The phrase many remote workers dread the most: “Let’s jump on a conference call.”
That’s because for most, conference calls can be a frustrating and awkward experience. Despite having their mobile or headset pressed tight to their ear, closed off in a quiet room, the remote worker calling in often has trouble hearing the people huddled in the conference room on the other end.
“Poor sound in a distance meeting makes it hard to keep concentration levels up and leads to unnecessary tiredness. In the worst case, it can even lead to misunderstandings that have financial consequences,” says Stefan Eriksson, Marketing and Communications manager, Konftel.
“The aim for a conference call or other kind of distance meeting should be to create the notion of sitting in the same room,” says Konftel’s product manager, Torbjörn Karlsson. “If you need to raise your voice to be heard or have a hard time to perceive what people say, you need to identify the weak components.”
With that in mind, I talked to multiple audio engineers and experts from the leading conference call equipment makers to find out what companies need to do so their conference calls don’t suck. Here’s what they said.
Your Phone Might Not Be The Problem
When we hear echoes or lots of background noises on a conference call our immediate suspect for the cause of the poor call is usually blamed on the connection or the conference call equipment. However, many times the other objects in the room–or the design of the room itself is the problem.
“Today’s modern, minimalist rooms are the most common cause of poor sound quality in audio conferencing,” says Eriksson. “A cold room causes the sound to bounce around and gives a longer reverberation time.” He recommends taking several steps to minimize this “minimalist bounce” including furnishing the room with soft furnishings, and on the floor, fitted carpet or rugs; putting up long blinds, curtains, and wall hangings to absorb any bounce if the room has windows and large empty walls; and even decorating the room with potted plants.
Of course you aren’t going to turn your conference room into a sound studio. But investing in some acoustic panels if your room does have a lot of hard surfaces that reflect sound is a good idea, says Jeff Rodman, cofounder, of Polycom, a maker of unified audio and video products.The panels will absorb most errant sounds created in the room. “You can buy relatively inexpensive wall-mounted panels (search for “acoustic panels”) that make a remarkable difference, especially to the people on the other end of the call. They hang on the wall rather like pictures, are typically about one meter square and 5cm thick, and come in a variety of colors and patterns. The walls don’t have to be fully covered; even a few of these can make a big difference.”
The Size Of The Room Matters
If your room already has soft furnishings and objects that can help absorb bounce, but calls are still hard to hear for the person calling in, the next thing to consider is room size. Every expert I spoke to mentioned that conference call equipment should be tailored to the room it is being used in. A speakerphone that may be fine for two or three people isn’t going to cut it in a meeting room that can hold 15 people.
“For a conference call in which five to 10 participants are in the conference room, I would classify this as a small to medium conference,” says Don Gilroy, Feld Sales engineer at Revolabs. “Ideally the room size wouldn’t be larger than 10’x15′, but could be larger with satisfactory acoustics (i.e,. no echo from glass windows or using appropriate acoustic echo cancellation technology to eliminate noise from the room).”
Medium-size conference rooms are the norm in most workplaces and if your current equipment isn’t built for handling a room of that size your calls will continue to suffer until you either move to an appropriately sized room or upgrade your equipment. If you do upgrade, “Typically, this could be handled by a high-quality conference phone, placed in the center of the rectangular table with participants sitting on either side equidistant from the device,” says Gilroy.
Konftel’s Eriksson agrees. “There is a tendency today to place personal speakerphones, intended for up to a handful of people around the table, in medium-size meeting rooms. Go for products that are specified for the current room size, both pickup range for the microphone and the audio output. In rooms above 30 square meters, connecting expansion microphones to the conference phone is a good idea. For really large meetings you should look for a solution that can be connected to the room PA system.”
But Maybe It’s Your Fault
Objects in the room okay? Using the appropriate equipment for the size of the room? If the answer to both those questions is “yes” yet you are still having problems with remote workers hearing the call the problem may be down to the people in the room. Many conference call solutions today use what is known as “HD Voice,” technology that transmits and reproduces sounds in full audio fidelity. It’s great for clarity, but it also means some systems can pick up even minute disturbances that could be created from people’s actions in the room.
“Before and during the meeting there are a number of minor tips that have an immediate effect on sound quality and cut irritating distractions,” says Eriksson. “Don’t tap your pen or fingers on the table. Remember that the screen on your laptop is a barrier between you and the microphone. Don’t place paper or folders over any expansion microphones on the table. Don’t put your chin in your hand when you’re talking.” All of the above can make it hard for the remote worker to understand you clearly. You’ll know exactly what Eriksson means if anyone on the call has ever asked “What’s that tapping noise?” and you’ve realized that it was your fingers drumming on the table.
If All Else Fails, Then Upgrade Your Equipment
Finally, if you’ve followed all of the steps above and you are still having problems with your remote workers hearing the call, it may be time to invest in a proper and up-to-date conference call system. However, most businesses will want to avoid placing an order for the first “speaker conference phone” they find on Amazon.
“For the best conferencing experience, the right audio solution won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach or available off the shelf. For a company looking to deploy conferencing gear, it’s always best to have a site survey done by the vendor of choice. This ensures that all the right boxes are checked and complete customer satisfaction at the end of the deployment,” says Revolabs’ Gilroy.
Not sure where to start? Here are some recommendations for specific conference call equipment the experts I spoke to suggested:
Yamaha YVC-1000MS Unified Communications Speakerphone:This solution is certified for Skype for Business and is scalable to fit medium to large conference rooms and can be expanded with additional microphones as the company’s needs grow. Want video and audio? Try the Yamaha CS-700 Video Conferencing System.
Konftel Ego: This personal speakerphone system is ideal for small conference rooms. It supports up to four people on each end and is portable, so you can deploy your conference calls no matter if you’re in your conference room at work or in your hotel halfway around the world. For larger groups of up to 20 or more people, the Konftel 300IPx is ideal.
Polycom Trio 8800: This conference phone is ideal for medium to large rooms with its 20-foot pickup range. It has a host of features, including a 5-inch touch screen for easy control. But want to really impress your employees and clients? The 360º RealPresence Centro looks like it comes from the future.