With people working remotely, staff sprinkled across the country and different schedules, it seems conference calls are more prevalent today than face-to-face meetings. Unfortunately, leading these calls effectively can be a challenge. Without face-to-face contact, it’s difficult to manage the conversation, navigate complex issues or deal with difficult personalities in the group. The good news is there are specific techniques you can use to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your conference calls. 

Here are a few suggestions:

Make sure people are punctual. Establish a ground rule that everyone should be dialed in at least five minutes prior to the start time. This practice helps avoid the phenomenon of latecomers chiming in sporadically during the first five minutes of the call. If participants get in the habit of dialing in a few minutes before the start time, the leader can actually start the call on time.

Related: 3 Apps to Make Mobile Conference Calling Easy

For instance, with my last group we actually established a slight punishment for anyone calling in late. If you hadn’t called in before “roll call,” you had to sing a stanza of “God Bless America” on the call. The technique worked like a charm.

Don’t backtrack for latecomers. Get participants used to the fact that if they call in late, they will have to catch up after the call. When you constantly review previous discussion for latecomers, it caters to that behavior and irritates the rest of the team. Try to build a norm of punctuality for your calls. 

List all invited participants. Put all participants on a sheet of paper and use that to “call roll” at the beginning of the conference call. Once the call has started, place a dot by each speaker’s name when they make a comment. Periodically, glance down at your list to see which names have no dots by them and sporadically pose questions to those individuals or ask them to comment.

Related: Working From Home? Avoid These Not-So-Obvious Distractions.

Have a signal. Establish a ground rule that anyone on the call should hit the # sign whe they think the discussion has veered off topic or has gone on too long. This works wonderfully, because no one knows who hit the # sign, but it serves as a great way to reign in the conversation and avoid rambling discussion.

Recap the conversation. Take five minutes at the end of the call to debrief and ask participants to share some feedback on what worked well during the call and what could be improved in the future. This is a great way to highlight issues that might be holding the team back or even bring to light very minor points of concern (e.g. call times are too early for those on the West Coast, spent too much time on a particular issue, etc.)

Take breaks. Try to limit calls to one hour. If a conference call must go on longer, take a break after an hour. Otherwise, people will begin to get distracted and not pay attention to what you are saying.

Aim for maximum engagement. Structure the call so that you’re engaging as many people as possible throughout the call. (This discourages multitasking.) Do this by sporadically calling on participants or conducting quick round robins where you ask each person to make a brief comment. 

Determine priorities. If someone is only needed for a portion of the call, structure their issue near the beginning or end of the call and allow them to just call in for that portion.

Implement technology. Consider using virtual meeting technologies that support polling, file sharing, instant chatting and other features to increase participant engagement levels.

Related: 5 Ways Telecommuting Saves Employers Money