for group bonding.

  • ANYTHING BUT WORK Think about spending the first or last ten minutes of a conference call on general life and interests- the weather, football etc.
  • VIDEOCONFERENCE first meeting for remote project groups, especially including participants from more relationship- oriented markets like Brazil can help group members get to know each other better.
  • CAFÉ-CONFERENCE – devote a call to general discussion of a topic of interest to collect views and opinions on company progress and company issues. Should always be led by a senior staff member.

Barry Tomalin, Cross Culture Lead at Fortis CL

Author: ‘World Business Cultures – a Handbook’


Fortis Consulting London provides a range of services to assist with international trade: